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Inside the $100 Million Scheme to Send the Middle East's Most Unwanted People to Africa

How sham real-estate deals, Islamic State recruitment efforts, and a systematic effort in the Gulf states to strip dissidents of their citizenship and banish undesirables all meet in the tiny African island nation of the Comoros.
Bedoun rally for citizenship near Kuwait City in 2011. (Photo by Raed Qutena/EPA)

Iyad el-Baghdadi doesn't know why he was called into the immigration office. It was April of 2014, and the 36 year old was being told he had a choice: He could permanently leave the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived almost his entire life, or he could face indefinite imprisonment.

El-Baghdadi does, however, have a theory about why he was called in. His tweets.

He had written a series of them criticizing the 2013 overthrow of Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, by a UAE- and Saudi-backed military junta. He had also decried the Egyptian military's subsequent brutal crackdown on political opposition.


The deportation didn't come as a total surprise. A startup business and educational consultant who had worked closely with the UAE government in the past, el-Baghdadi rose to prominence as a prolific commentator during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, lending his full-blooded support on Twitter to protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region. By the time he was deported, he had been skating on thin ice for years with the UAE's quietly autocratic government, which loathes the Muslim Brotherhood — Morsi's party — and has arrested a number of alleged Brotherhood members since 2011.

El-Baghdadi ended up spending a couple of weeks in prison before he agreed to be deported. He was born in Kuwait, is of Palestinian descent, and lived in the UAE most of his life; his only travel documents, issued in Egypt, mark him as a Palestinian refugee. The UAE ended up sending him to Malaysia, one of the few countries that would accept his papers. But when he arrived, he was told he could not enter the country.

For the next three weeks, he says, he contemplated the possibility of spending years in administrative limbo in the international lounge of Kuala Lumpur airport, a sort of modern-day Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who spent 18 years in Terminal One of Paris's Charles De Gaulle Airport. Finally, however, he was allowed to enter the country. As all of this was happening, his wife was pregnant with what would be the couple's first child — Ismail el-Baghdadi, who was born a stateless refugee this past June before the Baghdadis were ultimately granted refugee status in Norway.


Even before he was deported, el-Baghdadi was under no illusion that he would ever be able to become a formal citizen of the UAE. In the Arab Gulf states, he says, "citizenship isn't treated as an automatic right — rather, it's a reward for political loyalty with a string of benefits. But if you aren't willing to kiss enough ass, they don't want you there."

* * *

El-Baghdadi's experience isn't new or uncommon for Middle East's large and rapidly growing community of exiles and refugees. Palestinians have been expelled in large numbers from both Jordan and Kuwait in the past when they've rubbed those countries' rulers the wrong way.

What is new, however, is the way the Gulf States, intolerant even of critical tweets, are now punishing their own citizens by rendering them stateless. This, el-Baghdadi says, is part of a new, harsher interpretation of the social contract among the region's oil and gas rich monarchies. "Being a citizen or a 'local' can potentially make you a lifelong recipient of government largess," he says. In return for a cradle-to-grave welfare system "you just need to be completely apolitical and quiet." Rocking the boat has become an increasingly risky business.

Since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, three of the Gulf states have revoked the citizenships of hundreds of people, the majority of them advocates for political reform or democratization. Bahrain has revoked the citizenship of 159 people since 2012; Kuwait made about 100 of its citizens non-Kuwaitis with the stroke of a pen in 2014 and 2015. The UAE stripped seven of its citizens of their nationality in 2011; in July 2014, the regional Al Sharq newspaper claimed that hundreds more had been secretly rendered stateless. Amnesty International has independently made a similar claim — that Emerati authorities planned to revoke the citizenship of "scores" of nationals.


Abu Dhabi. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, Oman passed a law allowing the government to arbitrarily revoke the citizenship of anyone working "against the interests" of the state, and Bahrain passed similar legislation allowing the state to strip the citizenship of anyone who failed "the duty of loyalty." Saudi officials have publicly mulled following suit.

