Identity and nationality in the Gulf states

Identity and nationality in the Gulf

Few countries in the world have more foreigners than locals living within their borders. It is the case in the Arab Gulf states, where the majority of the population consists of immigrants: up to more than 85% in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Drawn to the oil-rich region by employment opportunities, the huge immigrant communities have significant implications for the economical, political and social structure of the six Gulf states. For the locals, mostly outnumbered in their own countries, this poses unique challenges to their concepts of identity and nationality.1

Characterizing the ordinary Gulf street view are men in traditional clothing (long white dresses and a scarf protecting the head) and migrant workers from Asia. Whether you order a karak tea, have your gas tank filled up or observe your groceries disappearing in as many separate plastic bags as possible: the person providing you the service will most likely come from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or the Philippines. (If the latter, you get a free ‘mam’ or ‘mister’ with every sentence – definitely upgrading your average Burger King order.)

The dominance of Asians in the low-paid service and construction sectors may strike the visitor as unjust: the division between social layers seems to be along the lines of ethnicity. Racial segregation is imprinted on the western consciousness as a terrible evil, and the liberal mind protests that this does not look like a meritocratic society. This is not entirely accurate: in this case, ethnicity simply largely correlates with levels of qualification. Moreover, the Gulf also houses many highly skilled and well-paid immigrants. But that doesn’t mean that everyone in fact gets the same opportunities.

Import of labor force
The six Gulf monarchies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (together forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)) started to attract foreign workers after the discovery of oil in the region. The local populations were small and unskilled but the ambitions of the rulers sky-high, which asked for a massive import of labor force and expertise. Foreign workers became, and still are, the primary source of labor in many sectors, and have allowed for an astonishing transformation of the Gulf over the course of the last century, unmatched in speed and scale.

European concerns over threats to tradition and culture by the influx of refugees appear petty when comparing immigration to the world-record numbers of the Gulf countries. But there is a crucial difference: in the Gulf, immigrants are, by rigid definition, considered non-permanent. The GCC members use the term ‘temporary contractual workers’ to describe foreign nationals who are employed in their countries, which conveys the message that they are expected to leave as soon as their work contracts expire, and that they are not expected to integrate.2 Immigration in the Gulf has in this way become directly and inextricably linked to a job. 

History of mass immigration
For geographical reasons, the Gulf has always been relatively open and cosmopolitan,3 welcoming people from Arabia, Asia and Africa; its flexible borders accommodating traders and nomadic tribes. Before the start of the oil boom, until 1930, many foreigners obtained Gulf citizenship.4 Unsurprisingly, this practice was abolished when the immigration dramatically increased to lead to world-record rates of population growth: from 4 million in 1950 to 40 million in 2006.5   

The first large groups of immigrants were Arab, whose linguistic, cultural and religious proximity was convenient. The Gulf regimes however increasingly feared that these immigrants posed a threat to internal political stability by introducing new leftist ideologies – notably pan-Arabic views were advocated by those from poorer Arab states to claim a share in the Gulf’s oil wealth. This led to a new labor policy of hiring people from Asia. These workers were not only cheaper, but also less likely to mingle with or influence indigenous culture and had no intentions (or were given no hope) of settling: they came on project-basis and usually left their families at home.

This rationale still prevails today; the average period that foreigners stay however continues to extend.6 Although many of them want to go back home eventually, numerous people have lived in the Gulf all of their lives, have even been born there, without actually being or considering themselves as a citizen of that country. They socialize within their ethnic communities and often never learn Arabic. This segregation is apparent in the streets and even in for example universities, where ethnicities flock together.

It compels rethinking conventional assumptions of belonging. People like these are in terms of commitment and attachment to the country much like citizens, but they lack the official status. As non-nationals they naturally face institutionalized discrimination: they are often not entitled to state benefits, property ownership and an increasing range of jobs reserved for citizens.7 For many, however, these concerns don’t overrule the feeling of gratitude and indebtedness for opportunities they wouldn’t find in their countries of origin. This is also maybe because of the many others who are in the same situation or because protest would be futile. Nevertheless, voices are heard calling for more rights for immigrants and other people without nationality.

But the Gulf countries oppose the possibility of civic citizenship as much as they oppose integration. In civic nationalism, citizens of a country are defined regardless of race, descent, religion and culture, by shared political rights and obeying national laws. The state creates the nation. This idea is to different extents implemented by western countries; the archetypical examples being France and the United States. GCC countries embrace an ethnic criterion instead: citizenship derives from bloodline. Nationality is only inheritable – in most cases via the father.

