Stateless Saudi Driven to Self-Immolation

By Sarnata Reynolds
The daughter of Mohammed al-Huraisi with his father, Ali Abdullah. Reuters Photo/Faisal Al Nasser

Last month in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Mohammed al-Huraisi, a stateless street vendor, died after lighting himself on fire. His act of protest came after months of harassment and extortion by Saudi authorities, who refused to issue a permit for his a watermelon stand. So far, however, Mohammed’s tragic death has been virtually ignored by the international community, and the larger issue of Saudi statelessness remains virtually unknown outside the Gulf.

According to a Reuters report, Mohammed’s family has lived in Saudi Arabia for decades. Mohammed’s father still has copies of his old national identification card and driver’s license, and even served in the Saudi army when he was young. Yet until the day he died, Mohammed was treated like an outsider.

Of the more than 29 million people living in Saudi Arabia, an estimated 70,000 are stateless. Exact numbers are hard to come by because, for the most part, Saudi Arabia has successfully suppressed any information about its stateless population and clamped down on any rights activists who seek to empower them. Like stateless populations in other parts of the Gulf, most stateless Saudis are believed to have lived in the country for their entire lives – sometimes for generations. Yet, they cannot obtain passports or IDs proving their status; and unlike Saudi citizens, they have no access to free health care, education, or government jobs. It should not be this way.

In virtually every corner of the globe, nations confer citizenship automatically upon people who were born on their territory (jus soli), are descendants of citizens (jus sanguini), marry citizens, or are long-time residents. But in Saudi Arabia, the government does not afford these rights to certain populations, including tribes who traditionally lived in both Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. Even if these individuals were born in Saudi Arabia and descended from generations of people who lived there, they can still be barred from citizenship.

International law does not permit such discrimination, and if Saudi Arabia wants to allege that a person is not a citizen, then the onus should be on the government to demonstrate they are a foreigner. The government should also be required to seek confirmation that the person is a citizen of another nation. If the approached nation refuses to deliver a response within a reasonable timeframe (e.g. three months), then it should be presumed that the person is not a citizen of that nation. The government should then move forward with its case against the individual, either assuming the burden of proof or dismissing the case for lack of evidence and granting or recognizing the person’s Saudi citizenship.

Sadly, Mohammed was never given this chance to acquire citizenship or be recognized as a Saudi national, so he took his own life. No individual should have to take to such drastic measures, and no nation should be allowed to make people stateless by withholding or withdrawing their citizenship without due process. Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory approach to citizenship is an affront to the human rights of all its residents.

Today, few people know about the injustices Mohammed suffered or his exceptional act of defiance. But right now across the Gulf – from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates – stateless people are standing up and demanding their nationality rights. The international community should honor their courage and Mohammed’s sacrifice by demanding an end to statelessness in this region.