[This review is part of the latest volume of the Arab Studies Journal! Read the ASJ's editors' note and the table of contents here.]
Andrea Wright, Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022). 199 pages. $28.00 Paperback.
Studies of migrant labor in the Persian Gulf often generate stereotypical images of Indian men caught in a Faustian bargain: compelled to leave their homes and loved ones in search of employment, or worse, unwittingly ensnared in cycles of debt and exploitation. Andrea Wright’s Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil is a timely intervention that examines how Indian men seek jobs and make meaning of their lives both in the Gulf and back home.
Between Dreams and Ghosts challenges popular narratives that uncritically point to either the kafala system, Gulf political culture, or labor surpluses in India as the sole reason for the exploitative conditions faced by migrant workers in the Gulf. While all of these factors are important, Wright also traces contemporary patterns of migration to others, ranging from the history of oil companies, the legacies of colonial capitalism, and practices of recruitment and subcontracting firms. More recent critical scholarship has complicated simplistic push-pull explanations of Indian migration to the Gulf, but it lacks granular analysis of who is migrating, why they do so, and how. Wright overcomes this problem by following the work of recruiting agencies in northern and central India as well as oil companies and contracting firms in the Gulf. She draws upon extensive field work carried out in both locales, including interviews with workers, their families, recruiting agents, and managers, in addition to participant-observation at recruiting agencies in India and work sites in the Gulf. Considering the topic, these aspects of the book are surprisingly rare in other works.
The book begins with a historical overview of Indian migration to the Gulf and notes how contemporary issues of Indian emigration were shaped by British imperial officials’ and postcolonial nationalists’ concerns about labor control and protection. As Wright notes, “this vision of the vulnerable Indian continues to inform the logic of emigration itself” (38). It also details how Indian workers are hired through recruiting agencies and the different ways that such agencies select Indian men as subjects suitable for migration. Wright then looks at the different ways that Indian workers in the Gulf maintain ties with their families and communities back home, while simultaneously forging their own narratives about oil in the age of climate change, global inequality, and discrimination in contemporary India. Lastly, Wright considers the history of managerial practices by oil companies in racially segmenting workers and undercutting worker solidarities. She also examines how oil companies maintain profits and circumscribe their own liability in the event of accidents and deaths via layers of subcontracting and safety laws.
Details about Indian recruiting agencies will be of particular interest to scholars of the Gulf who may be less knowledgeable about the intricacies of caste, class, and religion in the Indian labor market and the particular mechanics of labor recruitment. For Wright, the labor market for Indian migrant workers is a constellation of highly local but fragmented networks that are usually obfuscated by mechanistic notions of “sending countries.” Rather than theorizing this networked approach to labor recruitment, Wright describes agents mobilizing their own networks to recruit the “right” type of interviewees for their clients, i.e., workers who have already worked in the Gulf or embody a particular spirit of entrepreneurialism that reflects recruiters’ beliefs about the middle-class work ethic and “India’s brand.” Moreover, since many migrant laborers in unskilled or semi-skilled positions come from India’s rural heartlands, recruiters come to rely on their own networks of subagents who have the type of local knowledge, status, and networks to penetrate these areas. Local geographies, trust, and gifts also facilitate these relationships.
Wright does not, however, fall into the trap of romanticizing these network ties as social relations untouched by predatory capitalism. As she notes, “individuals are not envisioned as equals within the system, and recruiting agency employees and subagents repeatedly invoke and reinforce social hierarchies” (73). In fact, she argues that local subagents are often more exploitative than professional recruiters in urban centers. By uncovering the details of the recruitment process, the book convincingly makes the case that migration should be seen as an outcome of more micro-level sociological—and even psychological—phenomena, such as dreams, familial obligations, gifts, and network ties. Yet, while Wright challenges the notion that Indian migration to the Gulf can be explained by uneven labor supplies in India and the Gulf, the specter of labor surpluses nonetheless looms large throughout the book. She vividly portrays long queues of men with somewhat desperate dreams of being interviewed, willing to sign contracts they do not always understand. The book would have benefited from examining whether migrants’ sacrificial aspirations and dreams are actually products of surplus labor.
