Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf

Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf


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Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf by Omar AlShehabi

The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar) form the largest destination for labour migration in the global South. In all of these states, however, the majority of the working population is composed of temporary, migrant workers with no citizenship rights.

The cheap and transitory labour power these workers provide has created the prodigious and extraordinary development boom across the region, and neighbouring countries are almost fully dependent on the labour markets of the Gulf to employ their working populations. For these reasons, the Gulf takes a central place in contemporary debates around migration and labour in the global economy.

This book attempts to bring together and explore these issues. The relationship between ‘citizen’ and ‘non-citizen’ holds immense significance for understanding the construction of class, gender, city and state in the Gulf, however too often these questions are occluded in too scholarly or overly-popular accounts of the region. Bringing together experts on the Gulf, Transit States confronts the precarious working conditions of migrants in a accessible, yet in-depth manner.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745335209
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 11/23/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Abdulhadi Khalaf is a senior lecturer in the Sociology department at Lund University. He is regarded as a specialist in the politics of the Gulf Arab States.

Adam Hanieh is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is author of Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (2011) and Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (2013).

Omar AlShehabi writes from Bahrain and is director of the Gulf Centre for Development Policies. He has previously worked at the World Bank and the IMF as well as McKinsey & Co.

Read an Excerpt


Histories of Migration to the Gulf

Omar AlShehabi

Understanding Gulf Migration

This introductory chapter discusses the historical roots and evolution of the extreme reliance on temporary migrant workers in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It focuses, in detail, on the most important changes that the region's population structure has experienced from the start of the oil era up to the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hence, this chapter aims to lay out the historical backdrop that underpins much of the analysis covered in subsequent chapters. Particular attention is given to areas of similarity within the individual experiences of each of the GCC states. The intention is to present a broad framework for understanding the rise of a demographic system between citizen and non-citizen populations that could be best summarised as 'restricted citizenship with unrestricted migration', and to shed light on the most important factors that contributed to its development.

The main focus will be on detailing the mutually constitutive relationship that exists between the GCC's modern population structure and the oil revolution that took place in the Gulf. Indeed, the economic and political system that accompanied the oil revolution formed the very foundations of the demographic dynamics we find in the region today. The chapter's main thesis is that the demographic structure was the result of two often overlapping but sometimes conflicting projects: the construction of a 'petro-modernist state' in each of the GCC countries, combined with the establishment of capitalism as the dominant (but not the only) economic mode of production. Both of these projects were to be driven by rising oil revenues and migrant labour flowing into the region.

The GCC economies are firmly embedded within the global economy, based primarily on the region boasting the largest and cheapest proven global reservoir of crude oil. Ever since commercial exportation of Gulf oil took off in the latter half of the twentieth century, the region has received the highest windfall of petrodollars of any oil producers in the world. This centrality to the global economy is mirrored domestically by the dominant role the state plays within the national economies of the GCC. The state, and particularly influential members of the ruling families, has large control over how the oil revenue is to be spent domestically. This is complemented with an elite class of investors, often also members of the royal families, who control the main economic opportunities that arose from the windfall of petrodollars.

The GCC's demographic profile came to reflect the internal and external aspects of this resultant economic and political structure, which, by opening the doors to unrestricted migration while restricting citizenship, segmented the population into groups of 'citizens' and 'expatriates', and used the region's population to service this political-economic configuration. From the perspective of citizens of the GCC countries, this post-oil historical period has been characterised by a decline in their political influence and their participation in economic production. This has reached a point where, by the start of the twenty-first century, nationals represented less than half of the workforce in any of the GCC countries, and their productive roles were primarily confined to employment in the public sector or financial services. However, the upside of this situation was that citizens, and only citizens, were provided with the benefits of an increasingly generous welfare state, providing free or subsidised services, opportunities for mass consumerism, as well as the ability to establish small and medium enterprises. These benefits were obtained through a notion of citizenship founded on loyalty to the state, which came to be largely identified with the ruling families, by now firmly embedded as the apex of the local political system.

In tandem, regional capital's growing need for labour was fulfilled by facilitating the entry of foreign workers. The GCC's doors were opened wide to migrant workers who not only became the central pillar of the region's workforce, but also came to form the majority of the population within most Gulf States. Strict measures, however, were put in place to control expatriate integration and to reduce their power in the region's economic and political activities. These measures served to prevent them, as non-citizens, from settling permanently, from forming trade unions, and from capital ownership. Thus, the population structure was formed by, and in service to, the demands of an economic and political structure that evolved in tandem with the discovery of oil in the region. This demographic restructuring continued until the region began to resemble what some scholars have called a collection of scattered 'labour camps', rather than a set of cohesive and integrated societies (Al Kuwari, 2004a).

