A road sign is seen near Abu Samra border crossing to Saudi Arabia, Qatar June 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Tom Finn/Reuters

(Beirut) – The isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is precipitating serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. It is infringing on the right to free expression, separating families, interrupting medical care – in one case forcing a child to miss a scheduled brain surgery, interrupting education, and stranding migrant workers without food or water. Travel to and from Qatar is restricted, and the land border with Saudi Arabia is closed.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and ordered the expulsion of Qatari citizens and the return of their citizens from Qatar within 14 days. The three countries applied the travel restrictions suddenly, collectively, and without taking individual situations into account. On June 23, the three countries and Egypt issued a list of 13 demands to Qatar for ending the crisis that included shutting down Al Jazeera and other media they claim are funded by Qatar; downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran; severing ties with “terrorist organizations,” including the Muslim Brotherhood; and paying reparations to other Gulf countries for “loss of life” and “other financial losses” resulting from Qatar’s policies.

“Gulf autocrats’ political disputes are violating the rights of peaceful Gulf residents who were living their lives and caring for their families,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds of Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis have been forced into the impossible situation of either disregarding their countries’ orders or leaving behind their families and jobs.”

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed and documented the cases of 50 citizens of Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, as well as 70 foreign migrant workers living in Qatar, many of whose rights have been violated by restrictive policies imposed since June 5. More than 11,327 Gulf nationals were living in Qatar and nearly 1,927 Qataris in other Gulf countries, Qatar’s national human rights body reported on July 1.

Gulf nationals told Human Rights Watch that parents had been forcibly separated from their young children and husbands from their wives, and that family members were prevented from visiting sick or elderly parents. Qatari media reported that family members of a Saudi man who died in Qatar on June 8 could not enter to retrieve his body, and authorities eventually buried him in Qatar. Article 26 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have ratified, prohibits arbitrary expulsion of foreigners and any collective expulsion.

One Qatari man said he is cut off from his pregnant Saudi wife, who was visiting family members in Saudi Arabia when the restrictions were imposed. A Qatari woman said that she left her ailing 70-year-old Bahraini husband in Bahrain because her embassy advised her to return to Qatar. A Bahraini woman virtually went into hiding to keep her government from discovering she had remained with her Qatari husband and 2-month-old daughter, who is a Qatari citizen.

Some Gulf states have threatened citizens who remain in Qatar with specific punishments. Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports placed Qatar on its list of countries to which Saudi citizens are not allowed to travel under penalty of a three-year travel ban and a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (US$2,600). On June 13, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued an order stating that “anyone who violates the ban … shall have his personal passport withdrawn and his request to renew it shall be denied.”

On June 12, in response to reports of family separations, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE announced that they would grant exceptions for “humanitarian cases of mixed families” for travel back and forth from Qatar and each country established hotlines. Yet, of the 12 Gulf nationals who said they tried to contact these hotlines, only two managed to get permission to go back and forth. Others said that they did not call because they worried that the three countries would use the hotlines to discover the identities of citizens who remained in Qatar.

Other Gulf nationals said that the travel restrictions had interrupted ongoing medical treatment or studies. Two Qatari parents said that their children missed scheduled surgeries in Saudi hospitals, including one girl whose mother said if she does not receive specialist treatment she could end up paralyzed, and a 67-year-old Saudi man who had to end ongoing heart and kidney treatment in Qatar. The exceptions Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain announced made no reference to medical treatment.

A Qatari woman who had been in her third year at a UAE university showed Human Rights Watch a screenshot of an email from a university administrator on June 7, informing her that the university had withdrawn her from her summer and fall courses, wishing her “success in your educational journey.” Another Qatari woman in the final year of her medical degree in the UAE also was abruptly withdrawn from her studies. All Qatari students interviewed said that the travel restrictions forced them to return to Qatar.

Four Qataris said that migrant workers they sponsor are stranded in Saudi Arabia without adequate food or water. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 70 migrant workers at various locations in Doha, nearly all of whom complained about the rise in food prices in Qatar because of increasing import costs due to the land border closure. The border closure also exacerbates existing abuses that workers said they faced, including non-payment of salaries.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have sought to use their political measures against Qatar to shutter critical media outlets in their countries, especially Al Jazeera, which Gulf leaders have accused of fomenting terrorism and unrest across the region. Bahrain and the UAE have threatened to punish their own citizens for “expressing sympathy” for Qatar online.

"Gulf countries need to take a step back and see the harm they are doing to their own citizens,” Whitson said. "Gulf countries should put people’s well-being before their harmful power games.”

Family Separation

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE ordered the expulsion of all Qatari citizens from their countries and mandated the return of their citizens from Qatar within 14 days – by June 19. The three countries ended all commercial direct flights to and from Doha, forcing returning Gulf nationals to lay over in a third country, usually Oman or Kuwait, and redirected flights to Qatar outside of their airspace. Some Gulf states have threatened citizens who remain in Qatar with specific punishments.

