South Asian Diasporas in the Gulf, an interview with Neha Vora

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Neha Vora is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lafayette College. Her research interests are focused on citizenship and belonging, South Asian diasporas, and migration in the Gulf region. In this interview, she talks about her study of Indian communities in Dubai and their negotiated connections with the city. She also discusses her ongoing project on identity formation and belonging in the experiences of students attending American branch campuses in the Gulf.

Mar 30 2015

How do you discuss issues of citizenship and belonging through the experience of Indians in Dubai?

There are two issues at play here that make Indians in Dubai look like they are absolutely excluded from Emirati society: these are the kafala system of migration in the Gulf region and the way we understand the concept of Indian diaspora. Kafala is a sponsorship system in which non-citizens of the UAE and other GCC countries cannot reside there unless they are sponsored by an individual citizen employer or a company. One can also be a dependent spouse or child of a sponsored employee. Sponsored work contracts are usually 1-3 years in length, and renewable. But renewal is of course not guaranteed, and shifting jobs is also difficult. So there is a sense of temporariness and precariousness built into non-citizen lives in the Gulf, whether they are low-skilled workers or executives, though of course which passport you hold and your race and class do impact how much privilege you get in the system.

We need to remember, however, that this sponsorship system has not existed for that long. Before independence in 1971, the UAE was a “Trucial State,” so basically an ancillary location of the British empire, which until 1947 was administered through India. Many South Asian families (especially merchants) hail from that time and have been able to use connections (wasta) to maneuver around the kafala system and other restrictions on foreigners. In fact, I met people during my fieldwork who were issued Pakistani passports when partition took place, but had never stepped in Pakistan or India because their families were settled in Dubai. Newer arrivals—the majority of South Asians, who are subject to the kafala system—come to Dubai and find vibrant thriving communities in which they can eat their food, speak their languages, and practice their religions. This produces a sense of belonging to Dubai, especially for those born and raised there. So you have this simultaneously entrenched diaspora but one that is also in many ways transient and vulnerable. In scholarly literature on Indian and other diasporas, we tend to think that immigrants leave and get citizenship elsewhere (such as the US, Canada, UK, etc), that these are the real diaspora, or “NRIs.” But I argue in my book that there are other ways that citizenship takes place in Dubai that might not be “official” (i.e. having a passport) but that allow Indians to claim Dubai as Indian or South Asian space, and especially within neighborhoods like Bur Dubai, Karama, Deira, Satwa, and others where I conducted my research. Indians also own businesses in these neighborhoods that cater to the diaspora, usually in a 49/51 percent partnership with an Emirati citizen (though some are not subject to this arrangement because of political influence). Thus, there is a long history of economic engagement with the Gulf region (many older Emiratis speak Hindi or Urdu, for example), and many Indians speak of Dubai as home, although this is much more the case among middle-classes who can bring family with them.

Your work focuses on upper class Indians; how do you see class shaping the experience of Indians in Dubai?

Actually, that is incorrect. My work focuses on the historically Indian-dominated neighborhoods of downtown Dubai and the people who inhabit them. This includes elites such as merchants (who I profile in one chapter of my book), but most of my fieldwork was among middle-class and working class people – those who hold salaried administrative jobs, drive taxis, work in shops, etc. Class of course shapes experience here, as it does everywhere. You need to earn a certain amount monthly (currently around 10000 AED) in order to sponsor family members, for example, so that is a stark dividing line between the middle-class and working-class. Indians also do not get the same salaries and benefits packages as Westerners, so they are able to save and remit less. And low-wage people, especially those who live in labor compounds far removed from the city, have the least amount of recourse if they face rights violations. However, if you go to any of these downtown neighborhoods on a Friday, you will see whole range of people from different classes shopping, hanging out on green spaces, socializing. My intervention into the representation of Indians in Dubai as all exploited “slave labor,” as many scholars and human rights organizations tend to portray them, is to showcase that no non-citizens in Dubai, especially those who have these entrenched historic communities to tap into, are overdetermined by class. They produce forms of social intimacy and belonging in Dubai, and to refer to them as slave labor erases these social and affective components of their lives, and in fact reduces them to just “labor,” thus dehumanizing them in the very human rights discourse and activism that is aimed at improving their lives.

Often migrant workers in the Gulf are only discussed as low-wage workers, perhaps because they endure the most abuses. What does your research find about upper-class migrants and their contribution to capitalism in the Gulf?

