For the Sake of Emirati Women: Equal Citizenship
In 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) urged the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to “[…] grant Emirati women the same rights as Emirati men to acquire, change and retain their nationality and to confer it on their children and foreign spouse.” Six years later, the UAE has failed to deliver. As a result, hundreds of Emirati women are citizens only in name, denied the basic human rights to which they are entitled.
The UAE boasts that its incredibly diverse residents “coexist in harmony,” but gender-based discrimination remains. Emirati women who are married to non-citizens are deprived of their basic rights, leaving their foreign husbands and children excluded and marginalized. The UAE must reform their citizenship laws, focusing specifically on gender, to ensure that women who are married to non-citizens have the right to transfer their citizenship to their foreign husbands and children.
Discrimination Sanctioned by Law
On paper, the UAE’s membership in the CEDAW demonstrates its determination to prevent discrimination against women. Further efforts, such as the National Strategy for the Advancement of Women, also promise to strengthen women’s position in the UAE. Those efforts, however, are rendered ineffective by legislation that continually reinforces gender discrimination.
To date, the children of Emirati men have greater protections than the children of Emirati women. The children of Emirati men are afforded citizenship, irrespective of both the nationality of the mother and the residency of the father (living in the UAE or abroad), as stipulated in Article 2 of the UAE Federal Law No. 17. Though the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, decreed in 2017 that children of Emirati women and foreign fathers be naturalized, citizenship is only granted after the child has reached six years of age and even then is subject to certain conditions. The exclusion of children of Emirati mothers and non-citizen fathers by Article 2 is concerning, as it risks rendering these children stateless until they reach six years of age, unless they can obtain the nationality of their father. Until there is gender-focused reform, the UAE’s commitment to protecting human rights will remain an illusion and leave children bidoon—stateless.
The Consequences of Statelessness
Being stateless means living on the outskirts, being exceptionally vulnerable, and being stripped of the most basic rights. As a stateless man in Iraq put it, “We are between the earth and sky.”  Children in the UAE risk falling into this condition.
The complex citizenship application procedure, which can include long wait times, creates additional barriers to citizenship for the children of Emirati women and foreign fathers. Added to the existing discriminatory legislation, this administrative barrier puts further pressure on Emirati women, especially those who cannot access a legal professional or do not understand the process.
In the UAE, women, foreign husbands, and their children alike have difficulty accessing basic ID cards. Lack of identification prevents them from enjoying the public and private rights they are entitled to, as shown by the Women’s Right to Nationality Campaign, an initiative to raise awareness of barriers to citizenship in the Middle East.
The continued gap between the UAE’s support in principle for basic citizenship rights and the incorporation of real legal protections is due in part to the dominant culture. The UAE, along with many other Arab states, maintains that the division between genders is justified by custom. Custom also dictates that citizenship is determined by blood. The UAE believes that the tribal ties of their community can only be maintained through patrilineality, so only fathers can confer citizenship to their children and non-Emirati partners.
The Necessity of Women’s Inclusion
Though many states in the MENA region have made radical changes to their heavily criticized systemic exclusion of women, the UAE needs to go further in their efforts and make sincere reforms. The UAE needs an inclusive, gender-focused model of citizenship aimed at safeguarding the full interests and needs of women, a model designed to ensure actual enforcement and implementation. Allowing women to confer citizenship will ensure that women and their counterparts do not risk statelessness. The UAE needs to acknowledge and accept external review of their citizenship laws. In order to bolster citizenship reforms and prevent a legislative backslide, the full empowerment of Emirati women must also be assured. Emirati women must be granted basic rights to prevent other forms of discrimination.
In light of the legal amendments made by the UAE this year, which aim to attract highly skilled professionals by offering them citizenship, it is worth noting that providing equal citizenship rights to Emirati women would be just as beneficial to the UAE’s program of economic and social reform. Granting citizenship to children of Emirati women and foreign-born fathers is an opportunity for the UAE to build their human capital, which will contribute to long-term economic development.
Furthermore, the UAE and the MENA region should work together to encourage and sustain organizations and campaigns that are dedicated to reducing women’s exclusion from citizenship, such as the Women’s Right to Nationality campaign. Currently, NGOs are the main institutions advocating against and challenging citizenship rights based on gender. A shared diplomatic initiative between other MENA nations and the UAE could legitimize and empower the efforts of these NGOs. Challenging discrimination against women also means fostering the full social and political inclusion of women. The UAE must provide a forum where women’s own views on citizenship rights are considered. The UAE will need a convergence of interests in the region, new legal tools, an increased capacity for human rights diplomacy, and the inclusion of women themselves to address the issue of citizenship rights.
 Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, Equality Now & Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI). Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: United Arab Emirates 80th Pre-Sessional Working Group (1 – 5 Mar 2021), 2021, accessed April 2021.
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 United Nations, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Concluding observations on the combined second and third periodic reports of the United Arab Emirates, CEDAW/C/ARE/CO/2-3 (24 November 2015), Available from https://undocs.org/CEDAW/C/ARE/CO/2-3.
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