A July 1 report by the state-funded Qatari National Human Rights Committee says that approximately 8,254 Saudis, 2,349 Bahrainis, and 784 Emiratis lived in Qatar prior to the crisis and that 1,927 Qataris lived in the three neighboring countries. The report said that the committee had received 480 family separation cases since June 5.

No Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country allows dual nationality, and all discriminate against women by not allowing women to pass nationality to their children on the same basis as men. Qatar, like other Gulf states, allows men to pass citizenship to their children, whereas children of Qatari women and non-citizen fathers can only apply for citizenship under strict conditions. The 2005 acquisition of Qatari nationality law provides that individuals resident for more than 25 years can apply for nationality, with priority for those with Qatari mothers, under specific conditions.

“Sami,” a 36-year-old Bahraini man born in Qatar to a Qatari mother and Bahraini father, said, “I was born here, studied here, and work here.” He applied for Qatari nationality six years ago, but had not been notified of a decision: “There is a committee. I did a medical test, CID [a check with Criminal Investigation Department], and paid 3000 riyals (US$823). They said all fine, but said that I have to wait for government approval. But they didn’t call me.”

Of the 50 Gulf nationals Human Rights Watch interviewed, 22 reported that the travel restrictions cut them off from immediate family members. Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 people who said they were married to someone holding another one of these nationalities or were divorced but had children with them.

“Maher,” a 37-year old Qatari, said the travel restrictions cut him off from his Saudi wife, who had been visiting her mother in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. He said his wife, who is from his own extended family, is not allowed to fly because she is in her last trimester of pregnancy, and that Saudi authorities will not allow her to cross the land border into Qatar: “On Thursday [June 15], I went to the border at noon and spoke to them, and they said I have to speak with the Interior Ministry. I talked to them on the number they gave me and they said they would call me back. I waited there 2 hours, from 12 to 2 p.m. ... I went back [home] eventually because my car had no petrol [left].”

Maher said the situation is complicated by the fact that he never registered his marriage in either country: “I just want my wife and to be with the baby. We didn’t finish our marriage papers, so there is no confirmation of marriage for us. Now I can’t complete the papers. I am afraid they will take my child away and make his nationality Saudi.” He said he also fears potential criminal sanction against his wife because of her pregnancy. Sexual relations outside of marriage are criminalized in Gulf states, and flogging penalties can be imposed on Muslims.

“Leila,” a 26-year old Bahraini woman, said that she frequently traveled back and forth between Qatar and Bahrain with her Qatari husband. She said she delivered a baby girl in Qatar several weeks before the travel restrictions were imposed, and was forced to decide between complying with the order to return to Bahrain or remain with her daughter and husband. She said she was deeply worried over Bahrain’s order to cancel passports of citizens who remain in Qatar, and hoped she could keep Bahraini authorities from learning that she is in Qatar. She said she would not travel until the crisis is resolved: “I’m scared to travel anywhere. What if they get information about me and are able to cancel my passport? I don’t want any information in the system anywhere.” She said she had tried to call the Bahraini hotline but was told she had to return to Bahrain and asked for her passport number.

A sign indicating a route to Qatar embassy is seen in Manama, Bahrain, June 5, 2017. 

© 2017 Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

Human Rights Watch interviewed two Qataris who were forced to return but were staying in hotels in Doha because they did not have homes in Qatar. “Reem” said that she had lived in Bahrain with her Bahraini husband and children for 36 years. She called the Qatari embassy in Manama, which she says informed her that she had to return to Qatar. She said that she left behind her 70-year-old Bahraini husband and two sons: “There is nobody in Bahrain to take care of [my husband]. He is 70, he can barely take care of himself, and my other sons have their own families. They were very upset I was leaving.”

She said that she brought to Qatar her 25-year old son, a Bahraini national, who suffers from an intellectual disability and epilepsy and requires regular medical treatment. She said she worries what will happen if Bahraini authorities discover that he is in Qatar. In Qatar, she has limited foreign currency in cash that she had difficulty exchanging, and is now dependent on the Qatari authorities and charities to provide her with accommodation and financial assistance.

Another Qatari man, “Ahmed,” who is married to an Emirati woman and lives in the UAE, said that the UAE had denied his entry around the time it imposed the travel restrictions and forced him back to Qatar, where he was staying in a hotel. “Does anyone want this?” he said. “Does this comply with international laws and customs? In Holy Ramadan [the Muslim holy month], there is a complete lack of mercy and families are broken apart, children from their father and a husband from his wife.”

“Nora,” a 36-year old Saudi woman living in Qatar said she has a 3-year-old Qatari son from a previous marriage to a Qatari. She said that she has legal custody over her son and is entitled to monthly financial and child support, but that her former husband was encouraging her to return to Saudi Arabia so that he could regain custody and stop his support payments.

