No real change to the system without a deeper challenge to the position of Gulf rulers: Dr Adam Hanieh

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Dr Adam Hanieh, senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, spoke to about the newly-released book Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf, of which he is one of the editors.

Feb 18 2015

The collection of essays explores themes such as citizenship and exclusion in the Gulf, international real estate 'mega projects' (and those who build them) and the politics of space in Gulf cities. Contributors also explore the kafala system, the presence of white, skilled migrants and nascent labour movements among construction workers.

Dr Hanieh taught at Sheikh Zayed University, UAE, before joining SOAS. His research interests include labour migration and the world market, the political economy of internationalisation and finance, and theories of class and state formation. In Transit States, you argue that Gulf labour migration doesn’t just involve sending countries and receiving countries, but is part of a more globalized economic and political power structure. Why is it is so important to look beyond the concepts of the nation state and 'push-pull' factors when looking at Gulf migration? 
Adam Hanieh: At a general level, I think it’s very important to integrate labour migration into the dynamics of the global economy, particularly in the context of the current neoliberal austerity measures, economic downturn and multiple crises. This global context is critical to understanding the forces that generate migration, whether from rural to urban areas or the crossing of international borders. Simultaneously, from the perspective of capital, migrants are frequently viewed as the ideal worker – temporary, precarious, and ultimately disposable. And of course, alongside of this, migrants are racialised in particular ways, and often bear the worst brunt of crises.

Flowing from these factors, I think there are two implications that we need to consider as part of understanding labour migration. First, we need to understand that social relations aren’t neatly boxed within nation-state borders. What we consider, for example, as the ‘working class’ of a particular country, extends across and through national borders, and is constantly shifting in composition. Second, it is inadequate and misleading to locate the reasons for labour migration in simply the wage differentials between countries, as ‘push-pull’ approaches tend to do.  Instead, the social conditions that lead people to migrate are bound up with the social conditions that create such enormous polarisations of wealth across the global economy. Both the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ are connected and inseparable.

In the case of the Gulf, the ‘push-pull’ model remains the dominant interpretation of migration. This approach often considers migrant labour flows as a ‘win-win’ situation for both the sending and receiving countries, obfuscating the mechanisms of exploitation that have underlined the movements of millions of workers to the Gulf. What I try to do in my chapter is challenge this simplistic view, by arguing that an analysis of migration to the Gulf needs to extend beyond the lens of individual sending and receiving countries, to examine both the uneven development of the region as a whole, and the nature of the Gulf’s position within the wider global economy. In other words, we need to ask what are the processes that simultaneously drive both the Gulf’s prodigious development and the poverty and exclusion of neighbouring regions? I think the answer to this lies in the nature of the global political economy, and this can help us understand how foundational the structure of the Gulf’s labour force – or, to put it differently, the nature of class formation in the Gulf – is to national, regional and global hierarchies.

It is inadequate and misleading to locate the reasons for labour migration in simply the wage differentials between countries, as ‘push-pull’ approaches tend to do.

MR: You mention in the book that migrant workers’ struggles in the region have started to gain more traction in the past few years, particular in the UAE during 2013 when there were a number of large-scale strikes on construction sites.  Why do you think this is happening? Are there any particular economic or political drivers, local or international, behind this?
AH:I would say that there are a variety of factors at play here. Certainly after the 2008 crisis and the subsequent downturn in the Dubai real estate sector, there has been a ratcheting up of pressures on migrant workers in the UAE – particularly those involved in construction. We can see this reflected in the numerous reports of deportations, non-payment of wages, physical violence, and other pressures on working conditions over recent years. This has been true across the Gulf, not just in the UAE. At the same time, the continued expansion of so-called ‘mega projects’ – often in partnership with international cultural, academic, and sporting institutions – has raised international awareness around the conditions of the Gulf’s migrant workers.  We’ve seen a number of quite inspiring international solidarity initiatives recently in this regard. Perhaps the general context of the regional uprisings in 2011-2012 has also played a role. I think these are some of the factors behind the uptick in struggles – but it’s unclear whether this trend will continue in the immediate future.

