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Migration and Exclusion in the Gulf: A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Omar al-Shehabi

In this interview, Omar al-Shehabi discusses his new co-edited book, Transit States on Immigration in the Gulf, expanding on issues of migration, exclusion and co-optation. 

Omar al-Shehabi is the director of the Gulf Centre for Development Policies. His current research interests lie in the demography and political economy of the GCC and the modern history of Bahrain. 

The interview below includes three parts that you can click on separately. Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.



Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Nisreen Zaqout

Mona Kareem (MK): Hello, today we have Omar al-Shehabi, a Bahraini academic and he is the director of the Gulf Center for Development Policies in Kuwait. His current research interest lies in the demography and political economy of the GCC and the modern history of Bahrain and we want to discuss with him his new co-edited book, Transit States on Immigration in the Gulf. Hi, Omar.

Omar al-Shehabi (OS): Hi Mona, thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here. 

MKIt is a pleasure to have you. First, can you give us an idea about this book? What are some of the themes that you draw on?

OS: Yeah. So, basically this book and the idea behind it is [stops mid-sentence.] So, me and the other co-editors, Abulhadi Khalaf and Adam Hanieh, we all thought that, as you well know, migration now is a very important topic and theme, in the world really, especially in the Gulf being the biggest hub for migration in the south. We thought most of the topics and/or most of the literature dealing with migration takes it from a certain angle that is very classical and does not represent all the viewpoints and issues within it.  So, it is usually within the context of pushing pro factors between the different countries, or there is a lot of work that is done by human rights organizations and some ethnographic work  too.  But, we thought that it will be very important to take a new and different perspective and apply it to the topic of migration, particularly how does it situate within the political economy of the Gulf and globally, more in that perspective. So, basically there are about eight different authors with ten chapters and each of them takes the topic of migration, let us say, hopefully from a different angle from what is currently in the literature. 

MK: Alright. So, also we noticed that the book tries to have a politicized approach to issues of immigration, but also look at immigration in the context of world economy not just from the point of view of the nation-state. So, why do you think this approach is important? 

OS: Yeah, I mean, it is a very important question. So, I mean, I think it is very important becauseagain, just do stress on this pointif we look at the topic of migration in the Gulf, or Gulf studies generallyand that is probably the topic that Dr. Adam Hanieh focuses onis usually very nation-centered. It looks at it from the perspective of the nation basically. While as it is obvious, migration is something that is transnational; it involves people moving beyond and across nations. So, it is very important to try to understand what are the dynamics that influence this and why do people pursue it specifically in the Gulf. Obviously, there are a lot of dynamics within this. So, for example, I focus a lot in my chapter on the urban dynamics involved because we have this idea usually about migration in the Gulf and a lot of it is true, is that it is based on workers who are usually, as they are called bachelors, who come to the Gulf to work basically as labor. Usually, the ideas and construction of [Unclear 3:43] or what is called the domestic sector and that is it. But, migration is much more diverse in the Gulf and it involves much more sectors that people work in and different classes that are involved and different dynamics that move this. So, the idea behind this was to bring a more critical perspective on this. I guess, for example, my chapter and Dr. Adam Hanieh’s chapter look at it from what is called historical materialist perspective. So, we tried to look at from a more, let us say, economic factors that make the migration process possible. Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf looks at it for example, from the more traditional rentier state idea, where it is more in terms of there are countries like the GCC that have a lot of oil revenue and how do they combine this idea of oil revenues and migration to further whatever goals they might  have in their mind. 

MKSo, in the example of Bahrainjust to have a specific one how was migration policy been mobilized by the regime specifically after the revolution but you know throughout the history of the modern state?

OS: Well, this is very interesting because migration has a very long history in Bahrain and the Gulf generally. So, for example, I have two chapters; the first chapter I look at it more from the history of the migration process and then there is another chapter that also looks at migration in terms of the security services in Bahrain as well which, as you said, becomes more important in the recent events that have happened. So, if we are going to look at it historically, a lot of the migration happened after, obviously, oil was discovered in the region. In the case of Bahrain, that even happened before that [discovering oil]. So, in Bahrain, the evolution of the modern state pre-dated oil. What is called modernization efforts happened before oil and then oil was discovered in the 1930s. So, the dynamic between the two and how migration enabled this is very center to understand, because in the Gulf, you really cannot separate these three elements; oil, labor, or migration and if you want and the state. These three things interact with each other very closely and this is what I tried to at least show in my first chapter, which draws on the history of migration across the last hundred years in the Gulf. As I said also, there is a chapter which specifically in the case of Bahrain, is important. Which is the idea of migration which is used in the security services. In Bahrain, as the case in some other countries-not all, but Bahrain stands out in this respect, a lot of the security services used basically non-nationals, or migrants. So, in one of the chapters the author actually was lucky enough to interview some of them  and was able to trace basically how this migration happened and to what purposes and how does the dynamic work from the perspective of these people who work in the security services themselves, which is generally something we do not know much about. But also, how people in country perceive this compared to what happens there.