This January, Kuwaiti authorities arrested Saad al-Ajmi, the onetime director of the Kuwait office of the Saudi Arabian television channel Al-Arabiya, as he was about to board a flight to Saudi Arabia with his family. His arrest — for skipping out on a short jail sentence that he says he was not aware of — surprised many in Kuwait who knew al-Ajmi as the well-regarded spokesman for the Popular Action Bloc, a parliamentary coalition that is vocally critical of the government appointed directly by the Emir of Kuwait. Surprise turned to shock when, three months later, al-Ajmi was stripped of Kuwaiti citizenship and deported from the country.

When the head of a household loses citizenship in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE, their families are often also stripped of their citizenship, creating a multiplier effect: Hundreds of people may have ultimately lost their status as Kuwaiti citizens due to the purge of 2014, according to human rights researchers tracking their cases, while more than 1,000 Bahrainis may have been plunged into the administrative void. These are people who learn that they and their loved ones have gone from being citizens of some of the world's wealthiest countries — and most comprehensive welfare states — to being outcasts and exiles without a home.


"Stripping a human identity and exil[ing] him from his country is tough and difficult," al-Ajmi told VICE News from Saudi Arabia, where he is currently living while trying to appeal the decision to revoke his citizenship. "Especially [because] I am currently deprived of meeting my family because they too were stripped [of their] identity."

Contrary to Kuwaiti government's claims, al-Ajmi says he does not hold a Saudi passport, nor does he have residency there, meaning that he is now effectively stateless.

"[My family] are currently living in Kuwait without identity," he said. "That means they cannot leave Kuwait, and I am forbidden from entering."

A UN official who works on the legal aspects of citizenship at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main UN body tasked with dealing with the Gulf's bedoun, or stateless people, is frank about stripping the citizenship of political dissidents: It's against international law.

"If someone is contrary to the vital interests of the state, if they have committed treason, that would give rise to deprivation of nationality," the official said. "But you would never be able to strip someone of their nationality on discriminatory grounds, on the basis of race, religion, political views. That would not be legitimate."

'This thing happened to me because of my political positions and my declared views. I am not a terrorist or supporter of violence.'


It hasn't stopped the citizenship stripping from happening. In most cases, the legal rationale has been vague, with governments citing threats to national security and stability while publicly claiming that people being made stateless are part of grand conspiracies linked to shadowy foreign powers. In Bahrain, the royal family plays up fears of Iranian intervention through its restive Shia population, which took to the streets to call for a more participatory political system in 2011. Since then, Shias have been the main targets of citizenship stripping. In the UAE, the threats cited by authorities are political Islamists tied to the Muslim Brotherhood trying to overthrow the government and install a Sunni theocracy. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, critics of the regime are labeled fifth-columnists with a wide range of agendas, from being part of a Muslim Brotherhood–backed coup plot to working on behalf of Iran.

To be sure, some of these external threats are very real, even if they're overplayed. But a good number of those convicted of sedition are avowed secular advocates of democracy who say that they're facing sham charges. Often, the offense committed is a tweet or Facebook post that crosses a line in the sand drawn by their countries' autocratic rulers.

Al-Ajmi's only crime, he argued, was publicly calling for a more transparent and participatory political system.

"This thing happened to me because of my political positions and my declared views," he said. "I am not a terrorist or supporter of violence."


* * *

Citizenship stripping cases like al-Ajmi's are part of a wider trend of deepening autocracy in the Gulf sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings 2011, analysts and human rights campaigners say. "Across the Gulf since 2011, when monarchies saw how vulnerable they were to people within their borders, they have been eager to develop mechanisms for prosecuting people who are critical of them," said Belkis Wille, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

An initial round of prosecutions in 2011 and 2012 was aimed at quieting the activist community, Wille said. "But the reality is that this wave of prosecutions and heavy sentences given by the courts hasn't silenced critics, so governments are looking to more effective ways of silencing people…. Revoking citizenship and deportation affects an entire family. One individual might be willing to take the risk for themselves, but not for everyone close to them."