The First Oil Boom, 1931–1973

The population in what came to constitute the GCC was estimated at the start of the twentieth century to be approximately two million, of which about 900,000 were concentrated on the western shores of the Gulf and Oman (Seccombe and Lawless, 1987: 4). The cultural, historical and geographical scope of the region sits within an Arab and Islamic identity, but within this overarching framework it is considered one of the most culturally, ethnically and historically diverse parts of the globe, encompassing three continents that formed the ancient world. By virtue of this hyper-connectivity to the rest of the world, the Gulf's economies developed predominantly around commercial and entrepôt trade posts. The region is also distinguished as an important religious centre, being the birthplace and containing the two holy sites of Islam. As an historic point of convergence between different cultures and civilizations, most of the region's settled communities developed based on exchanges with the wider world, which naturally included population exchanges.

This population exchange occurred predominantly in areas in close proximity to the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, with social composition based upon a complex network of commercial, cultural, geographical and familial ties. Environmental variables such as droughts and epidemics also affected the regional demographics and migration movements. Borders did not exist prior to the Uqair Convention of 1922, when borders were delineated for the first time between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and there were no official immigration controls, passports or citizenship documents until well into the 1900s. As such, an organic society developed over the centuries containing a mixture of ethnic groups, sects and beliefs, within the region's overarching Arab and Islamic identity.

The Arrival of the Oil Companies, 1931–1950

The systematic import of foreign labour began in the nineteenth century under British colonial rule, forming the starting point for a new type of population flow into the Arabian Peninsula. What particularly distinguished this new type of migration was the organised import of a workforce by a 'sponsor' (in this case, the British administration) that did not necessarily have any cultural or geographical connection with the region. Migrants were systematically brought in by the British to carry out the functions of colonial administration. Thus we see one of the most important features of this new phase of migration: members of the migrant community were not required or encouraged by their sponsors to integrate within the local communities. In fact, often the intention was to import migrants that would not integrate into local society, and indeed could be used as a source of discipline and control. Often the purpose of this first wave of migration was to strengthen the security forces through which the British maintained their control (i.e. mercenary forces). Migrants also formed the administrative class, and the majority of these groups came either from the Indian subcontinent or from the United Kingdom itself. This process occurred mainly in the areas known as the Trucial States (the western coast of the Gulf stretching from Kuwait to Oman), where the British presence was strongest.

This migration phenomenon was limited in scope, being mostly confined to the state's administrative and security apparatus. The situation was fundamentally altered with the discovery of oil. The first oil well was drilled in Bahrain in 1931, and the rest of the Gulf followed suit over the next two decades, with oil exportation from the region taking off in earnest after the Second World War. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the region's political, economic and cultural roots were shaken and radically transformed over the course of a few decades. The Arabian Peninsula was transformed from a desperately poor area on the margins of the global economy, supporting its sparse population through pearling, entrepôt trade, and agricultural and herding activities, into an integral link in the global economic system. The discovery of the largest proven global reservoir of oil in the Gulf coincided with oil's transformation into the most important commodity of the economic and industrial revolution that swept the globe after the Second World War.

As the region's oil industry was laying its foundations between the 1930s and 1950s, expatriate labour poured mainly into the oil sector. The administrative and skilled labour classes came from Western countries, in accordance with the preferences of the American or British oil companies. In areas with British colonial presence, oil concessions were signed on the condition that preference would be shown towards workers already under British rule, and so most of the skilled workers came from the United Kingdom. The same principle also applied to the class of clerks and semi-skilled workers, who hailed mostly from the colonised Indian subcontinent. The situation was different in Saudi Arabia, which never experienced direct British control. Instead, American companies had a monopoly over oil exploitation agreements, and so most of the administrative and skilled classes came from the US, while the demand for semi-skilled workers was met by importing relatively cheaper Italian settlers from Eritrea. In all the Gulf sheikhdoms, unskilled workers were sourced from the local population wherever possible, a condition imposed on the oil companies by the local rulers. The region was engulfed by an economic crisis in the late 1920s following the decimation of the natural pearl market by Japanese cultured pearls and the onset of the global great depression. Employment of locals in the oil companies provided a timely antidote (Seccombe and Lawless, 1987: 18).

The number of foreign workers in the oil sector grew rapidly after the end of the Second World War, when most Gulf States began exporting oil commercially. From no more than 2,000 in 1940, the number of migrants working in the region's oil sector as a whole had grown to about 16,000 by 1950. The majority of them came from the Indian subcontinent and the West. Although the majority of workers in the oil sector were still citizens, their proportions were shrinking fast. In 1945, citizens working in Bahrain's oil sector represented 63 per cent of the total workforce and 68 per cent in Saudi Arabia. In Qatar, the percentage of citizens among the workforce had shrunk to 54 per cent by 1948, while in Kuwait the number of migrants in the workforce rose from 5 per cent in 1945 to 68 per cent in 1949 (Seccombe and Lawless, 1987: 18). Hence, immigration in this period was driven mainly by the requirements of oil companies and the needs of the British colonial administration, both of whom were the principal parties involved in establishing the oil industry and controlling the resultant revenues.

