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Monarchy, migration and hegemony in the Arabian peninsula

Monarchy, migration and hegemony in the Arabian peninsula|

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John Chalcraft, Government Department, LSE




Two modes of representation tend to dominate the historiography of modern international labour migration, in the Gulf countries and beyond.

The first mode is characterized by economism and objectivism and draws on either conventional economics or Marxism. For conventional economists, migrants are rationally maximizing factors of production crossing borders as 'manpower' or 'resources' voluntarily according to the operations of supply and demand within a market economy (Serageldin 1983; Borjas 1990).

For Marxists, migrants are so many quotients of the objectively exploited commodity labour-power dragooned into service through the laws and dynamics of capitalism (History-Task-Force 1979; Cheng and Bonacich 1984). Both these apparently sharply opposed approaches, including their more sociologically-minded variants, tend to locate migrants within a macrological and quantitatively constructed (socio)economic space with an all-too-often reified autonomy, laws and dynamics of its own.

The second mode of representation is marked by culturalism and subjectivism and is inspired by postcolonialism and cultural history. Migrants are understood via more hermeneutic, textual, and ethnographic approaches as expressive subjects, marked by gender, race, ethnicity and nation, actively negotiating questions of identity, hybridity, recognition, representation, belonging and Selfhood (Wilson and Dissanayake 1996; Khater 2001). These agency-recovering and migrant-centred accounts, even in their more politically-minded variants, tend to locate migrants within a micrological and qualitatively constructed cultural space, seemingly distant from the 'hard' facts of material power.

In attempting to go beyond these modes of representation, this research project proposes to examine migration to the Gulf as an element in the construction and transformation of political order, generously defined. The goal is to explore how migratory flows are implicated in the making of states, power and politics. The reified space of economisti2c approaches to migration is understood to be an effect of what Caliskan and Callon have called 'economization' - a key element in the construction of political order, where numerous questions are de-politicized through their displacement into issues of demography, economic development, and technocratic expertise (Caliskan and Callon 2007).

Such economization is a political technique aimed at the control of persons through the management of things. Its form of displacement is operative in official statements and legal frameworks, and even implicit in the oppositional political discourse of Islamists, which pays little attention to fellow-Muslim Asian workers in the Gulf. But this management of things, and its forms of power, hierarchy, and inequality often operate through (not against) the identities and interpellations examined too-abstractly in the hermeneutics of cultural studies (Chalcraft 2007). Both economization, and 'culture wars', therefore, are fundamental in the migration politics which I propose to explore.

Lila Abu-Lughod suggested that resistance be studied as a diagnostic of power: that rural-urban bedouin women in Egypt were challenging patriarchal, clan authority by putting on lipstick and 'going out', she argues, enables us to diagnose the new hegemony of neoliberalism and consumerism in late twentieth century Egypt (Abu-Lughod 1990). The research proposed here suggests that we reverse the formula and study power as diagnostic of resistance.

The Gulf countries' search for migrant labour was never simply an abstract rational calculation based on demography, complementarity, profit-margins, or labour supply and demand; nor was it simply about preserving an authentic national identity: it was also a political question. A circular, menial labour force, segregated into compounds, denied political and collective rights and subject to deportation was a way to solve a question of political order: how to de-politicize and control the mass of a working population sought out for the development and diversification of oil economies.

Here the quite different political trajectory of oil-rich countries around the Persian Gulf with large indigenous workforces - such as Iran and Iraq - is highly instructive. Radicalism and revolution in Iraq and Iran (on and off the oil fields) contrasted with family rule, monarchy, and social conservatism in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other Gulf countries. The making of a migratory regime, in other words, owed much to an attempt to forestall anticipated resistance.

Once instituted, moreover, migratory regimes were constantly under political reconstruction. Already by the late 1970s, policy-makers in Saudi Arabia and beyond felt that Arab workers posed a political threat and sought out South and Southeast Asian workers, considered to be more compliant and hard-working. Governments in Southeast Asia, in turn, sought to overcome political and economic crises of their own, associated with spiralling oil costs, by exporting labour to the Gulf. US military contractors, scaling down operations on US bases in Thailand with the end of the Vietnam war in the 1970s, but now increasingly operating in the Gulf after the British withdrawal from east of Suez, brought some of the first Thai workers with them.

More than a million Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Gulf war of 1990-1, and around 300,000 Palestinians were likewise ejected for political reasons from Kuwait. Yet, by the early 2000s, worries over possible cohesion among South Asian workers, and their growing protests, caused authorities in the United Arab Emirates to attempt a strategy of 'cultural diversity', involving a turn to Arab workers once again (Shami 1994; Longva 1997; Davis 2006). In short, the shaping of political order, and the making of the migratory regime in particular, allows for a certain diagnosis of the role of real and imagined forms of resistance.

Through such diagnoses, one can probe more than is customary into the migration politics of the Gulf.

The foregoing illustrates the kinds of themes in the comparative politics of migration in the Gulf that my research paper proposes to examine. The aim is to place migration systems at the centre of problems of political order in the Gulf, rather than as marginal issues or as merely a narrow problem of economy, society, or culture.

The paper aims to open up a set of research questions, rather than to focus in great ethnographic or historical detail on particular incidents or events, although I will pay particular attention to recent, unprecedented rounds of protest among Asian workers and responses to them. I will engage in theoretical as well as empirical research, and make use of secondary sources both in Arabic and English, as well as government and nongovernmental publications, newspapers, magazines, journals, policy-papers inter alia. I plan a 2-3 week trip to the Gulf countries in Easter 2009 in order to interview key officials, contractors, members of relevant unions and NGOs, and migrant workers, especially those involved in recent strikes.


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  • Borjas, G. J. (1990). Friends or strangers : the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy. New York, Basic Books.
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  • Chalcraft, J. (2007). "Labour in the Levant." New Left Review 45: 27-48.
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