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than Kuwait, once seen as the most politically liberal country in the Gulf, with a vibrant if fractious parliament and a relatively free press.

Related: Kuwait Is Buying a Bunch of Weapons to Protect Itself From the Islamic State

"They want you to eat, sleep, say nothing," Fahed al-Minouini, a wheelchair-bound pro-democracy activist, said of Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family as we sat earlier this year with several other men in front of the well-appointed Kuwait City home of Musallam al-Barrak, an opposition politician and the leader of the Popular Action Bloc. Al-Barrak himself was not there because he was in prison awaiting sentencing for a speech he gave in 2012; in May he was convicted of lèse majesté — insulting the Emir — and handed a two-year jail sentence.


Like a number of the men gathered in al-Barrak's spacious brick courtyard, al-Miniouni also faced a lengthy prison term for taking part in protests and repeating the text of al-Barrak's speech. Though it's fiery stuff for the region, it sounds almost surreally polite to Western ears. This is the most contentious moment in the speech: "Mr. Emir, we will not permit you to turn Kuwait into an autocracy."

"Before 2011, there was a big area of freedom," al-Miniouni said. "Right now there is not a single chance of freedom. You send a tweet and you will go to jail on fabricated charges. Now if you talk, they take your nationality, your ID. You go to sleep Kuwaiti and you wake up not Kuwaiti."

* * *

But the Gulf states stripping dissident voices of their citizenship now face a problem. Revoking citizenship is largely an administrative task, a matter of filling out paperwork. But it doesn't solve the problem of the people themselves, and where to send them. In fact, the bulk of Gulf citizens who have had their citizenships revoked remain inside the borders of the countries that have told them they're no longer welcome.

Jalal Fairooz, a onetime member of Bahraini parliament for the opposition Shia Wefaq party, didn't need to be deported. He was among the first people from the island kingdom to have his citizenship revoked in November 2012, though he had not initially been on the government's list of people to make stateless, he claims. Instead, he and his brother were added after authorities learned that they were visiting the United Kingdom — there was no need to deport them as they were already outside of Bahrain.


But that still left everyone else who were rendered stateless.

"They had and still have some difficulty in deporting those who had had their citizenship stripped because no country would accept them because they don't have official travel documents," Fairooz said. It is effectively impossible to deport someone who does not have proper travel documents. To get around this problem, in 2014 the Bahrain government briefly reinstated the citizenship of senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati before deporting him to Lebanon. Once he was gone, the government again made him stateless and cancelled his passport.

A solution to the newly stateless is already in place, having been in the planning stages for years in the Gulf states among large populations of bedoun: outsource the problem.

Thanks to Lawrence of Arabia and other movies, books, and TV shows, to Western ears the word bedoun conjures up images of desert nomads of the past: TE Lawrence and proud sheikhs in crisp white robes. But for many in the Gulf, it has become a dirty word.

The bedoun, who in many cases come from the same nomadic tribes as their peers with formal citizenship, fell through the cracks when the countries in which they lived were being formed by military conquest, as was the case in Saudi Arabia, or a pullout of British colonial officials in the 1960s and 1970s in the rest of the region. The newly minted states began to register citizens, but the parents and grandparents of today's bedouns failed to fill in the necessary paperwork for a variety of reasons: illiteracy, or not knowing the registration process was necessary, or because the idea of a state and a ruling government was one that did not appeal to the nomads.


This was a huge mistake.

Today, unlike their peers with citizenship, the bedoun have to pay for healthcare and education. Because they lack necessary documentation, they struggle to find jobs even when they are well-educated. Most cannot leave to study or work abroad because they do not have valid travel documents, and those who do have them worry that they may not be allowed to return to their home countries.