MK: Drawing on the relationship with the regime and the politics in Bahrain, also do you think that there is still a way of using migration in defining the relationship between the citizen and the system after 2011?

OS: Again, yes. This is a very interesting topic and it is become much more pronounced recently. So, let me just give you a few examples of things that have happened in Bahrain which made this topic very pronounced. One, for example, is the elections for the doctor’s society in Bahrain. So, in the most recent elections for the doctor society, the responsible ministry said that actually all doctors are eligible to enroll and to vote in the doctor’s society, while traditionally it was only restricted to Bahrainis. Now, a lot of the doctors in Bahrain and the rest of the GCC countries are migrants, or as they are called non-citizens. So, suddenly the memberships and the people who are allowed to vote in the doctor society swelled a lot. Generally, because of the situation in Bahrain and because of the precarious situation of migrants, they tend to have more of conservative political viewpoint in Bahrain. And most were seen as ending up to vote for candidates that were seen as more government-friendly. So, this is basically one dynamic that happened. Another example is most recently there was a new society that was set up that prepared to talk on behalf of expats in Bahrain and the leader of this society made a comment that stirred a huge controversy in Bahrain, she said, “well we are the majority of bahrain-obviously migrants now constitute more than half in Bahrain,  and that we are the majority and we have the right to be heard and that we should be involved in the political process.” Now, this particular society happens to be very pro-government. So, this just shows some of the ways that migration can be mobilized by the government in terms of society and the events that have happened in Bahrain in the last four, or five years.

MK: I also noticed that this kind of approach is only present in Bahrain when compared to other Gulf countries. Meaning, the rest of them would be more oppressive and exclusionary with migrants, but Bahrain is trying not to co-opt these migrants and try to use them to score against the opposition and all of that. So, from this situation do you think there is any good prospect for migrants themselves when it comes to political organizing in Bahrain? 

OS: Well, look, I mean, I think in all of the Gulf countries, obviously it [migrants political organizing] will be used depending on the situation. I mean if we are just looking at it from the perspective of a government, if we are putting ourselves in the shoes of a government, they will try to use it in whichever way they think it is useful to them. It is not necessarily beneficial to the migrants, it is to all end goals that are specifically to the government. So, for example, there was also recently in one of the GCC countries where there were talks about strikes in the ports that there would be more national workers in the strikes of the port, some of the newspapers carried an indirect threat that, basically that if that [striking]  happened they might be replaced by migrant workers and etc. Now, this is another one that is being used. Which is an interesting phenomenon, it is what you have in the GCC countries with an acute, let us say, what is called an imbalance in terms of nationals vs. migrants, specifically ,let us say, Qatar and the UAE. This talk of the demographic imbalance is a very big issue and it is one of the most defining and persistent topics for nationals. And in this way the government kind of is looked at by nationals as the one that can solve the problem, while at the same time is looked at by expats as the one that can protect their rights. So, it kind of puts the government in the position to be able to use this and if you want, to manipulate it in whichever way they think is most useful for them. Now, does this mean it is going to be more beneficial for migrants? I mean, at the end of the day it is being instrumentalized by the government, but the thing is you never know what repercussions this might have, or side effects. I do not think they can control all of these [side effects] they can definitely try, but you can never know what side effects that might come out of this in terms of more rights, or powers for migrants . But, I mean at the moment it is definitely being used for specific goals that the government sees within their idea of what they want to reach.  So, I would not say it is directly better for the migrants, but because at the end it falls into an idea of divide and rule somehow. But, I mean, the very interesting thing that is going on right now in the Gulf is that because there are a lot of factors intermeshing and happening together, sometimes there are a lot of consequences that have not been read before. This could have effects that have not been anticipated by the government, but we will see what would be the interaction over time with this.

MK: Okay, Omar. Thank you so much  for your time. We are happy to have you on Status Hour and we hope that people refer to your book Transit States

OS: Thank you very much. And it is a pleasure. 

MK: Thank you.

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