Turning to the relations between migrant workers and their communities back home, in the chapter “Making Kin with Gold,” Wright argues that gold—just like blood, semen, or breast milk—serves as a “connective substance” among kin. Indian workers in the Gulf purchase gold to help their sisters in India get married, and in doing so, maintain their natal family ties, reinforce gender roles, and perform an alternative masculine ideal (instead of getting married themselves). Far from being a timeless tradition, in Wright’s telling the significance of gold in Indian kinship relations is historicized as a modern phenomenon. Before the implementation of colonial tax laws, dowries were often immovable assets, such as land, which was considered the property of the woman. But following efforts by the British authorities to extract taxes in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dowries increasingly took the form of moveable assets like gold. This change had the unintended consequence of the control of capital moving easily between a bride’s father to her husband or parents-in-law. Moreover, with the rapid influx of gold from the Persian Gulf to India following Indian independence in 1947, the purchasing of gold for dowries also served as a connective substance between these two regions. Gold purchased from the Gulf was widely seen as “pure” and more likely to retain its value than other assets. In this chapter, Wright cogently demonstrates how gold-as-dowry “is actually shaped by liberalization, contemporary statecraft, and transnational migration” (103).
The book also unravels the layers of subcontracting firms on which oil companies rely to hire workers. Subcontracting firms seek to create an army of interchangeable workers who can move from project to project with relative ease. Wright notes that workers also come to internalize the drive to homogenize labor through processes of self-disciplining. The net effect, however, is that oil companies deflect responsibility onto managers and labor contractors in the event of accidents, while “workers are forced to take on the risks that historically companies held” (169). Wright also astutely points out that focusing on individual accountability and errors of low-level management obfuscates the role played by extensive contracting in making such projects less coordinated and riskier. Moreover, she demonstrates that “subcontracting, from a neoliberal perspective, is a way to create mini-markets that are most efficient and better able to address their specific niche” (168). As such, Wright suggests that subcontracting firms are the labor market, reinforcing her view of the labor market as a series of differentiated, unequal, and profit-driven organizational forms and network ties. But labelling the entire subcontracting process as “neoliberal” actually limits the power of her own rich ethnographic detail, which provides fascinating insights into how oil companies, subcontractors, and workers constantly negotiate risk and responsibility. Moreover, since Gulf-based firms have engaged in both extensive subcontracting and vertical integration during the neoliberal period, further research could explore when and why oil companies choose to engage in subcontracting, and whether those that do not subcontract have different labor relations.
Here, Wright’s use of terms such as “neoliberalism” and “entrepreneurialism” tends to get in the way of the analysis. For example, Wright labels the use of Hindu symbolism by workers to self-discipline and promote safety practices as “Hindutva” (the contemporary form of Hindu nationalism in India) and “neoliberal.” Yet it is unclear why the deployment of symbols from a broad Hindu cultural matrix is specifically “Hindutva” and why “self-discipline” is uniquely neoliberal, especially given Gandhi’s insistence on the latter principle. Similarly, there are numerous instances of supposedly neoliberal practices—such as emigration regulations—that are steeped in a colonial logic, but it is never explained what makes them specifically neoliberal and why certain colonial logics resonate so deeply with contemporary neoliberal practices. Since it touches upon the period of early Indian state building only briefly, the book does not investigate whether such practices may have as much to do with post-independence Indian developmentalism as with British colonial governance. While the legacies of colonial capitalism certainly shape today’s migratory patterns, the book could have developed an analysis of why and how certain colonial practices persist without collapsing colonial and postcolonial histories (see Agarwala 2022).
Nonetheless, Wright is one of the very few researchers to have a foot in both regions. Scholars of the contemporary Middle East will benefit immensely from engaging with this book, as it helps us better understand the internal cleavages among migrant populations, the transnational ties binding these two regions, and the cultural and political worldviews forged by workers through the process of migration. Undoubtedly, Wright has produced a highly innovative and rigorous ethnography of Indian migration to the Persian Gulf. This book will certainly be of use for teaching undergraduate and graduate students of anthropology, migration, Middle Eastern studies, and South Asian studies.