There are between 10,000 and 20,000 bedoun in the UAE, about 70,000 in Saudi Arabia, and as many as 200,000 in Kuwait. The rulers of these countries typically see them as a nuisance, since the rulers bear a degree of legal responsibility toward people who were born within their borders. But leaders are loathe to take on the financial burden of supporting the bedoun in their generous welfare states — particularly given that they have long viewed the bedoun in much the same way Donald Trump views Mexican immigrants.

"Iraqis and Saudis" is how one Kuwaiti politician derisively characterizes his country's bedoun to VICE News. "Pakistanis and Indians," says a member of a leading Emerati family in the UAE. Vocal agitation for citizenship and improved rights by a segment of the bedoun population has led many of the region's rulers to take an even dimmer view.

The Kuwaiti government in particular has long struggled with a solution to what elite Kuwaitis call its "bedoun problem." The ruling Al-Sabah family has promised on a number of occasions to find a workable solution for its tens of thousands of bedoun, and at times has seemed prepared to make stateless people citizens. But widespread antagonism toward the bedoun from within the ruling family — some of whom see the bedoun as Iraqi fifth-columnists and accuse them of supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — along with the continued agitation of bedoun rights activists and their supporters, left the Al-Sabah family unconvinced. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which emboldened many bedoun to demand expanded rights, compounded the family's suspicions.


The Kuwaiti bedoun now believe that their governments are working on a plan to wash their hands of them entirely, by pushing them into taking so-called economic citizenships, passports procured from other countries in exchange for cash — a technique also being employed by the UAE. These paid-for citizenships, which are rarely accompanied by basic benefits or even consular assistance, would allow the bedoun to apply for permanent residency in their home countries and even receive benefits like free education and healthcare. But the citizenships would also absolve the rulers of the countries they call home of responsibility for them — and make deportation much easier.

The little-known plan would see responsibility for thousands of bedoun from the Gulf States transferred to the small island nation of Comoros has been known of in the region for some time. It has been publicly promoted by both the governments of Kuwait and the UAE, and is being mulled as a possible solution to the problem of the "new bedoun" whose citizenships have recently been revoked.

Moroni, the capital of the Comoros. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The plan can be traced back to a 2006 real estate deal backed by, among others, a senior member of the Kuwaiti royal family and led by a French-Syrian media entrepreneur with deep ties to the ruling families of both Kuwait and the UAE. This man, Bashar Kiwan, has been repeatedly described by sources in the region as the intellectual architect of the plan, which saw promises of an investment of more than $100 million in Comoros used as collateral in negotiations to introduce a new law that allowed the island nation's then-president to sell tens of thousands of economic citizenships directly to the Gulf States.


An economic citizenship is basically a paid-for passport that allows the buyer to travel as a national of the country that issued the document, and to live and work there. But in most cases, it limits the degree to which the host government is responsible for the passport holder. In most countries, the idea is that a wealthy individual invests an agreed amount of money in the host country in exchange for a limited version of citizenship.

Economic citizenships are popular among wealthy businessmen who have passports that can make international travel difficult — like those from China or Nigeria — and among people who have had political trouble at home. Sometimes people buy them so they can travel to places they would rather their governments not know they are visiting, or where they want to hide money from being taxed. In general they are sold in one-off transactions between an individual and the host government, which does its due diligence on the person applying for citizenship.

But in the case of the Comoran deal with the UAE and Kuwait, the citizenships appear to have been sold en masse so they could be freely distributed among the bedoun with very few checks or balances in place.

In a 2009 diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks, US diplomatic officials in Comoros asked their colleagues in the Gulf for information on Kiwan, the general manager of the Kuwait-registered firm Comoros Gulf Holdings (CGH).


"[C]GH actively and openly lobbied for a controversial 'economic citizenship law' that appeared to be rejected, then was passed at the National Assembly," the American diplomats wrote.

The legislation was sold by its advocates as an opportunity to encourage investment in the tiny island state, which remains dependent on grants from abroad — many of them provided by the Gulf states — for almost a third of state revenues. In 2008, Saïd Attoumani, the Comoroan minister responsible for promoting inward investment, touted the legislation — it was initially limited to 4,000 economic citizenships for residents of the UAE but was later expanded to include an undisclosed number of citizenships for residents of Kuwait — as having the potential to net up to $100 million from wealthy Gulf investors for the island. The new law was passed in November of 2008 after a number of "fact-finding" missions by Comoran politicians to Kuwait and the UAE.