Of the 50 Gulf nationals interviewed, only 12 said that they had attempted to contact the family separation hotlines. The rest said that they did not think they would receive permission to travel back and forth, or that they were worried that the hotlines were intended to collect information on which citizens had failed to return to or from Qatar.

Only 2 of the 12 people who had contacted the hotlines, one Saudi and one Bahraini, said they had obtained permission to live in Qatar and travel back and forth.

Forced separation of families often violates the right of all individuals to have their established family life respected. The right to family life is enshrined in article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and article 23 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits states from separating children from their parents against their will, except when necessary for their own best interests (article 9), and from discriminating against children on the basis of their parents’ status (article 2). Article 26 of the Arab Charter states that “[n]o State party may expel a person who does not hold its nationality but is lawfully in its territory, other than in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with law and after that person has been allowed to submit a petition to the competent authority” and that “collective expulsion is prohibited under all circumstances.”

Interrupted Medical Treatment

Five Gulf nationals said that the travel restrictions disrupted medical treatment for themselves or family members.

“Amani,” a Qatari woman, said that her 15-year-old daughter was born with a spinal problem and had undergone a series of operations at two hospitals in Riyadh since she was an infant. She said that in February, her daughter had brain surgery, and that she was scheduled for another surgery in Riyadh on June 17, which she missed because of the travel restrictions. She said such specialist treatment is not available in Qatar: “[There is] no chance to travel and the headaches are becoming more severe. … It could become paralysis. She needs an immediate solution. … We don’t have money to go elsewhere for such treatment.”

“Mahmoud,” a 67-year old Saudi man, said that he has lived and worked in Qatar for more than 10 years. He said he missed the 14-day deadline as he had medical appointments every day. He said he would return to Saudi Arabia and forgo follow-up medical treatment because he feared fines or prison: “I have medical conditions – one in my heart, and one in my kidney. My current medical treatment is in Qatar. … I have two appointments [in Qatar] that I will miss. … I feel confused, I want to see my family, but I want to work here. I am scared of actions that may be taken against me.” Shortly after meeting with Human Rights Watch, he was able to enter Saudi Arabia.

“Walid,” 56, a Qatari, said that his son had been scheduled for required facial surgery at a hospital in Riyadh on June 9. He said the treatment plan following the operation is not available in Qatar. He said he would speak with the Qatari Health Ministry to see if they would provide financial support to seek the surgery and necessary treatment outside the Gulf.

Interrupted Education

Eleven Qataris who had been attending university programs or specialized training courses in the UAE when the restrictions were imposed all said that their universities summarily withdrew them from their courses and told them to return to Qatar. They expressed concerns that universities in Qatar or other countries might not allow them to transfer and accept academic credits for completed courses, or that certain courses are not available in Qatar.

“Hassan,” 34, said that he was among 13 Qataris attending aviation school in the UAE. He said that his group had only completed two of the five courses necessary to graduate: “We cannot sit for the exam and we will not graduate this year. It is the only aviation school in the region with this program, otherwise we have to go to the UK or US, but I don’t know if the credits would transfer.”

Another Qatari man, “Samer,” one of around 25 to 30 students attending a part-time university degree course in the UAE, described the problems resulting from his expulsion: “We have rented apartments, furniture, and clothes that are still there and have to pay internet and telephone bills. The owner [of the apartment] has our checks – we have to provide four checks in advance which they will take from the account. The rental contract is one year. If there is no balance left in the account, then the owner can make a police case file. Anytime you go back you can be arrested…”

“Rana,” a 22-year old Qatari, said that her withdrawal from a prominent university in the UAE had set back her plan to eventually pursue higher education in France: “All I can say is that this siege has robbed me of the right to pursue the quality of education that I aimed to achieve. This siege has harmed our dreams and our futures.”

Identity Documentation Issues

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt have withdrawn their embassies and staff from Qatar, making passport renewal difficult for nationals of those countries who do not have permission to remain in Qatar. They also face significant obstacles obtaining documents for newborn children.

Residency visas in Qatar are linked to valid passports, and some foreign nationals expressed concern about what will happen to their residency visas once their passports expire.

“Hussein,” a 38-year old Saudi, said that he has lived in Doha for 25 years, and that his wife gave birth to a son the day the travel restrictions were imposed. His son has a Qatari birth certificate, but Hussein said he cannot add the baby to his Saudi family book, a form of ID that is commonly used as children’s main form of identification in the Middle East, or obtain a passport for him, because the process in Saudi Arabia requires him to come in person. He said, “the system in Saudi Arabia is that a newborn in the first week must obtain a Saudi ID, but Saudi Arabia requires me to go back to complete [the procedure]. But I feel in danger going back. How can I leave Saudi Arabia if I go there?”

