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DUBAI/KUWAIT (Reuters) - When Ahmed Abdul Khaleq started campaigning for the rights of his fellow stateless people in the United Arab Emirates, he was well aware he was risking something most activists were not - his home.
He was right. After two months in jail for what he said was his human rights activism and campaigning for the stateless, he was given a choice: life in jail or deportation.
"It was a really difficult decision. I left my country, family, my mother, father and sisters in the UAE and left on my own to a strange country with different language and traditions where I knew no one," said Abdul Khaleq, 35.
"It was the first time for me to be at the airport and take a flight. I used to only see the planes flying above my head," he told Reuters, speaking by phone from a country he asked not be named.
Abdul Khaleq was able to be deported because he is a "bidoon" - an Arabic word meaning "without" - with limited access to jobs, medical care and education despite having been born in the UAE and living there all his life, after his father was unable to secure citizenship.
He was one of five activists who were jailed for criticizing the UAE rulers last year but later pardoned. He was not charged with any offence when he was jailed again in May before he was deported, he said. UAE officials say he was expelled for security reasons.
Abdul Khaleq's expulsion is a rare measure taken against stateless residents in the UAE. But his story is indicative of the plight of all bidoon, tens of thousands without citizenship under strict nationality laws in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states, where citizens enjoy generous welfare benefits.
In the rising calls for reform in the Gulf region, the rights of the stateless have gained new attention.
"Our movement is surely a result of the Arab Spring," said Mona Kareem, a U.S.-based stateless rights activist who grew up in Kuwait.
"Before 1986, the bidoon did not feel discriminated against as they were denied political rights and housing but not documents, education, and jobs. After that, rights got deprived gradually,"
Stateless activists in the region do not call for bringing down governments. But many have been energized by the change around the region to seek more rights.
"We demand our right to live, our right to have a nationality. We don't want land or money, only the right to be citizens," said Abdul Khaleq, who runs the "Emaraty Bedoon" blog and is active on Twitter.
"There are people who have lived in the UAE for 40 and 50 years and whose fathers and grandfathers were born in the country, but they are still bidoons," he said.
Many of the Gulf stateless trace their origins to nomadic tribes that used to move freely around the Gulf region, or to later non-Arab immigrants whose ancestors failed to register for nationality after the discovery of oil when the modern Gulf states were established in the 20th century.
Thousands fell through the net as the region's states were formed, sometimes by Western powers in some cases as late as the 1960s or 1970s, and ended up with no legal ties to any state, or were omitted for religious, ethnic or tribal reasons.
Many bidoon do not have even a birth certificate and with no official identity documents they are often unable to travel or access public services. Their children are also born stateless and often have no access to state education or health care.
"Statelessness throughout the Gulf is caused by a number of factors including discrimination and a lack of willingness to share financial resources," said Maureen Lynch, from research group The International Observatory on Statelessness.
The United Nations estimates that Saudi Arabia has some 70,000 stateless and Kuwait has 93,000. It has no figure for the UAE but activists estimate their numbers at between 10,000 and 50,000. UAE officials say the number is less than 5,000.
Gulf authorities say many stateless are "illegal residents" and include immigrants who hid or destroyed their passports to claim nationality and take advantage of the financial benefits granted to citizens.
In 2008, the UAE set up a body to register people without identity papers to assess their status. One requirement was for those hiding their passports to show them, a first step to evaluate cases to see who was eligible for citizenship. UAE authorities say the country applies its laws fairly to all.
"The UAE government will always uphold and apply these laws and regulations," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "Many bidoon have come forward and revealed their country of origin. As a result, the UAE government has waived all penalties for having resided in the UAE illegally."
Hundreds have been naturalized since 2009, local media reported.
In Kuwait, the Central Agency for Remedying the Status of Illegal Residents is tasked with assessing whether applicants should get citizenship.
"There are conditions to deserving Kuwaiti nationality, the main one being that the person was registered in 1965. Other conditions include having a clean criminal record," said Saleh al-Saeedi, head of the information department in the agency.
Activists scoff at what they see as excuses.
"Although the bidoon fought in the Kuwaiti resistance (during the Iraqi invasion) and died in wars, the state and many citizens discriminated against them saying they are traitors of Iraqi roots," said Kareem, who is in her mid-20s.
"It became an issue of racism when it was before that an issue of bureaucracy and prejudice of urban against tribal."
Because they lack basic documents, many bidoons in the Gulf are unable to own a house or a car and are limited to work only in the private sector with low pay while their children cannot attend public schools. Many live in poverty.
"Hospitals sometimes accept our papers and sometimes they don't," said a bidoon living in Saudi Arabia who used the pseudonym Mohammed al-Onaizi.
He fled Kuwait with his family in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion and has been living in Saudi since then.
"The government always promises to improve our situation but it never happens. Even our tribal leaders do nothing. When we arrived from Kuwait they made a big fuss. But now they ignore us. They have no shame and no humanity."
In the northern UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, hundreds of bidoons from the al-Beloush tribe live in low-rise, dusty concrete buildings and ramshackle houses, a sight few visitors to the country of gleaming glass-and-chrome skyscrapers and man-made islands would expect to see.
The Beloush are originally from an area located between Pakistan and Iran. Some have secured passports issued by the Comoros Islands; ambassador to the UAE Zubair al-Ahdal explained to Reuters that his country has a policy of giving "economic citizenship" to people who invest in the islands off Mozambique from anywhere in the world, including from stateless people.
As several Beloush women stood nearby talking in a mix of Iranian and Pakistani dialects, a man who gave his name as Ahmed said he got a Comoros passport a year ago hoping it would eventually lead to a UAE passport.
Rights groups say acquiring a foreign passport could undermine a stateless person's ability to win the nationality of their home country and make them vulnerable to tough security measures like expulsion, however.
"It cruelly makes them complicit in their own expulsions and gives the government a perfect out," said Sarnata Reynolds of rights group Refugees International.
"From the government's perspective, exporting the bidoon costs little and may well pay off politically."
Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall