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Saudi Arabia: Amendment to citizenship law poses additional challenges for women

The power to grant citizenship to children of Saudi women was transferred to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which activists say will make a difficult process even more cumbersome
The children of a Saudi woman and a foreign man can only be granted naturalisation at the age of 18 under certain conditions (Faye Nureldine/AFP)

Activists fear that an introduction of an amendment to Saudi Arabia’s citizenship law will make it even more difficult for Saudi women to attain naturalisation for their children.

The amendment, approved on 4 January, transfers the authority of granting citizenship from the interior ministry to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by replacing the phrase “by a decision of the Minister of Interior” to “by order of the Prime Minister based on a proposal from the Minister of Interior” in Article 8 of the Saudi Arabian Nationality System. The crown prince was named prime minister in a government reshuffle announced in September 2022.

'Activists and Saudi women demand that they be treated as men are treated in this respect'

-  Taha al-Hajji, European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights

Article 8 stipulates that a child of a Saudi woman and a foreign man can be granted naturalisation at the age of 18, if certain conditions are met.

"The first problem is that they deal with this issue as if it was an authority that the prime minister evaluates, and that it is not considered a Saudi women’s right to grant citizenship [to her children]," Saudi Arabian lawyer and legal consultant for the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights Taha al-Hajji, said.

Children of Saudi mothers and non-Saudi fathers can only apply to gain citizenship if they have permanent residence in the kingdom, alongside familiarity with the Arabic language and “good conduct and behaviour”. They have to apply within one year of turning 18. 

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But even then, applications for naturalisation can be rejected.

Meanwhile, children whose father is a Saudi national are automatically granted citizenship. 

More legal obstacles 

Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi activist and scholar based in the US, said the change will likely present yet another legal hurdle for Saudi women and their children. 

“It might be more difficult for [the children of Saudi mothers and foreign fathers] to navigate the system now than before, because before we had some leverage to influence decision making," she told Middle East Eye. "But now there is no leverage for them.”

Dosari explained that the difficult process of naturalising children of Saudi women forced many to appeal to mediators, governors and influential figures within the ruling family. However, with the new clausal change, this will no longer be possible. 

“Even now with the intervention of members of the ruling family, they will not be able to access the same leverage that they used to have before under the previous administration, simply because [Mohammed] bin Salman is very much an inaccessible person who only rules a very small group of aides, and these aides are yes-men,” she said.

Several women expressed their fears about the ramifications of this change on social media.

Translation: The amendment made it more difficult to naturalise the children of female citizens, and this country continues to prove over and over again that it is at the bottom of human civilisation when it treats its women as a tenth-class citizen

"Activists and Saudi women demand that they be treated as men are treated in this respect, and that naturalisation is a right for [the children of] Saudi women, without having to be exposed to this list of conditions, procedures, standards and years of waiting for citizenship to be granted to them - and even then it may or may not be granted," Hajji told Middle East Eye.

Both Dosari and Hajji also mentioned that the new change points towards the crown prince’s expanding roles in the kingdom’s key positions.

This is "not surprising from a personality like [Mohammed] bin Salman," Hajji said.

Likewise, Dosari said the amendment is not a surprising development. “This is something that we've been witnessing since Mohammed bin Salman came into power," she said. "Most of the key positions in the country have been reshifted. It just shows how much he is seeking to control all aspects of society.”

Online confusion, controversy

While the latest amendment has not gone any further than transferring the decision-making body from the ministry of interior to the presidency of the Council of Ministers, reports circulating online have presented the revision as a breakthrough in the naturalisation of a Saudi mother’s children.

Since the amendment was first reported on 11 January, citizens have flooded social media with mixed reactions and the Arabic hashtag “naturalisation of the children of female citizens” started trending in the kingdom.

Some championed the misreported move, with one Twitter user saying that the process of naturalisation is a “right” for Saudi women and their children.

Translation: Despite the distortions, I am with the naturalisation of the children from female citizens and granting them Saudi citizenship. You do not have the right to ask her “Why did you marry a foreigner?" And you do not have the right to betray her children whom she raised to love the country. A woman is like a man, she has all the same rights and bears the same responsibilities.

Many criticised the change, citing opposition to the naturalisation of “foreigners”, and several commentators suggested that women would only go through the process to obtain benefits from the state.

Translation:  What does the naturalisation of 5 million children of foreigners mean? It means an increase in the unemployment rate by 5 million people and the crowding out of 5 million foreigners for the unemployed Saudi. Damn [gender] equality if its results cause disasters for the country.

Translation: Naturalisation of children from female Saudi citizens is the greatest danger to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi citizenship is great, and it's a loss over foreigners who care about nothing and their goal in this naturalisation is only for their own benefit.

It is difficult for non-nationals to obtain Saudi Arabian citizenship. In late 2021, the kingdom announced that it was granting citizenship to a number of "experts and exceptional global talents". 

The naturalisation programme targeted expats in the fields of medicine, science, culture, sports, technology and Islamic scholarship as part of the kingdom's Vision 2030 goals.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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