Yet, denied citizenship in his United Arab Emirates birthplace, he has become one of a number of stateless people in the oil-rich country who have acquired the nationality of a group of islands with which they have no ties. His goal: to secure the official identity he needs to travel and access basic services.
“We’re seeing much more of a security state in the Gulf,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics. “Regimes feel more threatened and more concerned over who is in and who is out.”
Ahmed’s unusual tale holds a mirror to the legal and social troubles that face hundreds of thousands of stateless people, known as “bidoun”, across the Gulf, which have intensified with the uprisings across the Arab world. In Kuwait, some members of the 105,000-strong bidoun population have been arrested after street protests against the government’s reluctance to offer citizenship. In the UAE, rights activists have raised concerns over what they say is the possible deportation of a bidoun political campaigner detained last month.“Either I should bury myself and die or try to survive,” Ahmed says of the decision.
The term bidoun – “without” in Arabic – refers to long-time residents whose ancestors failed to apply for formal identity papers as the discovery of oil prompted the rapid transformation of the region from a Bedouin culture to an urban economy. Without these basic documents, they have since struggled without secure healthcare, education and jobs.
While the public demonstrations of Kuwait’s bidoun that began early last year have not been repeated in other countries, stateless people are found across the Gulf. The UN estimates that Saudi Arabia is home to 70,000 of them. Between 30,000 and 100,000 more are estimated to live in the UAE.
Uprisings across the Arab world have widened the schism between the bidoun and the region’s wealthy nationals. Increased spending by Gulf states on salaries and subsidies to quell the possibility of unrest – with pay rises of up to 120 per cent last year for some government workers – have made it increasingly attractive to be a citizen.
“As the value of having Gulf citizenship has increased, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has gone up,” Mr Ulrichsen says.
The Arab revolts have also made the bidoun more vulnerable to security-conscious governments suspicious of perceived outsiders and alleged enemies within. Kuwaiti authorities, for example, say the bidoun have been infiltrated by imposters from countries such as Iraq and Syria, who destroy their passports so they can ultimately claim nationality.
In the UAE, the bidoun’s difficulties have surfaced in the curious case of the Comoros passports. At least a thousand stateless residents have taken the documents, says Zoubert A Soufiane Al Ahdal, Comoros ambassador to the UAE.
Bidoun in the UAE say the Comoros documents make it easier for them to meet tougher official identity requirements for securing papers such as vehicle renewals – and perhaps even eventually, somewhat paradoxically, a UAE passport.
It is unclear who is paying for the passports: two of four bidoun interviewed by the Financial Times said they thought the UAE government had paid for theirs. Ambassador Ahdal denied this, while the UAE authorities declined to comment.
While the Comoros passports seem on one level to offer a little respite for the bidoun and a convenient partial solution for the UAE government, some rights activists say moves by stateless people to secure foreign nationality have a darker dimension that has grown in significance since the Arab uprisings began.
Disturbed by small murmurings of political dissent and in particular by the activities of suspected Islamists, the UAE authorities have begun using nationality as a legal tool as Qatar did in 2005, when it revoked the citizenship of as many as 6,000 people.
The UAE government last year revoked the citizenship of seven members of al-Islah, an Islamist organisation, turning them into bidoun and arresting many of them later for refusing to sign undertakings that they would take on a new passport.
“Wherever citizenship is exclusive it can be used as a weapon,” says Michael Stephens, Gulf expert at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
In another UAE case, Human Rights Watch said last month that Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, a detailed UAE-born bidoun campaigner, now fears deportation on the basis of his recently acquired Comorian nationality. Mr Abd al-Khaleq was one of five pro-democracy activists imprisoned last year for insulting the UAE’s leaders and later pardoned.
The UAE authorities declined to comment on Mr Abd al-Khaleq’s case. Officials have previously said thousands of other bidoun have been given UAE nationality, after a 2006 pledge by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president, to resolve the problem once and for all.
Léopold Lambert - The Palestinian Archipelago