No mention was made at the time of the bedoun, but few in the Comoros were under any illusion as to how the economic citizenship law was to be used. In another cable, this time in 2009, American diplomats reported that opposition politicians already claimed that the law was mainly being used to allow the government of Comoros "to sell passports to stateless persons in Kuwait and the Emirates."

The $100 million cited by Attoumani came from a business plan being shopped around by Kiwan, along with investors including Sheikh Sabah Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah, a nephew of the Kuwaiti emir. As documents obtained by VICE News show, rather than wealthy Gulf investors, the scheme was aimed at convincing bedoun families to invest in the development in the hope of obtaining passports.


In 2009, the Massachusetts-incorporated firm SCAC Inc. commissioned the financial advisory firm KPMG, which describes itself as "the largest professional finance service company in the world," to assess the feasibility of a real estate development in the Comoros. KPMG, according to the report obtained by VICE News through a Gulf businessman [pdf at the end of this article], based its assessment on an existing plan first formulated in 2006. The business case that the partners presented to KPMG was based on the assumption that investment in the scheme would be driven by Gulf bedoun in need of economic citizenships, who would purchase more than half of the properties on offer.

The bigger the investment, the more citizenships would be approved. Two slides from the KPMG report break the deals down: Properties bought for €30,000 — they "focus on minimal quality and price / cost," the report says of the 80 square meter homes — would yield citizenships for families of up to four members. An outlay of €200,000 would return a 1,000 square meter home with a garden, beach views, and seven passports. Big spenders would "even [be] eligible for a diplomatic passport and official honorary titles (e.g., honorary consul, presidential advisor, etc.)." The development was tied to a commitment by the Comoroan government to provide up to 50,000 economic citizenships for life to investors.

'Citizenship a way to discriminate, privilege, punish — it's a tool. It's important to understand that it's being used in the most evil of ways.'


The report pulls no punches in explaining why the proposition might be attractive to the stateless people of the Gulf, or even to full citizens. "Many Bidoon [sic] have lived in countries their entire lives, but are not entitled to full citizenship rights of their country," it reads. In a later section entitled "Acquiring Economic Citizenship," the KPMG analysts point to "an insurance policy in times of political strife (e.g., ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Palestinians, Kurds, Bidoon, Gulf Arabs)."

When VICE News asked four members of Kuwait's bedoun community whether thousands of bedoun families would be able and willing to pay €30,000 (about $32,000) for a home in the Comoros, the question was met with derision. The €200,000 figure produced outright laughter. The bedoun face high levels of unemployment, often live hand-to-mouth, and perhaps most importantly "do not see themselves as future Africans."

The legislation to grant the citizenships, at the discretion of then-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, was passed in 2008, but the real estate development stagnated. Instead, the UAE and Kuwait each appear to have paid the Comoran government undisclosed sums of money for large numbers of passports.

Earlier this year, the Indian Ocean Newsletter, a subsidiary of the political analysis firm Africa Intelligence, reported that Sambi's successor, Ikililou Dhoinine, was investigating the misappropriation of €24 million from an account opened by the Comoran government at the Central Bank of the UAE in Abu Dhabi for payments made by the UAE government for Comoran passports. In November of 2014, meanwhile, leading Kuwaiti interior ministry official Mazen al-Jarrah told the local Al-Jarrah newspaper that his country's bedoun would be granted Comoran economic citizenship free of charge once a Comoran embassy had opened in the emirate.


Although the Gulf states have certain legal responsibilities to their bedoun populations as long as they live within their borders, the UN official says, there is nothing illegal in offering people economic citizenship or refusing to naturalize stateless people. But under such agreements, countries like the Comoros rarely have many legal responsibilities toward their new "citizens."