MR: Organised labour activism in the Gulf is still in its very, very early stages. But it’s also the case in the wider Arab world that organised labour movements are still relatively weak, isn’t it?
AH:Yes, that’s true, with some partial, limited exceptions in places such as Tunisia and Egypt. One of the problems is that official trade unions have often been linked in a corporatist manner to states and ruling parties, and have acted more as a mechanism of social control rather than as an expression of working class interests. Another major issue is the prevalence of very large informal sectors throughout much of the Arab world, which have tended to remain outside any stable organised forms. And of course the massive social dislocation and multiple refugee crises taking place at the moment reinforce these difficulties. But I think it is striking that one of the largest components of labour in the Middle East, migrant workers in the Gulf, are virtually absent in much of the radical, progressive analysis and organising in the region.  If things are going to change, then this vital component of the Arab world needs to be seen as an integral part of the region’s working classes, not simply as temporary interlopers or foreigners. Remember, we’re talking here about more than 23 million people located in the core zone of the regional economy!

MR: Based on your experiences of researching the Gulf and living there, do you think it's realistic to hope for an end to the kafala system anytime soon?
AH:Many of the chapters in our book, most notably the interesting piece by Mohammed Dito, point to the centrality of kafala to the way that the citizen-migrant-state nexus works in the Gulf. Kafala, to paraphrase my co-editor Abdulhadi Khalaf, is key to understanding ‘what Gulf rulers do when they rule’. Both Dito and Khalaf argue that kafala is ultimately a means through which the surveillance and control of migrant labour is ‘sub-contracted’ by Gulf rulers to individual citizens and businesses. Not only is this extremely lucrative for those who have access to the sale of work permits, it also positions Gulf citizens as an fundamental part of the state’s disciplining of labour. Given this structural centrality of kafala, I personally don’t believe there will be any real change to this system without a deeper challenge to the position of Gulf rulers. It is much more likely that we will see cosmetic changes and endless claims of ‘policy reform’ with no substantive shift. I think this raises a general problem in terms of migrant advocacy, in which the situation of migrant workers in the Gulf is approached simply through the lens of policy or legislative change – ultimately this is a political question that requires confronting entrenched power relations.

MR: One thing that really stands out about the collection of essays in Transit States is that the writers look not only at the situation of migrant workers in unskilled occupations such as construction workers, but also at a range of other actors including South Asian security personnel in Bahrain and white university staff in Qatar.  Why is it important for our understanding of labour migration in the Gulf to set the plight of blue-collar, predominantly Asian workers, in dialogue with the stories of other types of migrants in the region?
AH:One of the aims of our book was to expand the ways in which migration to the Gulf is understood. I think the chapters by Michelle Buckley on the UAE, Neha Vora on Qatar, and those of K.T. Abdulhameed and Claire Beaugrand on Bahrain, do this in useful ways – illustrating that Gulf migration takes multiple forms that intersect to construct social, political and economic power in the Gulf. Most significantly, these authors point to the ways that the language and forms of governance that surround Gulf migration help to generate particular subjectivities of the migrant (and, very importantly, citizen’s) lived experience – notably those of gender, race and class.

MR:The study of Gulf migration is still a fairly new field, despite huge scale of human movement involved, and its massive political and economic effects that resonate far beyond the nation states of the Gulf. Are there any particular areas where you think there is a need for more in-depth research from academics, journalists and bloggers?
AH: I think there are two very important issues that could benefit from more in-depth research. The first of these is the relationship between labour migration and the wider political economy of the Gulf. At the moment, there is a tendency for the academic literature to treat these two issues as largely separate. Despite the extreme significance of migration to the Gulf, much work on the Gulf’s political economy tends to sideline the significance of these labour flows, focusing instead on capital markets, the distribution of oil rents, international geopolitics, and the nature of ruling families. Alternatively, the migration-based literature is often overly descriptive and narrow in focus – failing to explore how the question of labour migration continues to be essential to the broader development of capitalism in the Gulf. One of the things we attempted to do in the book was address this disjuncture; Omar AlShehabi’s introductory chapter and his piece on the relationship between urbanisation, finance and migration are two excellent examples. But, in my opinion, there is much more work that needs to be done in this respect.

Secondly, and this is something we were really unable to explore in any great depth, are the transnational ties of migrant networks in the Gulf. I’m not speaking about the familial or economic links between migrants and their home countries – on which a lot of work has been done– but more about the potential for political and labour movements to begin to organise across different transnational spaces. There have been a few examples of this in recent years, but it would be wonderful to explore in further depth. Given the repeated cases of deportations from the Gulf, what potential exists for building support and solidarity networks between people who have been returned (forcibly or not) from the Gulf, labour and political movements in places such as South Asia and the Philippines, and the continuing new waves of migrant workers? I think this is an area where more attention from academics, journalists and bloggers could really feed into strengthening activist work around these issues.

Transit States: Labour, Migration & Citizenship in the Gulf is edited by Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi and Adam Hanieh. The book is published by Pluto Books, London (2015)

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East