MORONI (AFP) — Thousands of stateless Arab families known as bidoon hoped a bizarre application for citizenship of the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros might mean an end to their legal limbo.
But sadly for the 4,000 families residing in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, their bid for Comoran nationality was refused this week at a stormy session of parliament on the main island of Grande-Comore.
The Comoran government had billed it as a programme aimed at "attracting foreign investors", a "naturalisation" that would bring in at least 100 million dollars (63.8 million euros) to the impoverished island chain.
The lawmaker who introduced the bill, Assumani Yusuf Mondoha, described it as an "economic citizenship programme aimed at naturalising adult 'investors'."
But the Comoran opposition vigorously attacked the project, charging that it amounted to "auctioning off our nationality".
Vice President Ibrahim Mohamed Sidi denounced the "greed" of a government ready to "sell Comoran citizenship to countries from the Gulf who want to free themselves of families that had become an incumbrance."
According to the Comoran government, the project "was initiated following meetings at the highest level between the Emir of Kuwait (Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah) and President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi."
But the bill, which prescribed for Comoran nationality to be conferred upon families "without obligation of habitual residence in the Comoros," was rejected late Thursday at an extraordinary session of the islands' assembly.
Several lawmakers had supported the proposals, arguing that most bidoon families find themselves in an extremely irregular situation.
Bidoon, from the Arabic "bidoon jinsiya" meaning without nationality, describes a stateless people of certain bedouin tribes whose members have not been granted citizenship in their home countries.
The plight of the bidoon in Kuwait, which number 70,000 according to the government and up to 120,000 according to rights activists, has received most recognition.
They have no right to work, obtain a birth certificate for their babies or even get their marriage certificate attested.
A rough estimate by the NGO Refugees International put the bidoon population in the UAE at 100,000, but officials give a figure of only 10,000.
Bidoons in the UAE are allowed to work, but they have no passports.
The NGO had no figures for bidoon in Saudi Arabia, but says they are also not entitled to Saudi passports.
Oil-rich Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been among the main economic partners and political allies of the Comoros since President Sambi came to power in 2006.
The Comoros, comprised of Grande-Comore, Anjouan and Moheli, is a very poor Indian Ocean archipelago where civil servants are owed five months of back-pay this year and where fuel and electricity shortages are commonplace.
Ninety-eight percent of the 700,000 inhabitants in the Comoros' three islands are Muslims.
Known locally as "ayatollah", the turban-wearing Sambi studied Islam in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran and often leads Friday prayers.
"I believe in an Islamic regime," Sambi said after his election, adding however that the union's economic situation -- it is considered one of the world's poorest countries -- did not allow the immediate creation of an Islamic state.
The Comoros has in recent weeks and months launched a crackdown on "loose morals", prompting concern among women and intellectuals that the archipelago was poised to become a Sharia state.
In the name of the preservation of "the Comoran identity", Minister for Islamic Affairs Mmadi Ali has spearheaded a drive to impose curbs on immodest clothing among women, the sale of alcohol and teenage parties.
The authorities have banned large festive gatherings such as birthday parties or end-of-year school bashes, arguing that they led to depraved behaviour among the country's youth.
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