This is an important question, part of which I answered above. In order to understand the workings of power within global capitalism, we cannot solely focus on those we think are the most subaltern or exploited within the system. We also need to know what the middlemen, the managers, and the very elite folks do. My research found that it is not the Emirati kafeel (who is often far removed from the daily workings of migrant governance), but rather a range of actors—including those in home countries who recruit, those who arrange for visas and contracts, those who manage construction sites and camps, and those who dole out paychecks—who are the true agents of keeping kafala alive. Most of these people are not Emirati, but rather profiting from their own compatriots. Indian small business owners in particular can run ethnic businesses in which they exploit cultural, linguistic, national, and sometimes even familial affinities with their workers to justify lower pay and other abuses. This is of course not to say that Emiratis are not responsible for labor abuses—of course they are. They just have the privilege to not see the effects of where their profits come from. But in a country where citizens make up less than 15% of the population, we need to look at the complicity of everyone else in the system. Western and white “expats” for example, also profit greatly from a society that is so stratified in terms of nationality, race, and class,  as do I as an American citizen when I come to the Gulf for fancy conferences, to teach, or to do research (though as a South Asian woman I also face racial and gendered discrimination).

How does the class aspect play a role in the ways Indian communities mobilize and live in Dubai?

Dubai is a very geographically segregated city, and this maps onto race, class, and gender—women’s mobility is actually a topic that we could spend another whole interview discussing because it is so complex. There are neighborhoods that house middle-class families and working-class “bachelors” (a term for men who migrate alone, regardless of whether they have spouses in India), and then there are Emirati neighborhoods, and compounds and high rise buildings in newer parts of town that are mainly for “expats” – an international (but coded as white/western) mix of highly paid professionals and “experts” whose accommodation is usually subsidized by their employer. In addition, these more swanky parts of town, especially malls, hotels, nightclubs, and beaches, often deny entry to South Asian and other men who they deem to be “bachelors.” Add to this that it is usually non-citizens who manage the day-to-day governance of the kafala system, and this means that cross-class political mobilization is quite little, though cross-class identification as fellow Indians or South Asians takes place in many interactions within the neighborhoods I mentioned above (I call this an emergent “racial consciousness” in my book actually). However, labor protests are not as rare in the Gulf as we would think, especially among construction workers. In fact, just a couple weeks ago when I was in Dubai a large group of workers at a luxury housing site near the Burj Khalifa stopped traffic to protest for better pay and working conditions. Of course, these men will usually be deported or worse, but they do protest as well as use other strategic tactics to mobilize for their rights. And most of these protests rarely hit the news.

You are now trying to study the kind of education offered in branches of American universities in the Gulf. Are you looking at the way these institutions are kept exclusive legally and financially for certain groups?

This question contains some inaccuracies in the way it is framed. No one group has exclusive access to branch campuses of American universities in the UAE, or in Qatar, where I am now focusing my research. In fact, most of the less elite universities, like the ones in Dubai’s Knowledge Village, are geared primarily for foreign residents. Citizens in the Gulf have free access to public universities. These also range in their exclusivity though: Qatar University, for example, has a large number of foreign resident as well as international students. In the American branch campuses in Qatar, where I conduct research, the biggest problem they are facing is getting enough nationals enrolled. What I am exploring in this new project is the way that these universities create new forms of interaction for young citizens and non-citizens, as well as deepen forms of belonging for second-generation diasporics.

However, these are also not egalitarian institutions. As in the workplaces of the Gulf, there are nationalization policies that privilege citizens—in the elite branch campuses of Education City (which include Texas A&M, Weill Cornell Medical School, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon), Qatari students almost always have a sponsorship with either the Supreme Council of Education or with individual companies. This means their tuition is paid (as long as they maintain a rather average GPA), and that they have jobs waiting for them upon graduation. They are also favored in admission policies. Non-citizens on the other hand, rarely get sponsorships, and have to search for their own jobs in Qatar, or leave the country upon graduation, which is another layer of the precariousness of kafala life.

So I am investigating how this bifurcated system plays out in the identity formation and belonging of all kinds of students in Education City, as well as how they negotiate being in a supposedly meritocratic liberal university that is also structurally advantaging citizens. I have found that this does cause tensions, insecurities, and a feeling of unfairness among diasporic kids in particular, as well as segregation between Qataris and non-Qataris. However, many of these second-generation students also told me that they would be more disadvantaged having to negotiate being international students in the US, where they are also structurally disadvantaged by immigration policies, and sometimes to a greater degree. In Qatar, at least, they have access to interest free loans, administrative and other resources, and networking opportunities with potential employers that they would not have in the more anonymous and large-format “home campuses” of their universities in Qatar. So one of my goals with this project, as with my book on Dubai, is to de-exceptionalize the region and immigrant struggles here, while in no way diminishing the fact that they are very real  . They are not however exceptional to the Gulf region, and are rather indicative of broader trends in contemporary global mobility and capitalism.


Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East