“Confronting ‘The Invisible Army:’ Identity, Community and Migrant Labor in Gulf States”

By Miriam R. Lowi
Submitted to Session P4035 (Arabian Identities and the Nation State, 2015 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
Identity/Representation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Ever since the arrival of the oil companies (with their technicians and advisors) in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s, the foreigner has played a critical role in the way local Arab populations identify themselves, understand community, and express belonging. Indeed, identity, community, and belonging have been re-fashioned with contact with the foreigner and his insertions in Gulf society. With the creation of national states in the Peninsula, the ubiquity and dependence on the foreigner has not only persisted, but also grown exponentially. Most notable among them are the masses of poor, mostly Asian, migrant laborers, who have built these countries and today constitute between 25 and 85 percent of the population in GCC states.
It can be argued, borrowing from Fanon and Bhabha, that in response to the European at the inception of the oil era, mimicry – the donning of their white masters’ masks – was adopted by Gulf Arabs in the hope of being acknowledged. Nonetheless, mimcry eventually resulted in a fractured identity: one that was “almost the same, but not quite.” How, though, has the subsequent encounter with the poor migrant laborer -- on whom the Gulf Arab is equally, if not more dependent -- impacted identity and the elaboration of community? Finally, how do the encounters with two very different types of foreigners – the European, with his power, wealth, and knowledge, and the Asian migrant with little apart from his labor power – intersect in identity-formation and the definition of community?
I address these questions using case material from four GCC states – Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – where I conducted field research including extensive interviews with nationals, expatriates and migrant laborers. In contrast to the more common focus of identity studies on religious or tribal affiliations, or sedentary versus nomadic lifestyles, I explore the ways in which the ubiquity of and dependence on foreign labor, since the early days of state formation and the oil economy, have been integral to the construction of identity among nationals. I argue that the deliberate exclusion – indeed, invisibility – of the migrant laborer (many of whom happen to be Muslim) is a means to both solidify identity and (re-)shape community and belonging, in keeping with the national project of ruling families, in the contemporary period. Furthermore, by underscoring hierarchy and privilege, it serves as an antidote to the uncomfortable ambiguity of being “almost the same, but not quite” vis-à-vis the ‘other’ (white) foreigner.