Tribal MPs in Kuwait protest at threat to take citizenship from dual passport holders

Government accused of discrimination by overlooking US and European passport holders because they are from the 'upper class'.

KUWAIT CITY // After decades of sending students to study overseas and with a large portion of its population made up of tribes that used to roam freely around the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait has thousands of citizens with dual nationality, which is illegal.

Now the minister of interior has created a political storm by threatening to withdraw Kuwaiti nationality from anyone who holds a foreign passport. Kuwait's tribal MPs have accused the government of discrimination by focusing on citizens who hold nationality of other GCC countries and overlooking US and European passport holders because they are from the "upper class". Kuwaitis suspect that some members of the national assembly are among the tens of thousands of locals who hold foreign passports. Tribal MPs claim that the government is using the issue to put pressure on them before the parliamentary questioning of the minister of information, which took place yesterday.

Zally, 24, who asked to be known by her nickname, is typical of Kuwait's internationally minded young generation. Zally's mother is from the United States and she lived there for several years when her father studied for his master's and PhD degrees at a university in New Mexico. Like many other Kuwaitis, Zally's father took advantage of Kuwait's programme to provide free education for its citizens at colleges overseas.

"I think it's not their business to tell people to give up their second nationality," Zally said. "If your parents are from two countries, you should take advantage of that. It's not betraying the country by having another nationality. "I feel that I am more American in my behaviour, ways and lifestyle, but I have more benefits as a Kuwaiti such as free education, housing benefits and child support," she said.

Zally said if she was forced to choose one nationality, she would pick Kuwaiti, but believes that even if she had to give up her US passport, she could easily reapply. "My friends say if you give up your Kuwaiti passport, you can forget about getting it back - they'll put you on a blacklist or whatever. But my mum can reapply again for me to get a US passport. Being American is in my blood." Last week the minister of the interior, Sheikh Jaber al Khaled al Sabah, said the government would withdraw Kuwaiti citizenship regardless of the holder's position or second nationality, local press reported.

"I do not care about the location of the second nationality; I care about the application of the law and I will apply the law regardless of the name of the person," the minister said. He said the United States confers citizenship on anyone who is born there, but he wants dual nationality holders to choose one passport when they reach 18. Thousands more Kuwaitis are nationals of other GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, having registered as Kuwaiti when the government started handing out citizenship in the state's early years. Yousef Ali, the director of Kuwait University's Centre for Strategic and Future Studies, estimates that 120,000 Kuwaitis are citizens of other GCC states. He said thousands more - 50,000 in the United States alone - picked up a second nationality while studying abroad.

Kuwaitis living in other GCC states use their nationality to take advantage of the state's benefits, which include inexpensive land and interest-free loans, Mr Ali said. He said some people, many from the tribes, registered in two countries with different names to avoid detection, and they live in Saudi Arabia and vote in Kuwaiti elections. The government will work with its embassies in other GCC states and install eye recognition technology at all points of entry within the coming few weeks to identify dual nationals, a local newspaper, Al Watan, reported this week. Mr Ali estimates that by keeping track where Kuwaitis live and are born, the government knows "90 per cent" of the country's dual nationals.

Some Kuwaitis believe holding a second passport is disloyal, and Mohammed al Juwaihel, a former parliamentary candidate, caused an uproar here in December when he claimed on a his own "Soor TV" satellite channel to have the names of thousands of people who are dual citizens, saying they are not Kuwaiti. Thousands of tribesmen took to the streets to protest his belief that true Kuwaitis come from inside the walls of the old city, and the minister of information was charged with allowing some satellite television channels to threaten national unity in yesterday's parliamentary interpellation.

Although members of parliament from the country's urban districts have commended the government's assurances that it will treat everyone equally in confiscating citizenship, tribal MPs believe it will focus on citizens of other GCC states. One MP, Mubarak al Walan, said that to suggest that those with dual citizenship are only from Saudi Arabia is "a twisting of facts and an escape from reality". In a parliamentary press release, he wrote that some people need foreign passports to protect overseas properties, and the real problem is "dualism of loyalty".

Another MP who represents a tribal district, Khalid al Awdah, said the government is taking a "discriminatory approach" by focusing on citizens of GCC states and ignoring western passport holders "because those individuals hail from the upper class", Al Watan said. The MP sent a parliamentary question to the minister of interior to ask him why dual citizenship is wrong, what response he has received from other GCC countries, and what actions the ministry is taking against those who have US or European nationality.

Saudi Arabia also does not usually recognise dual nationals, but some western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, do. The United States "does not encourage it as a matter of policy because of the problems it may cause", the state department's website says.