For years after he left his native Kuwait, Mohamed Alenezi had nightmares about checkpoints and would wake up terrified the police were chasing him.
A religious man, Alenezi had not broken any law. His crime was of being an illegal immigrant in the land of his forebears, but without ties to any other country — stateless.
Being stateless is like being “between the earth and the sky,” said Alenezi, 42, now a British citizen.
“You are here and not here,” he said in London, where he lives with his wife and seven children. He works as an Arabic teacher. “You are here as a human being, but you don’t have an identity. Without an identity, without a nationality you cannot do anything. No one will respect you or deal with you.”
Alenezi’s family is Bedouin, from the Arabic bedouin jinsiyya meaning “without nationality.” Like many Bedouins, they are descendants of nomadic tribes that had for centuries roamed freely with their animals across what is now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Many Bedouins fell through the cracks when Kuwait became independent in 1961. Some did not apply for citizenship because they did not know how important it would become. Others were illiterate or could not produce documents.
“After independence my tribe stayed in the desert in Kuwait. The government offered them nationality but they did not understand the meaning of nationality because they knew each other by tribes and families,” he told AlertNet, a humanitarian news site. “They weren’t used to carrying papers and documents or ID cards. All they carried was their clothes.”
No one knows how many Kuwaiti Bedouins there are but estimates range from 93,000 to 180,000 inside the country and possibly 100,000 outside.
Until the mid-1980s the Bedouins were treated as citizens, Alenezi said. But by the time he left school in 1986, the government had started stripping them of basic rights. He was not allowed to go to university to study medicine, and he was turned down for jobs in the military, police and media.
“They told me they couldn’t take me because I was a Bedouin,” he said. “I was accepted by universities in Jordan and the UAE, but Kuwait wouldn’t give me a passport.”
Rights groups say the fact the Bedouins were included in the 1965 census indicates Kuwait considered them citizens at that time.
“In the beginning when we were Bedouin they used to call us ‘Kuwaiti,’” Alenezi said.
“Then they changed it to ‘Kuwaiti from the Desert,’ then ‘Bedouin.’ After the Gulf War they changed it to ‘Unspecific Nationality’ and since 1996 they have called us ‘Illegal Residents.’”
The Kuwait government says the Bedouin are nationals of other countries. But rights groups say the vast majority is not considered national by any other state.
Many Bedouins have served in Kuwait’s armed forces. When Iraq invaded in 1990, Alenezi’s brother, who was in the Navy, was captured as a prisoner of war.
But there was no hero’s welcome when he returned home after Kuwait’s liberation in 1991. Like other Bedouins he was sacked from the military.
Many people, Bedouins and Kuwaitis alike, fled the country during Iraq’s occupation, but the Bedouins were barred from returning after the war. Alenezi’s parents were among those who ended up stranded behind the Iraqi border.
Alenezi left Kuwait to join his parents and later moved to Jordan. With no passport of his own he resorted to buying a false Yemeni passport to travel to Europe.