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The Absent Voices of Second-Generation Migrants in the Gulf States

Nadeen Dakkak, a third-generation migrant in Kuwait, reflects on questions of identity and belonging that can disorient children and grandchildren of the GCC's long-term migrants.

On June 27, 2020

As a third-generation migrant in Kuwait, I have found it challenging on both a personal and academic level to reflect on questions of national identity and belonging. Many migrants return to their home countries after working for a few years in Kuwait and the Gulf States, but there are also generations born and raised in places that do not give them civil and political rights; their experiences of liminality often make them outsiders in their countries of origin as well. How do they perceive citizenship and what are the effects of marginalisation on their perceptions of national identity and belonging?

In 2011, when political protests and uprisings swept through many Arab countries, it seemed that second-generation migrants in Kuwait were expected by and large to engage with the political situation of their countries of origin. This engagement was not simply understood as an expression of support for the right to demand freedom and social justice. Rather, it carried the expectation that they should be emotionally invested in the political situation ‘back home’, an investment that derives from their legal belonging and natural attachment to those countries. This is not an invalid expectation. Many second-generation migrants in Kuwait and the Gulf do maintain linkages with their countries of origin through annual visits. Their knowledge and attachment to those countries are mediated through the memories of parents and grandparents who often maintain their dialects and cultural practices because the Gulf is mostly a place that discourages cultural assimilation. They also remain connected legally through official documents and systems – passports, national IDs, social welfare schemes that are not portable across borders. These documents almost completely determine their residence in the Gulf and their ability to travel in a world characterised by uneven access to mobility. Political instability in the country of origin affects migrants in the Gulf at many levels, more than it does diasporas in countries where migrants have access to citizenship, not least because it exacerbates their insecurity.

There is also fear of the consequences of using one’s voice or of making such claims, one of which is deportation.

I do not suggest that second-generation migrants cannot be emotionally invested and politically engaged with the situation in their countries of origin if they have not lived there. Rather, my contention is that expecting them to be particularly invested in those countries affirms their status as outsiders who ultimately belong there without appreciating the effect being born and raised in the Gulf has had on their identities. The emotional attachments they develop in their Gulf homes can coexist with or even completely surpass the abstract national affiliations they are expected to maintain with their countries of origin.

This expectation also overlooks the crucial implications of exclusive citizenship in the region, one of which is the disavowal of national belonging altogether. While lack of emotional investment in the struggles of one’s country of origin can be read as apolitical and perceived as an individualistic refusal to step out of the status of diasporic marginality where one willingly embraces feelings of rootlessness, my aim is not to evaluate or justify the attitudes of second-generation migrants. Rather, this article calls for the need to understand the conditions that make such attitudes possible, for they are symptoms signalling a crisis in the conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging in the region. 

A Transnational Generation?

Many second-generation migrants acquire a “transnational behaviour” as a result of their detachment from their countries of origin and the inflexible Gulf migration policies which force them to be constantly prepared to move elsewhere. This behaviour emerges especially amongst those with Western education and a cosmopolitan perspective, which allows them to think of the Gulf as a stop in a longer journey, rather than as the only alternative to going back home.

Transnational behaviour can be understood as a survival mechanism, but it does not preclude the formation of generations with no access to any form of civic participation because growing up in the Gulf has prevented them from being involved in the politics of the place they experience on a daily basis. The emotional attachments they grow do not allow them to stake claims to the places they inhabit and shape through their daily social practices. There is also fear of the consequences of using one’s voice or of making such claims, one of which is deportation. Urban belonging, or the intimate everyday connections that individuals create in the places they inhabit, is one way by which the attachment of migrants to the Gulf can be articulated, but this kind of belonging does not entitle them to participate in or claim permanent belonging to their host countries

The voices of second-generation migrants may also be marginalised because they are not seen as authentic citizens of their country of origin.

Permanent Temporariness

The impact of the sponsorship system on second-generation residents in Kuwait and the Gulf does not often merit much attention despite condemning them to a state of permanent temporariness, with no recourse to naturalisation in the long run and with the pressure of having to renew the residency permit constantly looming on the horizon. The prospect of leaving upon losing one’s job and failure to renew the residency permit is a scenario for which migrant families always have to be prepared. It is not uncommon for one’s childhood memories to be permeated with the feelings of insecurity that I believe constitute one of the primary challenges of living in Kuwait as a non-Kuwaiti, whether as an adult or a child. Non-Kuwaitis are constantly reminded of their status through policies that are becoming increasingly more restrictive and the public discourse that blames many social and economic problems on the large migrant population.* As one second-generation migrant resignedly admits in an interview for a recent study on the Egyptian diaspora of Kuwait, “It’s an unfair life, but it’s in our faces… in the news, in our everyday interactions in Kuwait and we accept it. We have to accept it.”

The voices of second-generation migrants may also be marginalised because they are not seen as authentic citizens of their country of origin. An Egyptian acquaintance who was born and raised in Dubai once said to me that she is not seen by her relatives as having the right to comment on the situation in Egypt because she does not live there. While this attitude appears to contradict the tendency to perceive second-generation migrants as naturally possessing national belonging to their countries of origin, it signifies the difficulty of reconciling an essentialist understanding of national identity with the different experiences that ultimately fall under it.

Marginalisation may similarly shape how some migrants experience their own countries of origin. People in these countries may not know what living in the Gulf States as a non-citizen is really like, but they can nonetheless have a constructed, sometimes stereotypical, image of the Gulf. Migrants born and raised here are seen as privileged and spoiled because of their assumed extravagant consumption habits and overprotective parents. For example, a Syrian friend who left Kuwait to Damascus for university education would tell me how her financial difficulties were simply dismissed by her fellow course mates, to whom she is stereotypically perceived as rich.

A Crisis of Citizenship and Belonging

In the Gulf, when voicelessness is the norm and when fear of the consequences of speaking up is a reality that constantly threatens the precarious existence of migrants, it is not unexpected that many would disavow all forms of national belonging and express lack of emotional investment in the situation of their countries of origin. 

Detachment from national belonging can be understood as a practical or pragmatic attitude that is made possible by the need to adapt to one’s status of marginalisation. It can be very liberating, even paving the way for an open-minded, if not cosmopolitan view of the world. Yuting Wang shows in her interviews with non-Emirati students at a leading American university in the UAE that even though “the children of expatriates are often described as a ‘rootless’ generation that is deprived of meaningful citizenship in any country, they felt such ‘rootlessness’ transcended national boundaries and enabled them to embrace globalisation.” Their class status which gives them access to high standards of education and the multicultural diversity of the UAE allow them “to break away from tribalism, parochialism and nationalism, and to develop compassion towards ‘others’.” Embracing diasporic subjectivity and marginalisation makes it possible for them to liberate themselves from restrictive national affiliations.

However, this does not change the reality that there are no possibilities for the expression of one’s voice, especially amongst migrants who have less access to transnational privileges and perceive the Gulf as their semi-permanent home and the only place they wish to stay in.  In order to understand possibilities of political engagement or the absence of national belonging, we need to appreciate the full complexity of the situation from which they emerge, a situation where emotional detachment is the only choice many second-generation migrants have ever been given.

(Photo credit: Flickr @steveglasgow)