Manama // A petition calling for an immediate halt to the naturalisation of foreigners until a national dialogue has been opened and a new nationality law adopted has begun circulating among prominent Bahrainis, and will be presented to the king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, this month. Between 250 and 300 people have been asked to sign the petition, including current and former members of parliament, politicians, academics, activists, and top Shiite and Sunni religious figures.
The one-page document, which will be presented to the king in eight days, warns of the political, economic and social costs that will be incurred by the Gulf state if the controversial policies of naturalising foreigners - mainly Sunni Arabs as well as Asians from the subcontinent - continues at its current rate. The petition is spearheaded by six leading opposition groups including the Shiite Islamic Al Wefaq Society - which has 17 of the 40 MPs in the lower house of the National Assembly - the Shiite Islamic Action Society, the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Waad), the communist Progressive Democratic Tribune (Al Minbar), the Baathist Nationalist Democratic Rally Society and the National Brotherhood Society.
Two other political societies also came out in support of the petition, which according to the general secretary of Waad, Ebrahim Shareef, is backed by the vast majority of Bahrainis. "The petition is clear in calling for an immediate halt to all naturalisation until a unified national vision based on a national dialogue is formulated from which the ground for adopting a new policy addressing the issue can be set," Mr Shareef said during a press conference on Saturday during the launch of the petition signing drive. Some Bahraini Shiites claim current naturalisation policies aim to demographically alter the country by enlarging the Sunni population. However, he did say it was difficult for their opponents to allege that their demands are of a sectarian nature.
"The petition is sponsored by leaders from both sects so it's difficult to use it as a reason for sectarian provocation, especially since there is a national realisation of the impact these policies have on all [of us]," he said. Mr Shareef said the exact number of people who had been naturalised in recent years was not known, but at least 60,000 had obtained Bahraini nationality between April 2001 and Sept 2007, according to official figures.
"That means that no less than 9,000 people have been naturalised each year in the country putting the annual rate of naturalisation at 1.8 per cent, in addition to the natural growth rate of 2.4 per cent, so we have a 4.2 per cent population growth rate each year, which is almost three times higher than the world's average," he said. He said countries such as Canada and Australia, which are both in constant need of people to support their growth, naturalise only 0.7 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively each year.
Mr Shareef also pointed out that in addition to the social instability resulting from the large -scale naturalisation, the economic cost of absorbing these numbers and supporting them would take a toll on the economy and the basic services offered to citizens, be it housing, education, medical care or jobs. He put the cost at tens of millions of Bahraini dinars each year (one dinar equals 9.7 dirhams).
"The problem with these incurred costs is the fact that most of them will be repeated with each new generation and unlike other policies that might be bad and corrected at a later stage, you cannot undo the damage caused by naturalisation," he said. Sheikh Hassan Sultan, a member of parliament and head of the preparatory committee for the petition, said the political groups would continue to use all the legal and constitutional tools at their disposal to reform the current naturalisation policies.
"I do not think that there is a political group which is in opposition to addressing this issue which extends to affect all," he said at a press conference. Mr Sultan also denied that recently unveiled reports of talks between his group, Al Wefaq, and the Bahraini king, which resulted in the pardoning of 170 people, mainly Shiites arrested since 2007 on security related charges, involved an agreement to overlook the issue of naturalisation.
"There were no political deals to sideline this issue, because there is no nation in the world that would agree to have its identity erased," he said. In April 2007, the minister of state for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ateyatala al Khalifa, revealed to parliament that the country's population - which was believed to have been about 750,000 - had jumped to more than one million. The reports further fuelled allegations by Shiite MPs and the opposition that large number of Sunnis had been naturalised to manipulate the outcome of election results and alter the country's demographics.
According to government figures, of the 1,046,814 population living in Bahrain, 517,368 are non-nationals. Bahrain's interior ministry, which oversees the process of naturalisation through its Nationality and Passports Directorate, had repeatedly denied any random or politicised naturalisation of foreigners, insisting that all those who were naturalised had received the Bahraini nationality after meeting all legal requirements.