"Any good lawyer would say the Comoros has no need to provide compensation or protection to their citizenship," he said.

According to bedoun in Kuwait, the government has been pushing Comoran and other economic citizenships (including ones from Belize and Bangladesh) on the country's stateless people for a number of years, often refusing to issue paperwork until bedoun applicants applied for some form of citizenship abroad.

"Everywhere you go to get a document, they push it," said Mona Kareem, a Kuwait bedoun rights activist and student at New York University. She is in the process of applying for refugee status in the US after the Kuwaiti government refused to issue her a fresh batch of travel documents. "They say that if you don't do this, we can't help you."

According to Kareem, this is part of a wider systemic attempt to disenfranchise the bedoun, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by other Kuwaiti bedoun interviewed by VICE News. For instance, official paperwork is allegedly altered so it shows that a bedoun applicant was born in, or has historical ties to, either neighboring Saudi Arabia or Iraq.


"The agencies have not only been trying to harass us, but to create a process of discrimination," she says. "[They want to make it look like] people came from somewhere else and hid their records."

Fears over the Kuwaiti and Emirati government's agenda in procuring economic citizenships have been accompanied by the deportation of Ahmed Abdulkhaleq, an Emirati bedoun activist, and the pending case of another bedoun rights activist in Kuwait, Hakeem al-Fadhli.

On May 17, 2012, Abdulkhaleq, a prominent advocate for bedoun rights who blogged under the name Emeraty Bedoun, was issued a Comoran passport after coming under pressure from the Emirati authorities to take on foreign economic citizenship. Five days later, he was arrested. Abdulkhaleq was not heard from again until he was deported to Thailand two months later. He had been held without charge, he said at the time, and was told to choose between indefinite detention or deportation. He chose the latter.

VICE News reached out to Abulkhaleq, who now lives in Canada, on a number of occasions, but he did not respond.

In March, VICE News met with al-Fadhli in Kuwait. At the time, he was living as a fugitive, on the run after more than a decade of run-ins with the law.

"I have been tortured two times, been taken to court 138 times," he said of the Kuwaiti government's attempts to pressure him to quit publicly agitating for better treatment for bedoun. Where in the past he had taken the punishments meted out to him as they came, his calculus had recently changed.


Kuwait City. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In late January, al-Fadhli was sentenced to a year in jail for his part in staging protests calling for improved bedoun rights and expanded political participation for ordinary Kuwaitis. Under the terms of his sentence, he was set to be deported after he did his time. When he met VICE News, he had chosen to skip bail and live on the run, changing locations every night and juggling mobile phones, doing his best to evade the law as one of the best-known faces of dissent in a country slightly smaller than the US state of New Jersey. He firmly believed that he would be deported if he allowed himself to be jailed, pointing to Abdulkhaleq's case.

"They want to get rid of me and this is one way of doing that," he said.

The Comoran economic citizenships are now being used to get rid of the so-called new bedoun, those recently stripped of their citizenships. Six of the so-called "UAE 7," a group of pro-democracy campaigners — the majority of them Sunni Islamists with affiliations to the Muslim Brotherhood — were stripped of their citizenship in 2012. They were jailed and had their citizenships revoked after refusing to sign documents agreeing to apply for foreign citizenship, believed to be Comoran, before they were formally rendered stateless, people with knowledge of their cases told VICE News. (Amnesty International has independently reported the same claim.) Several Kuwaitis who have had their citizenships stripped are also said to be under pressure to take on Comoran economic citizenship to "make their situation easier," a person working on the legal aspects of their cases says.


Rather than a birthright, in the Gulf citizenship is "a way to discriminate, privilege, punish — it's a tool," Kareem said. "It's important that we understand that citizenship is being used in the most evil of ways."

