On the occasion of the UAE's 40th national day, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, announced a decree granting citizenship to children of Emirati mothers married to foreigners. This monumental step for Emirati women will now allow them to pass their UAE citizenship to their children once they are of legal age.
This decision was the first of its kind in the Emirates, as well as in the Gulf region as a whole. In the 1970s, Sheikh Zayed, the first President of the country, did offer blanket citizenship to many people of mixed parentage, and there have been case-by-case approvals since then. But Sheikh Khalifa's announcement was the first time that the policy was enshrined in law.
This decree may have several positive implications, one of which may be a domino effect in the neighbouring GCC countries. The announcement has spurred constructive dialogue in the region regarding the issue of citizenship for children with non-national fathers, with rights groups and academics alike discussing the effects of such a move.
Many countries in the Middle East and North African region allow women carrying citizenship to pass these benefits on to their children regardless of the father's nationality. This is true of all the North African countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt) as well as Yemen and Iraq.
In some of these countries, however, the process is not always straightforward. Lengthy bureaucratic processes and conflicts with other laws create delays, and may sometimes result in those seeking citizenship to give up even before attaining it.
Even though this is not a recent development (the first country in the MENA region to pass such a law was Tunisia in 1993), some countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the countries within the GCC have yet to emulate laws granting women the ability to pass citizenship to their children.
Some of these countries however, do make exceptions to provide social benefits and even citizenship in some instances to children with non-national fathers. These cases however, are few and far between, as no formal laws exist that directly address the issue at hand.
Another positive outcome of this announcement in the UAE is the further empowerment of Emirati women, putting them on an equal footing with their male counterparts. This decree now matches citizenship laws that previously applied exclusively to Emirati men, whose children gained citizenship irrespective of the spouse's nationality.
This decree will allow Emirati women to make informed decisions about marriage, their children's future and residency in the UAE.
This will also allow children eligible for citizenship, once they are of legal age, to avail themselves of benefits such as government subsidised health care, education and social benefits. This may also mean that they could be eligible for scholarships and employment aimed at Emiratis, increasing their opportunities in academia and industry.
Earlier this year, The National reported that there was a rise in the number of Emirati women marrying foreigners. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the numbers rose 15 per cent from 643 to 737 cases in the period between 2009 and 2010. If the numbers follow this pattern, the decree will prove to be one aspect in addressing the current demographic imbalance in the country.
This is a particular issue of concern in the UAE, where it has been projected that the national population will dwindle from currently one fifth of the entire population, to approximately 10 per cent by 2015, a demographic anomaly by any standards. While offering citizenship to children of Emirati mothers is not the only solution to addressing the demographic imbalance, it is definitely a positive step in the right direction.
Another recent directive from Sheikh Khalifa, stated that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, is to form a committee to determine specific criteria for granting citizenship to children of Emirati women married to non-nationals, which is indicative of the decree being put into motion.
While the criteria for eligibility have yet to be determined, and the process is itself entirely novel, it is yet another positive step towards providing equal opportunities to women in the United Arab Emirates.
Huda Sajwani is an Emirati researcher on gender and public policy in the UAE