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Migration: The Arabian Gulf story

[Migrant laborers in Dubai. Image by Ross Domoney/Demotix] [Migrant laborers in Dubai. Image by Ross Domoney/Demotix]

When I arrived in the Gulf fourteen years ago, my perception of this region was the same as that of millions of other migrants, that this is a place where we can easily earn enough to achieve financial freedom. But over the years, a different gulf has been haunting my thoughts: that between expectations and reality. In other words, the fact that many who come looking for gold are having to satisfy themselves with coal.

There are around twenty million migrant workers in the Gulf and many millions had walked its sand-swept streets since the oil boom in the 1970s. A vast majority of them are single workers—Asians, Africans, Arabs—and despite the gaping diversities in the cultures they come from, they share one thing: their woes. Theirs is a story that will move hearts. It is a story of stunning sacrifices, stoicism, hopelessness, and helplessness; one that has been eclipsed by glitzy reports about dizzying development in this stinkingly rich region. The distressing truth is that migrant single workers in the Gulf have fallen by the wayside while the economies they toiled for galloped. Their salaries have not kept pace with inflation and laws meant to protect their rights are inadequate. Living conditions have worsened due to an increase in population and spiralling of expenses back home. The result: imbalanced minds and disease-wracked bodies. When they go back home after years or decades, they are residues of their former selves, leaving the chasm between expectations and reality as wide as ever.

Barring those engaged in manual labor, most expatriates in the Gulf are known to lead a sedentary existence that makes them an easy prey to lifestyle diseases like diabetes, blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The split shift work system—whereby most offices open in the morning and evening with a long break in between—and the long punishing summer with high levels of humidity are among many obstacles that hinder expatriates from maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes outdoor exercise. If physically they are unfit, psychologically their condition is worse. The long separation from family makes their existence excruciating, with most people going back home on short vacations once every year or two. Asian and Arab expatriates come from societies that have a joint family system which makes them breadwinners of large families. With mostly stagnant salaries in the Gulf, responding to the ever-increasing financial demands from home can be emotionally draining. The result is a highly stressed mind, which, combined with the lack of physical exercise, makes their bodies nests of diseases.

The phenomenon of single workers in the Gulf may require some explaining. Foreign expatriates here broadly fall into three categories: laborers and those in low-paid jobs who form the majority; professionals; and third, businessmen. Businessmen did not arrive to the Gulf on business visas, but are actually people from the first two categories who managed to identify opportunities to plough on on their own. Most of them are accused later of becoming exploiters of their own countrymen. Expatriates who earn a specific monthly salary are allowed to bring their families to live with them. The amount varies in each Gulf country but is approximately around five thousand Riyals. Those who do not earn enough to sponsor their families are referred to as “bachelors” in the Gulf parlance, even if they are actually married. This means a vast majority of expatriates have to suffer the pain of singleness. Their solitary existence, in addition to dumping them to the lowest stratum in the Gulf social structure, also subjects them to other inequities of life—like mental trauma, the absence of a social life, and the lack of economic growth. The latter is particularly the case for people in low-paid jobs since they have mostly stagnant salaries that do not keep up with galloping inflation and the cost of living both in the Gulf and back home.

In the Gulf, social life and freedom are conspicuous by their absence. Workers, after their work hours, retreat to the solitude of their rooms where their roommates function as a family. They are often not willing to spend money on entertainment and other activities (except occasionally if available) as the sole purpose of their suffering and migration is to save as much money as possible for the wellbeing of their families back home. One way that expatriates bond and feel at home is through peer groups. There are thousands of expatriates’ organizations in the Gulf formed on the basis of ethnic, religious, sectarian, political, and regional leanings. They meet regularly, helping to connect workers with each other and with the communities back home, creating a sense of togetherness and love. These organizations occasionally arrange cultural activities and get-togethers, sometimes by bringing artists and leaders from their home countries. These are occasions of great joy and relief. However, official permissions are required for all outdoor activities.   

The most painful sacrifice of single expatriates remains the separation from their loved ones. In the Malabar region of India’s southern state of Kerala, my hometown, almost every family has at least one member, if not more, working in the Gulf. Coming from a village where most males work abroad, the pangs of this separation are etched in my memory. I have seen husbands bidding tearful, heartbreaking goodbyes to their wives just a month or two after marriage, to be reunited a couple of years later and most likely separated again soon—a cycle that has painfully repeats itself for decades. Migrant wokers miss the birth and growth of their children, the deaths of their dear ones, as well cultural or social events that bond families.

The pangs of separation which these families experience is a recurrent theme in the Mappila songs, a folklore Muslim song genre in our area. Two such songs had become super hits in the 1970s and still stun the listeners. These songs are in a letter format. The first is of a woman addressing her husband in the Gulf, speaking of her unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs in a soul-stirring tone, and questioning the meaning of life in which her youth is wasted waiting for her husband. In the reply, the heart-broken husband agrees that their financial stability is no recompense for a wasted youth, and compares their life to that of a cow which has never been milked. It ends with his promise to return at the first available opportunity. I heard this song two months ago after a gap of several years and was transfixed by the pathos and emotions it contained—it still affected me the way it had decades ago.