This concept is integrated in the tribal history of the Arabian peninsula. In tribes, people are united on the basis of common ancestry. Family lineage is important, as reflected in the Gulf’s hereditary monarchies,8 where for example certain government posts are always allocated to family members.9 Unlike in countries such as Egypt, where the custom is to use one’s father’s and grandfather’s names as surname, the native Gulf inhabitants all have a family name and that name comes with a family tree. With kinship as the main condition of group membership, obtaining a Gulf nationality is next to impossible for a foreigner.

Protecting the status quo
This inaccessibility of citizenship has of course everything to do with protecting the wealth of the GCC countries. A passport comes with great economic benefits and granting foreigners citizenship would dilute those: nationals enjoy free public services, subsidies, education stipends and government jobs and pay no income tax. Oil revenues make rulers independent from taxation and thereby from economic elites, and the extensive social welfare system buys off potential rivals and political claims. The contrast with western concepts is obvious: in the Gulf there is no exchange between tax paying duties and political rights.

Their profitable passports make citizens of the Gulf countries part of the well-off upper classes. This is a crucially important demographic fact for the undemocratic monarchies, as their citizens will refrain from taking risks in demanding for, for example, more political rights. The trade-off is mutually advantageous – at least for now.

The lower classes of societies, generally more susceptible to insurgent ideas because they are in the position to improve their conditions, consist in the Gulf of foreigners. They enjoy few rights and laws that protect them adequately, and are in this way firmly kept under control. Their stay is conditional: regulations concerning visa issuance are becoming all the more strict and they can be arrested and deported for overstaying or committing crimes. It helps making the countries very secure: it is in general the lower socioeconomic classes that involve in criminal and other indecent behavior (such as sexual harassment), but in the Gulf they would be gambling with their visa.

GCC governments share the efforts to monitor and control migrant workers with GCC nationals through the sponsorship system: employers function as sponsors for their foreign employees and are legally and economically responsible for them. Some call to end this system, as it makes immigrants completely dependent on their employers: they cannot change jobs or leave the country without their permission – often their passports are confiscated upon arrival.

This dependency can lead to exploitation, as in the topical case of the World Cup construction workers in Qatar. Several GCC countries have had to deal with protests of (mostly Asian) workers demanding better working conditions or timely payment. In the context of discouraging any such resistance, it has even been suggested that the general lack of accurate statistics about immigrants in the Gulf is due to authorities “thinking probably that it is better not to make foreign communities aware of their actual size.”10

Conserving the delicate status quo forms a reason for Gulf countries to be hesitant to accept refugees from Syria and elsewhere: Arabic-speaking people whose stay might not be temporary will further challenge the demographic balance and might, through their proximity in language and culture, influence society and politics. Moreover, the facilitations refugees would profit from (although none of the GCC countries has signed the international convention that stipulates refugees’ rights) could lead to claims of unfair treatment from other migrant populations.

Nation building
The physical separation between foreigners and citizens is encouraged as it is increasingly recognized that local culture is under pressure. In particular, authorities have been said to worry about Asian nannies and foreign teachers (composing the majority of all teachers): they might not properly be able to educate children Islamic and Arab values.11 Other concerns include the decreasing prevalence of the Arabic language; less so the prevailing materialism and consumerism adopted from the West, which of course very well serve rulers’ economic aspirations.

Gulf countries have recognized the importance of creating a sense of nationalism. The economic benefits for passport holders are an important aspect of constructing citizenship, but that is not per se sufficient for constituting a collective identity. Not only are the Gulf citizens in most cases a minority in their own countries, they might also find themselves culture-wise disoriented in relatively young states (with the exception of Oman12) which have rapidly and unrecognizably changed, while being tied between lurking transnational Arab or religious affiliations and historical ethnic tribal identities.

History often serves as a basis for a sense of national culture and unity, and the Gulf states deploy this strategy by branding themselves both internally and internationally as Islamic as well as what has been called “tribal modern.” This emphasis on the region’s tribal culture, which indeed actually contradicts the notion of citizenship (as well as, in fact, Islam, which preaches against divisions of the umma), shows a clever usage of tribal logic to forge a collective national identity. Loyalty to a tribe is mostly based on the idea of common descent and this concept is, on a different scale, used to define nationality: the idea of ethnic citizenship. The nation, as the collection of citizens, is then described as a unity in terms of ethnicity and on the grounds of common culture and history, derived from the shared tribal past.