* * *

The starkness of choice for potential dissidents who still enjoy the benefits of citizenship was laid bare when al-Fadhli picked me up from my hotel in central Kuwait City one rainy day this past March. He drove me to the outskirts of the city and pulled up to a patch of dirt surrounded by ad hoc structures made of whitewashed adobe and corrugated iron. This was Al Taimam, the main bedoun settlement in Kuwait City. He motioned to a bridge that crossed a busy intersection. We climbed it, gingerly sidestepping broken glass. He motioned to a series of well-groomed villas on the other side of the road.

"Look here," he said. "What do you see? Nice houses. A free wedding hall, Houses worth KD500,000 [$1.66 million]. That's a lot even by Western standards. Free education. A sports center. A nice walkway. It's clean. It's green. It defines life. You can start a life there. You can build up good health. You can live in a proper place."

This, he said, was how an ordinary Kuwaiti could reasonably expect to live. The choice, al-Fadhli said, motioning to the two sides of the bridge, was like choosing between heaven and hell; full citizenship in a rich nation and the benefits that accompany it, or administrative limbo.

Yet even facing this choice, many Kuwaitis have decided to continued to agitate for change, underscoring the difficulty of governing through coercion alone. In the UAE, the crackdown on dissent has worked by and large; public political activity, even on social media sites now carefully monitored by the security services, has all but disappeared. But in Bahrain and Kuwait, the same approach has failed. People now criticize the Kuwaiti emir, Sabah al-Sabah, and his family openly, something few would have dared in the past.

"There is an outburst of sentiment that has been seen across the region, and whether or not it is democracy or social justice it will eventually morph into liberation movements," said Christopher Davidson of the UK's Durham University, who has written several books on the Arab Gulf states including After the Sheikhs: The Coming Fall of the Gulf Monarchies.

In the long term, the Gulf states will not be able to afford to run the kind of expansive welfare states that provide a carrot motivating citizens not to engage in dissent. And the state now face a choice of doubling down on a strategy of repression and disenfranchisement, or reforming in the hope that a more open political system will appease their populations.

"These six Gulf monarchies, although they have very similar patterns, are very different," Davidson said. "We could see the end of this system of government doesn't necessarily mean popular revolutions. It could mean a shift in system of governance."

As I toured Al Taimam with al-Fadhli, we came to halt in front of a nondescript home made of cinder blocks. Iron bars cover the windows. It was here, al-Fadhli said, that a young bedoun man named Mohammed al-Emwazi stayed when he was last in Kuwait. Al-Emwazi left Kuwait with his family in the 1990s, settling in the UK as a refugee and eventually attaining British citizenship.

He is now better known as Jihadi John, the man who slit the throats of Western hostages in several propaganda videos for the Islamic State (IS).

"He leaves Kuwait, he goes to a land of freedom, he goes to a good school, a good university, and he goes on to be Jihadi John," al-Fadhli said of al-Emwazi. "Now imagine what someone who didn't have all of this opportunities might do."

Al-Emwazi was killed last week in a drone strike coordinated by the US and UK, both governments said.

For Kuwait's disaffected youth — bedoun and full citizens alike — groups like al Qaeda and IS have increasing appeal, al-Fadhli said, and Al Taimam is being targeted by recruiters for jihadist groups abroad that promise riches, glory, and a place to belong. In September, a Kuwaiti court sentenced seven men to death for their part in the bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait City by the local wing of IS. Among their number was Abdulrahman Sabah Saud, a Kuwaiti bedoun who had confessed to driving the bomber to the mosque. Several Kuwaiti bedoun interviewed for this story told VICE News that recruiters for both al Qaeda and IS have come to view Al Taimam as a rich recruiting ground.

"The one concern has to be that people who are stateless and disenfranchised are ideal targets for extremist groups," the UN official said.

Earlier in the day I had asked al-Fadhli whether he would consider seeking asylum elsewhere in the world. "Every time I go on trial people ask, 'Why don't you go abroad and claim asylum?'" he said. "But what can I do? Be a refugee? I would rather be in jail for 10 years. I won't leave my country."

I asked why, although I already had an idea what his answer would be.

"Kuwait, for me, is belonging," he said.

Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco