Diversity and Struggle in the Arabian Gulf

The Arabian Gulf is associated with a few vivid images: oil and the enormous wealth made available through it and the region's demographic structure and its associated indignities. In both cases -- of oil and of the so-called demographic problem -- the reality is more complicated than the images of wealthy sheikhs, sparkling shopping malls, repressed women, and oppressed immigrant labor. This article seeks to move beyond such stereotypes by giving a more nuanced picture of the diversity and struggles experienced by South Asians in the Gulf.

By virtue of geography and geology, Gulf countries are situated at the heart of two major historical motors of cross-border migration and cross-cultural experience: empire and oil.

At one point in history, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and what is today the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were all part of the British Empire. British colonial administrators regarded these small Gulf principalities as part of India's hinterland and sought to protect them accordingly. With the discovery of oil in Bahrain in the 1930s, the region was also viewed as a potential source of vast wealth. Among the effects of this history was a unique crossroads of civilizations whereby Arab, African, Persian, and South Asian peoples and cultures mixed with great facility.

Historian James Onley writes that before the 1970s, the majority of Gulf merchants had businesses in the ports of India, Africa, and Iran, while Indian and Iranian merchants and African slaves were well-represented among the inhabitants of the Gulf. He also describes how rulers of Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Dubai preferred Cashmere scarves for their headdress, while Arab Shi'a elites brought their characteristic white turban into the Gulf from Iran; and how elite Gulf men married African, Indian, and Persian women, with whom they produced children who spoke Farsi, Urdu, Baluchi, Hindi, or Swahili along with Arabic, and who often studied in India.

The period of the oil boom, particularly after the OPEC embargo of 1973, was a turning point in the region's cultural economy. "[T]here were now always Iranians and Indians who lived in the Arab Gulf ports, but only few Gulf Arabs had relations with Iran, India, or Africa," writes Onley. The Gulf came more under the influence of American and British culture, while more British and other European expatriates began moving to the Gulf. Gulf elites began sending their children to American and British universities and vacationing in Europe and the States. No longer was India the pole to which Gulf Arabs were attracted for reasons of commerce and civilization.

Thus, the stereotype among many Gulf Arabs of South Asians as alien and threatening is something relatively new in Gulf history. The South Asian presence in the region has to be understood in the context of oil, which reversed the power and economic relations between the Arabian Gulf and India. Although the great Europeanization and Americanization of cities such as Dubai and Doha is also a cause for concern among Gulf Arab locals, for many, the threat posed by the demographic situation, in which nationals constitute minorities of the total populations in such countries as Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, is attached to immigration from South Asia. Expatriates constitute between 60 percent and 80 percent of the total populations of the Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE. Writers and intellectuals from the Gulf often speak of al-khalal al-sukkani (the demographic imbalance), a rather sanitized term referring to what is perceived as uncontrolled immigration. In effect, this usually means uncontrolled immigration from South and Southeast Asia and Iran.

Nevertheless, I do not mean to suggest that this is an attitude held uniformly among Gulf Arabs, or that all South Asians see themselves as second-class denizens in the Gulf. These perceptions depend on many factors and their complex interplay, among them, class, nationality, gender, and country of residence. Anthropologist Karen Leonard has written about the differences between the respective experiences of South Asian immigrants in Kuwait and the UAE, as well as among South Asians within the UAE. Among her findings was that South Asian immigrants tended to feel more attached to Dubai than to Kuwait.

One explanation for this feeling, according to Leonard, is the relative importance of Hindi and Urdu to Imarati popular culture. During my own fieldwork, I noticed the prevalence of Indian settings, characters, and languages in Imarati-Arabic TV series, as well as Indian-produced serials dealing with Indian life in Dubai. By contrast, the primary expatriate cultural imprint on Kuwaiti life comes from Kuwait's Arab neighbors. Both local Arabs and Indians who I met in Dubai told me about how, before the arrival of Western-style movie chains in the UAE in the 1990s, the most popular theater in Dubai was the Bollywood theater in Deira, which was well attended both by South Asians and Imaratis. The latter were fully capable of following the films without the benefit of Arabic subtitles.

In more recent times, as Dubai has replaced Kuwait in economic and cultural importance within the Gulf, middle-class South Asians have increasingly made Dubai home, at least temporarily. Well-educated and often from elite backgrounds in India, they take jobs as corporate managers, accountants, technicians, and so on, in the many multinational information and technology corporations that, like Microsoft, have themselves increasingly located regional or central headquarters in Dubai. South Asians from this class background have also started their own companies. For such people, Dubai's infrastructure, relative comfort, and predictability make the city appealing.

Of the dozen or so middle class Indians that I interviewed during my fieldwork, most emphasized that they felt at home in India, but regarded Dubai favorably as a place to build a nice nest egg. With its seemingly endless choice of Indian restaurants and its singular (for an Arab city) Hindu temple, it is a city in which, moreover, they do not perceive as being too culturally alien. To paraphrase what an Indian expatriate once said to me, Dubai is the 'westernmost city of India.'

The majority of South Asians in the Gulf, however, are not middle class, but labor as domestics, service employees, or construction workers. The story here is far grimmer than that of middle-class, educated Indians who are really very much beneficiaries of neoliberal interpretations of globalization as a flat world without boundaries or constraints and of pro-business policies which have done much to erode the welfare state in India since the early 1990s. A working class immigrant, by contrast, has come to the Gulf because they have been drubbed in this game. Her or his typical experience involves searching for work in the Gulf through labor agents in the home country.

Often, the agent hypes this work, selling it as easy and lucrative. Operating outside state control or watchdog groups, labor agents avail themselves not only of the workers' money (workers pay labor agents up to $2,000 to arrange for travel and work permits); they sometimes also treat workers' bodies, especially if those workers are women, as their property. In 2006, for example, the human rights website mafiwasta reported that labor agents killed a Bangladeshi woman after she refused to work as a prostitute.

Gender is central here: the labor laws in the UAE, anemic as they are, simply do not apply to domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly women. Put another way, to be a woman migrant worker in the UAE probably means that one is a domestic worker. Under most circumstances, expatriate workers, regardless of profession or class, legally enter into a relationship of kafala, 'sponsorship,' with UAE nationals. This is a legally recognized category with theoretical rights over which the state has jurisdiction. Thus, when construction workers strike for better wages and working conditions, their aim is usually to convince the UAE labor ministry to intervene. Theoretically, they are correct in their reasoning (although, in practice, the story is more complicated).

Domestics, however, are not considered to be in a sponsorship relationship with employers. The employer is, legally, her mu'il, roughly, her 'legal guardian' or 'provider,' she, the employer's dependent. Thus the family that employs the maid is given much more freedom to dispose as they please of her working conditions. In other words, the very design of UAE labor law invites the abuse of domestic workers. Unfortunately, for all the protestations by the government that it is reforming labor laws in the wake of the embarrassing Human Rights Watch report of November 2006, things have not changed.

The situation of other migrant workers is only relatively better. With great courage, Dubai construction workers have increasingly taken to the streets over the past three or four years, making visible the real political economy behind the image of the glittering city of corporate hype. Such audacity by workers in the Gulf is part of the invisible history of labor in the region, stretching back all the way to the foundation of Saudi Arabia, when indigenous workers protested the Al Saud's sale of their country to American oil interests. This history continues to be comfortably ignored by those who wish to see Dubai, Doha, and other places as sculptures to corporate globalization. That the Dubai workers refuse to let us forget this history is much to their credit.

But one must ask two questions: have the workers succeeded in achieving more than symbolic gains? And if not, is there, then, something problematic about the law-reform approach? The answer to the first is, generally, no. Some examples: trade unions, a central demand of the workers' movement in the UAE, are still not legal, in spite of the UAE government's promises since at least 2004 that they will be; the government still generally refuses to act against firms with egregious records of labor exploitation or to fine firms which force work during the hottest part of summer days (which, in the Gulf, normally exceed 40 degrees Celsius). Meanwhile, the government announced in September 2006 that migrant workers are now 'temporary workers' (I have found that it is normal for domestics, construction workers, and others to spend as many as fifteen to twenty years laboring in the UAE). That the government should suddenly choose to consider as 'temporary' immigrants who spend more time in the country than many if not most middle-class expatriates is curious, and probably has to do with further restricting workers' access to assembly and recourse to the state: temporary workers, after all, can simply be deported if they become too unruly.

This leads to the second question: why are the UAE government's promises of reform purely symbolic? The answer is complex, but it must focus on areas outside of the legal-reform sphere. The reasons lie in politics and geography, and are at least two-fold. First, Gulf countries, even a large, populous kingdom such as Saudi Arabia, are administered by elites who are intimately bound to each other by ties of kinship or influence. This form of neopatrimonialism can prevent the state from regulating private enterprise. Also, business-owners do not always need to be part of the ruling family. In Saudi Arabia, being a royal seems more important than in Dubai, where the non-royal merchant class is actually more powerful than the ruling family (the ruler, Sheikh Muhammad, excepted). In any case, in no country of the Gulf can there be said to exist an auspicious environment for legal oversight and reform.

The second reason, in the case of Dubai, is that the lack of labor (or any other substantive) regulations and privatization are very good for business, and therefore for political control. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, this is a small port city, run by a merchant elite, at the heart of a vast region extending from Eastern Europe to Russia to South Asia to Africa that has been undergoing a series of restructurings, state collapses, and wars since the mid-1970s. I have always felt that a good, anecdotal way to trace the movement of people and money within this region is to simply ask a few dozen people at any given time at Dubai International Airport what their nationality is and why they are in Dubai. Most of these people, migrant workers included, are escaping something: be it the debtor or the abusive husband at home, or the home state, whether ineffective in providing public goods or too effective in expropriation.

Workers, too, partake of financial illegibility, the hawala system, for example. No one in Dubai would dare interfere with this phenomenally profitable situation, which among other things has made the city-state less dependent than its neighbors on mineral extraction. One of the interesting aspects of this economy of instability is India's changed position within the Afro-Eurasian-Indian Ocean world. From a central node of the British Empire system, to which the small principalities of the Gulf were hinterlands populated by something like subjects of the metropolitan Raj, India has become one of a long list of regional players for whom the Gulf, and Dubai in particular, has become both a pole to which to gravitate, but also a site for the reinvention of Indian cultures and traditions in this 'westernmost of Indian cities.'


This inland sea of some 251,000 km2 (96,912 sq mi) is connected to the Gulf of Oman in the east by the Strait of Hormuz; and its western end is marked by the major river delta of the Shatt al-Arab, which carries the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris.-Missed Fortune

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