The "Enemy Within": Citizenship-Stripping in the Post–Arab Spring GCC
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The "Enemy Within":
Citizenship-Stripping in the Post–Arab Spring GCC

This article reviews the impact of the Arab Spring on citizenship rights throughout the Gulf states, drawing on both internal and external dimensions of security that have become inextricably linked with notions of who has the right to maintain their citizenship. In particular, the article focuses on the phenomenon of citizenship revocation as a mode of disciplining behavior considered to be inconsistent with established norms of state-citizen relations in this region.

As a result of hydrocarbon-derived wealth, the six countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC, for its original name: Gulf Cooperation Council) were able to weather the storm of the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 and emerge relatively unscathed. The resourcefulness of the GCC regimes and their political agility in using both the carrot and the stick on their own citizenry has been consistently demonstrated over the course of the past six years. However, in the post– Arab Spring Gulf, the tools of state repression have been exerted much more forcefully, particularly against individuals accused of engaging in anti-regime political protest.1 There have clearly been nuanced variations across the six countries, but the popular uprisings seen across the Middle East in 2011 propelled the Gulf monarchies to adopt various harsh measures to contain any signs of political dissatisfaction.

Across much of the region, transgressing locally accepted boundaries of public speech and directly speaking out against a regime is considered an act of treason. A variety of disciplinary measures—such as house arrest, detention, imprisonment, the filing of charges, torture, and, in extreme cases, execution (most notably in Saudi Arabia in early 2016)—have all been used by GCC states to curb political content in public expression.2 In addition to these measures, over the past six years there has also [End Page 525] been a rising trend among GCC states to punish citizens by revoking their citizenship.3 Citizenship revocation inflicts severe social and economic consequences for Gulf nationals and turns citizen-subjects into "unpeople."4 While stripping of citizenship is by no means an entirely new practice in the Gulf states, since 2011 there has been a significant rise in the frequency of its use across the region.


While the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights entitles all human beings to a nationality, actually endowing, limiting, and revoking citizenship remain up to individual states.5 Although citizenship may confer specific privileges and rights upon citizens, there is no international agreement on what specific bundle of rights are associated with it. In fact, there are marked differences in the rights that states confer.6 Not only do states determine who is legally eligible for citizenship and have the authority to bestow it to individuals, they are increasingly revoking citizenship from individuals, unilaterally and without their consent, if certain conditions that said citizenship is constructed upon are breached by the individuals concerned. When it comes to justifying the revocation of citizenship, there is also little harmonization among different states, given the legislative tools at their disposal and the ways that national laws are interpreted in order to support or deny states' rights to withdraw citizenship. Increasingly, states have inserted vague clauses into nationality laws that expand the bases on which citizenship may be revoked.7

Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, countries have reinforced their immigration and border controls and introduced new mechanisms to supposedly counter the threat of terrorism and to enhance security. These tools have simultaneously served to securitize citizenship.8 The securitization of immigration—and citizenship—has gained broad traction and public support in many Western democracies, and there is no sign of this abating any time soon. As Xavier Guillaume and Jef Huysmans suggested, the predominance of security in debates over citizenship undermines the notion of citizens as beings with claims to rights and instead produces the idea that good citizens are "low-risk individuals," authenticated through security identification techniques.9 Immigration rules are now so closely tied to threat perceptions [End Page 526] that any new terrorist...