But the sacrifices of these migrant workers are neither well captured by the media nor properly understood by Westerners who live, work, or visit the region. An Italian academic visiting the Gulf recently was deeply surprised when he learned that single migrants spend years without a partner and virtually no sexual relationships. In addition to being estranged from their families and friends, strict sexual segregation rules in the Gulf prevent expatriates from socializing with members of the opposite sex. He shared his view with a visiting Indian sociologist Professor Hafiz Mohammed, who told him this seemingly major issue pales in comparison with other problems. Mohammed was actually in the Gulf to deliver lectures on "remote parenting." This involved tips on effective parenting to Gulf-based parents who are distressed over a number of problems among their children back home, such as underperformance in studies, an increase in juvenile delinquency, and crimes.

The Gulf experience is so deeply woven into the collective psyche of migrants' societies that it has long entered their literature. For example, the 2010 best novelist award of the Kerala State Literary Academy went to a Bahrain-based expatriate, Benny Benyamin. His novel, in Malayalam, tells the true story of an expatriate, Najeeb Ahamed, who was forced into the wilderness of the Saudi Arabian desert for three and half years tending hundreds of sheep, with no interaction with the outside world. His manager, who spoke only Arabic, never allowed him to take baths. One of the most poignant and touching scenes in the story is when Najeeb, looking in the mirror after four long years, screams in agony seeing how frighteningly he has changed.

These experiences and struggles are true of most migrants—Asians, Arabs, and Africans. A large majority of them hail from societies that cling to a patriarchal order where the male is the breadwinner. This injects an aura of sublimity into their sacrifice—a feeling that they are destined to suffer to feed their children, making them sacrificial lambs walking willingly to the slaughter house. Labor problems and iniquitous sponsorship systems have also aggravated workers' woes. For outsiders, the sponsorship system in the Gulf is a rigmarole. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consists of six states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait—each of which has its own sponsorship laws that clearly define residency rules. Every expatriate has a sponsor, which can be an individual (citizen), a company (private or public), or the government. Some have tougher rules than others. For example, an expat in Saudi Arabia or Qatar cannot travel out of the country without the written permission of his sponsor, what is called the khurooj or the exit permit system. Human rights groups have excoriated governments for these laws which infringe on personal freedoms. But interestingly, few of the migrant source countries have protested these laws, at least loudly enough, as their economies are dependent on the remittances from their citizens.

As I write this, an Indian minister in charge of Non-Resident Indian Affairs was in Doha on an official visit for a meeting with his country’s people to study their problems. The day after his meeting, two Indian newspapers severely scalded him for doing nothing to address Indian expatriates’ woes, which, according to one daily, included: harassment of workers by sponsors, non-payment of salaries, operations of visa racketeers, and lack of legal help for workers entangled in court cases.

This is just one, though substantive, side of the Gulf experience. The other side sparkles like a diamond, being the story of those who have built their fortunes from petrodollars. The Gulf provides a stunning paradox. The struggle for subsistence of a vast majority seen against the glittering success of a minority. After all, every migrant lands here with a passport, an empty pocket, and a bag of dreams. So the success of some makes the failure or the bare existence of others galling, especially in the face of the realization that this failure is not of their making. In other words, for businessmen, professionals, and others who have brought their families to live with them in the Gulf, life is cozier, and the supreme success of a few expatriates has evoked the envy of not just their fellow countrymen, but local citizens too.

What about the future?  It does not look very rosy for migrant workers, for two reasons. First, the 2011 Arab uprisings have made unemployment among the local population more of a demon for dynastic rulers—a demon that must be exorcised expeditiously if they do not want their own people to march to their palaces. One way to create employment for the locals is to gradually expel expatriates. In Saudi Arabia, thousands of foreigners are in fear of losing their jobs as the regime acts fiercely to create jobs for the restive youth. This has also made expatriates wary of the Arab uprisings. In Bahrain, at the height of the anti-regime protests last year, expatriates took to the streets in support of the Bahraini ruling family! Secondly, the Arab uprisings have made Gulf regimes focus on local populations, relegating to the backburner the welfare of expatriates, especially the need for sponsorship reforms.

So, as the wheel of history rolls on irreversibly, my heart goes out to millions of “single” expatriates in the Gulf, past and present, who toiled in the torrid sun to feed their families back home, in the process sacrificing their own lives, especially their youth and married life. Their story has not been told loud enough. What about western expatriates in the Gulf, single or otherwise? They enjoy pride of place in the labor market and are well-paid and pampered by Arabs. And in a land brimming with migrants, their stay is as short as that of migratory birds.

1 comment for "Migration: The Arabian Gulf story "


This article brought back memories of an expat Egyptian worker who lived in a poor laborers settlement near our apartment in Jeddah in 1979. He would come to my trash can to eat the rotten, expired food that I threw away. I would race down and beg him not to eat it, and give him good food to replace it. He too was far from his family, had children to support, and was desperate to send money back home. He lived a lonely, miserable life, with the hot 140 degree Arabian sun beating down on him daily, and causing him to look decades older than what he was. His image continues to haunt me. Thank you for the article.

Margaret wrote on April 04, 2012 at 03:12 PM

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