Similar to this national strategy, tribalism is highlighted in international perspective as part of the design of a unique, marketable image of the GCC countries. Business people and tourists alike are to be attracted by an infusion of the Gulf’s dominant “modern” features with the “tribal” and “traditional”, as to save the region from globalization’s threat of homogeneity. Part of these national branding policies are efforts to preserve traditions (either real or invented) – think camel parades at international events, Bedouin poetry contests and traditional dress codes for government employees and students.

Traditional clothing is a physical connection to native culture and it is therefore no surprise that in Gulf countries you will find many people wearing traditional dress, in official settings as well as in normal daily life – much more than in other Arab countries, where western-style is the norm. Whereas most women from Gulf countries cover their hair and body in a black abaya, which is a recent Islamic trend rather than reminiscent of tribal culture, men look like their ancestors: a long white dress that goes under different names and a scarf over the head – both the garments and the style of wearing them differing slightly from country to country.

The Gulf citizens scatter their streets and shopping malls with all-white and all-black silhouettes among a prismatic sample of virtually all different shapes and colors humankind has developed into – especially the ultra-multicultural Dubai lends itself very well for the enjoyable pastime of “guess-the-nationality.” Appearances reflect the unofficial separation: clothing is also an opportunity for locals to distinguish themselves in seas of foreigners, in order to be recognized and respected as such. Immigrants are not forbidden but also not supposed to wear the national clothing; wearing it equates privilege and, yes, emphasizes hierarchy.

There is no doubt that many GCC nationals lead superior lives in comparison to many of the foreign workers. Not better than all foreigners: the Gulf houses many well-paid expatriates (only then the use of this term is conventional) from all over the world enjoying the luxury and secure lifestyle the region offers to those with money. It is the imported underclass, to whom the region owes much of its prosperity, that raises the idealistic observer questions about global injustice and unfairness.

The foreign workers came, stay and accept their second-class status voluntarily: they probably enjoy a higher standard of living than in their country of origin and are able to send much money to their families far away. But the immediate contrast with the lives of the locals makes their situation deplorable. What is more saddening: a poor life or an inferior life?





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In this article, immigrants are people with foreign backgrounds who live in the Gulf, without having the citizenship. I will use the terms immigrant, worker, foreigner and combinations of them interchangeably. I am also aware of the controversy over the terms ‘Arabian Gulf’ and ‘Persian Gulf’ and I will therefore refer to the region as ‘the Gulf’.
  2. See: Awad, I., & Aziz, N. A. (2017). Egyptian Irregular Migration in the GCC Countries. In P. Fargues, & N.M. Shah (Eds.), Skilful Survivals: Irregular Migration to the Gulf (pp. 225-241). Cambridge: Gulf Research Center. Available from:
  3. In 1939, for example, 39 percent of Qatar’s population was non-Arab. Source
  4. For more information see here.
  5. The population in the current GCC states has grown more than eight times during 50 years; to be exact, from 4 million in 1950 to 40 million in 2006, which marks one of the highest rates of the population growth in the world.” Source (page 3)
  6. Source (page 5)
  7. This is referred to as Bahrainization, Omanization, Emiratization and Saudization: positive discrimination policies to increase the percentage of nationals in companies in selected industries, replacing expatriates by nationals, for example by the use of quotas. For more information see here.
  8. “Although tribalism tends to discourage inherited authority, traditions of leadership are nevertheless passed down, and tribes expect that certain families will furnish them with leaders generation after generation.” Source
  9. “Tribal governance in the Arabian Peninsula today entails allocating certain government posts known as “sovereign portfolios” to family members. These portfolios include defense, foreign affairs, security, intelligence, the interior ministry, and the premiership.” Source
  10. “The exact size of foreign communities in the GCC states is, however, difficult to establish, as authorities usually do not reveal any information about them, thinking probably that it is better not to make foreign communities aware of their actual size. (…) There are numerous reports that give much larger numbers for particular Asian communities, especially in Saudi Arabia.” Source (page 10)
  11. Source (page 12)
  12. The Sultanate of Oman boasts an impressive history and is the oldest independent state in the Arab world. Most of the other GCC countries became independent only after the withdrawal of Britain from the Gulf in 1971, with the exception of Saudi Arabia (1932) and Kuwait (1962).