Commercial Oil Production and the Emergence of Nationalism, 1950–1973

A new wave of migration took place between 1950 and the start of the 1970s. Increasing amounts of revenues were generated by the extraction and sale of oil on the global market, in what can be loosely termed as the Gulf's first oil boom. Oil revenues flowed directly to the oil companies and the rulers' accounts based on the shares stipulated in the concession agreements between the two parties. Throughout this period, the percentage of oil revenue allocated to the rulers gradually increased as a series of renegotiations of concessions took place, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

With increasing amounts of oil revenue being allocated to the state, economic opportunities in the region started to expand outside the oil sector. The public sector was the natural driver, concentrating heavily on building the basic infrastructure of roads, education, health services and administrative bodies. Attractive investment opportunities for capital accumulation began to emerge in the private sector too. Most of these activities were in secondary sectors that grew out of the oil boom, especially in construction and the importation of goods.

Demographically, the first discernable development was a huge increase in the number of incoming migrants. Between 1950 and 1975, their numbers grew from no more than a few tens of thousands, to around one million (Chalcraft, 2010: 11–12). Some continued to work in the oil sector, but the vast majority were in the public sector, construction and the various service sectors that mushroomed in tandem with the growing oil revenues.

Migrants came mainly from other Arab countries. This was a logical development given that they shared a geographical, cultural and linguistic affinity to the Gulf. The consequences of the 1948 Palestinian nakba increased the number of Palestinian immigrants, and popular sentiment locally as well as the rulers' inclination was towards the import of Arab labour. King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, for example, ordered in 1949 that citizens, then Palestinians, then Arabs and then the rest of the Muslim nationalities should be preferentially selected for work (Seccombe and Lawless, 1987: 26). The growing tide of Arab nationalism in Kuwait and the policies of the ruler Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem, led to a preference for importing Arab labour there too. By 1975, 90 per cent and 80 per cent of expatriates in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait respectively were Arab. In the rest of the Gulf States, where the British mandate was still in effect, the proportion of Arab labour was smaller due to British sensitivities about the political implications of employing large numbers of Arab migrants. Instead, migration there tended to favour states already under British colonialism, particularly the Indian subcontinent. In Bahrain, Arabs accounted for 50 per cent of immigrants, two-thirds of which were from the Sultanate of Oman. By the same year, Arabs represented only a quarter of expatriates in the UAE and the proportion was similar in Qatar (Chalcraft, 2010: 7–8). Overall, by the end of 1973, expatriates stood at about one million, the overwhelming majority of whom were Arabs.

The third striking development on the demographic front was the emergence of a strong labour and political consciousness within citizens, based largely on the experiences of the local labour force employed in the oil sector. Two main factors fuelled this process. To begin with, the income and living conditions of expatriate workers during this period were perceived as better than those of locals. At the same time, a strong political consciousness was emerging regionally, taking its cue from political movements in the rest of the Arab world (nationalism and pan-Arabism) and globally (such as Marxism and socialism). This led to the development of various nationalist and labour-oriented movements, with oil company workers demanding increasing economic and political participation in the various Gulf States. Between 1938 and 1965 strikes were a frequent phenomenon in Bahrain, demanding that the same wages and benefits be applied to Bahraini workers as to expatriates at the BAPCO oil company, with the biggest symbol of discrimination being the allocation of separate drinking water fountains for the British, Indians and Bahrainis (AlShirawi, 2005). In Saudi Arabia, local workers at Aramco oil company carried out several strikes in the 1950s and 1960s to demand better living and wage conditions (Vitalis, 2006). Qatar was no exception, with the oil strikes of 1950–1956 being the most notable, while Kuwait was an incubator for many of the region's labour movements between the 1950s and 1970s (Crystal, 1995).


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Copyright © 2015 Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi and Adam Hanieh.
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Table of Contents

Part I: Introduction
1. Histories of Migration to the Gulf, by Omar AlShehabi
2. The Politics of Migration, by Abdulhadi Khalaf
3. Overcoming Methodological Nationalism: Spatial Perspectives on Migration to the Gulf Arab States, by Adam Hanieh
Part II: Dimensions of Gulf Migration: Law, Urban Space, Gender
4. Kafala: Foundations of Migrant Exclusion in GCC Labour Markets, by Mohammed Dito
5. Rootless Hubs: Migration, Urban Commodification and the “Right to the City” in the GCC, by Omar AlShehabi
6. Construction Work, ‘Bachelor’ Builders and the Intersectional Politics of Urbanisation in Dubai, by Michelle Buckley
Part III: Gulf Migrants: Broadening Perspectives
7. Bahrain’s Migrant Security Apparatus, by K T Abdulhameed
8. Expat/Expert camps: redefining “labour” within Gulf migration, by Neha Vora
9. In and Out Moves of the Bahraini Opposition: How Years of Political Exile led to the Opening of an International Front during the 2011 Crisis in Bahrain, by Claire Beaugrand
Part IV: Conclusion
10. Migrant Rights in the Gulf: Charting the Way Forward, by Adam Hanieh
Notes on Contributors

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