You have reached the main content

Mapping Migration and Politics in the Gulf, an interview with Abdulhadi Khalaf

On March 20, 2014

 Within Wafid/Muwatin segmentation, local people of different classes become one with the ruling family in their country

Abdulhadi Khalaf is a Bahraini politician and scholar on labor, state-building, and political participation. He is a professor of sociology at Sweden’s University of Lund. He writes regularly on political and labor issues, among others, for a variety of publications including the Beirut-based Assafir newspaper.

- How do you position migrants within the current political conflicts in the Gulf?

In the GGC, one can note most of the political ramifications of migration that have been noted elsewhere i.e. on political discourses as well as on balance of power among local actors.  In addition, there are those specific consequences that are linked to the specific capacities of the rentier states of the Gulf.  The phenomenal expansion in the labour markets of the Gulf countries since mid-1970s would not have been possible without the abundant sources of manpower in the adjacent countries.  Initially, Arab and non-Arab regional countries have supplied both skilled and unskilled labour. It did not take long, probably in 1976, before those capacities were in full force. A steady and gradual shift occurred resulting in rapid increase in rates of migration from South Asia.

However shortsighted, the ruling families in the Gulf have since mid-1970s experimented with migration as a tool for social and political engineering. Albeit at a very high cost, they have been successful.  De-Arabisation of “the Migrant’ and the strict segmentation of the society into Waafid/Muwatin, are two obvious spheres where one sees how successful have the ruling families been. Within Wafid/Muwatin segmentation, local people (rich or poor, Sunni or Shia, men or women, tribal or khdairi, etc.), become one with the ruling family in their country.  In the process, political discourse and practice confined rights and entitlement of citizenship to privileges in the forms of makramas dispensed by a benign ruler to his subjects.

- How do you look at national political movements in the Gulf that continue to exclude migrants and their issues from popular struggles?

Obstacles to migrants’ participation are multitude. Some, such as language and political culture, are linked to the successful process of de-arabisation. Others are linked to 1) segmentation of the labour market (including concentration of local employees in the public sector and migrants in the private sector) and, 2) to fragmentation of the work place (e.g. multitude of small employers, and geographically distant work sites).  And of course there are legal constraints and security issues that make migrants’ interest in local politics dangerous for themselves and their families back home.

Having said this, local political activists need to engage themselves in more than symbolic terms in the activities directed to improve living and working conditions of migrants. It is rather disappointing that very few local NGOs are engaged in publicizing the plight of migrant in the region. A few lawyers and HR activists get involved beyond providing pro bono legal services.

 Occasional drastic measures will not solve any problem. It will in fact create new ones and exacerbate the old.

- What do you think of Bahrain's attempt to use migrants in regime-propaganda?

I looked at two attempts. First, the Bahraini regime tried to use migrants as a tool to smear opposition and activists. For some time ago, photos and video clips have appeared in local media and on social media showing migrants injured in attacks by ‘terrorist gangs’.  I did not see similar photos and clips recently, apparently because they backfired. Most of protests take place in poorer parts of Bahrain where migrants live. There are no signs or reports of an exodus by migrants from those areas.  I have seen a comment posted on twitter noting that poor migrants also suffer from government's security measures such as roadblocks and indiscriminate teargas attacks.

- Even in scholarly works, migrant workers are often excluded from writings on labour movements in the region. How can we overcome such a division?

I am under the impression that the situation has improved in recent years. But you are right there is a need to do more to answer the old questions: how can the poor speak?

‘Class-as-Citizenship’ is another example of a false consciousness based on what are assumed as concrete evidences of cohesion of interests between the ‘subjects’ and their rulers.

- Many would argue that class is tied to citizenship in the Gulf, how can we undo this hierarchy?

‘Class-as-Citizenship’ is just another manifestation of how successful the Gulf ruling families have been as social engineers. It is another example of a false consciousness based on what are assumed as concrete evidences of cohesion of interests between the ‘subjects’ and their rulers.  In some other societies rulers may have needed a war with an external enemy to propagate this false consciousness.   Here, in the Gulf, we have a housewife against her maid, and a kafeel against his worker. Both the housewife and kafeel know that their unrelenting partner is the state, i.e. the ruling family.  Khaleejuna wahid

- 2013 witnessed several crackdowns on migrants across Gulf, with regimes claiming to fight unemployment among citizens. How do you see the outcomes of this discourse and process?

Unemployment in the Gulf is a black hole. Failures of the educational systems, together with ramifications of the past four decades of autocratic rule and mismanagement of economic resources are making themselves felt.  Occasional drastic measures, such as ‘deportation of illegal migrants’ such the one we witnessed recently in Saudi Arabia, will not solve any problem. It will in fact create new ones and exacerbate the old. Unemployed Saudi young men and women, for example, are equipped with the skills required by the Saudi labour market. Further, Saudi and other Gulf employers have shown that they can rely on their long and varied experiences to deal with the occasional schemes desperately hatched by their governments.