Another Saudi man, “Assem,” said that his 12-year old sister’s Saudi passport expired, and he worried that he may not be able to enroll her in school in Qatar, as Qatar requires that foreign students have valid passports.

All Bahraini interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they feared the consequences of Bahrain’s announcement that it would revoke the passports of Bahraini citizens who remain in Qatar. One divorced Qatari woman whose adult children have their father’s Bahraini nationality, but are estranged from him, said that she cannot travel abroad with her children as she feared that their passports may be invalidated.

Human Rights Watch spoke to seven Egyptian employees of Al Jazeera who said that they cannot renew their Egyptian passports and therefore are worried about losing their Qatari residency permits. Many of them moved to Qatar after they were threatened, intimidated, beaten, or arrested by authorities in Egypt. One journalist said he applied for his Egyptian passport in January, but that Egyptian embassy officials told him in April that he would not receive the passport. It will expire in one month.

Effects on Non-Gulf Migrant Workers

The isolation of Qatar has negatively affected non-Gulf foreign migrant workers, primarily from South Asia. Four Qataris interviewed said that migrant workers they sponsor are stranded in Saudi Arabia.

One Qatari, “Omar,” said that he employed two Bangladeshi workers at a 14,000-square meter farm he owns just over the border in Saudi Arabia. He said the workers are registered in Qatar, but that Saudi Arabia previously allowed Qataris to bring workers in for three-month periods for a fee. He said he can no longer reach his farm and worries about the two workers: “I can send their salaries to Bangladesh, but how can I feed them? ... The supermarket [in Saudi Arabia] refused to give them anything [because they have no money], and we are scared the police will take them. There is no way to pay their salaries to them.” He added, “They are humans, they are calling me every day saying they have nothing to drink or eat, and they are scared.”

Omar called one of the Bangladeshi men on his phone in front of a Human Rights Watch researcher, and the man confirmed their plight.

“Salim,” a 50-year old Qatari, said that he owns two houses and 150 camels in Saudi Arabia. He said he has group of Qatar-registered migrant workers from India, Sudan, and Nepal caring for his camels and property who are now stranded in Saudi Arabia.

“Anwar,” another Qatari, said that he and his brothers own 50 camels and three cars in Saudi Arabia, which are looked after by three migrant workers – two from Bangladesh and one from Sudan – who are stranded. He said he lost contact with them a week into the crisis because they ran out of phone credit. He said he cannot get their salary to them and is concerned that they are running out of food. “A week before [the] crisis I gave food for one month. But now they don’t have petrol for the [generator-run] refrigerator and the air conditioner.” He does not have friends nearby to help.

The problems for these workers are compounded by the fact that in March, Saudi Arabia declared a large-scale campaign, “A Homeland with no Violator,” to locate and expel foreigners violating residency laws.

In addition to the migrants trapped in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch interviewed 70 migrant workers – most from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – at various locations in Doha, including the Corniche, al-Attiyah Market, and Musheirib. Some reported long-standing abuses such as non-payment or late payment of salaries or unsanitary living conditions, but nearly all complained that the closure of the land border had caused a rise in food prices in Qatar that was causing serious economic hardship.

A 43-year-old Nepalese man working in a plumbing shop in Qatar said that from his monthly salary of 1,200 Qatari Riyals (US$327), he normally spends around 200 Riyals ($55) on food, but that the increase in food prices would cost him an extra 100 to 300 Riyals ($27 to $82) per month, up to a third of his salary. Another 21-year-old Nepalese construction worker said he earns 800 Riyals ($220) a month but that his food expenses would increase to 350 Riyals ($96), nearly half of his salary.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited four supermarkets in Doha on June 22-23, including two smaller markets frequented by migrants, and two high-end supermarkets. Nearly all migrants said that, before the land border closure, tomatoes cost between 3-4 Qatari Riyals ($0.82-$1.10) a kilo. For the lower end supermarkets in migrant worker areas, researchers observed that poor quality tomatoes were now selling for 6.5 Riyals ($1.79) per kilo in one market and better-quality tomatoes for 8 Riyals ($2.20) in another market. In the high-end markets, one had no tomatoes in stock, while another sold only expensive imported tomatoes from Holland, for 24.75 Riyals ($6.80) per kilo. One of the low-end markets was selling cucumbers for 8 Riyals ($2.20) per kilo, up from 3 Riyals ($0.82) prior to the crisis.

A corporate social responsibility officer at a large company in Qatar said by phone that she heard from two other companies with migrant worker employees that fruit companies were not selling their produce “in supermarkets for workers” but did not know why. She said that her company was focused on nutrition for its migrant workers and looking at alternatives for perishable fruits and vegetables such as fruit juice, and frozen fruits and vegetables.

Two construction workers also said that their work sites had run out of building materials because of the land border closure, and that they worried about their companies’ stability.