Book review

The multi-layered success of South Asian migrants to the Gulf is a worthy reminder in phobic times

But while migration has lifted scores out of poverty, it has also sharpened communal divides.

For some time Indians have agonised over United States President Donald Trump’s visa policy, set to hit the whopping $150 billion IT export industry to the country. Simultaneously horrifying news of fatal attacks on Indian immigrants have trickled in. This is but a part of a larger global phenomenon where world over migrants are increasingly feeling unwelcome, those fleeing war and persecution at home are under greater surveillance, no matter that there is empirical evidence that their inputs – even of those seeking refugee status – to their host countries is enormous.

Which is what makes the recent publication of South Asian Migrants to Gulf Countries: History, Policies, Development, particularly relevant and compelling reading. The story of migration and its success, as seen through the prism of South Asian migration to the Gulf countries, is also about an encouraging symbiotic relationship, which has not just endured but strengthened over the years. It is even more significant when compared to that of those more proximate – whose ties with their host countries have floundered or even outright failed.

Currently nearly 9.5 million South Asian expatriates are working in various sectors of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. This book, which is an attempt to unpack the various dynamics at work in this phenomenon, underscores that “South Asians have become the predominant group, one of the major drivers of the economy.” Of them Indians form the largest community – seven million strong.

Movements in time

Migration to the oil-rich Gulf countries is not of recent vintage. Nor was Islam the main driver, though it became an important one, remind Prakash C Jain and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, the editors of the book. The relationship between the peoples of the two regions dates back to antiquity. The movement of people, goods, ideas has been consistent. Not incidentally, perhaps, the Arabic word for spice is “baharat” (there being no sound or consonant equivalent to our “bh” in Arabic). These ties were further consolidated and greatly institutionalised during the Raj.



The book reminds us that South Asia’s trade relations with the Persian Gulf region date back to the period of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The chapter by Kundan Kumar elaborates how a number of small colonies of Gujrati Banias dotted the region as early as the 9th century CE.

“Archeological evidence in the form of a Hindu temple’s ruins at Qalhat in Oman is available from the 16th century onwards, suggesting the presence of Indians. By the 17th and 18th centuries, such settlements were common throughout the region, particularly in present day Iran, Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. British colonialisation of the Gulf region as well as the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century further helped in consolidating the settlement of Indians (as merchants, bankers, pearl financiers, importers, and exporters, customs, farmers, contractors, and government officials in the Gulf countries.”

Kumar succinctly deals with the historic aspect of the relationship which injected the element of familiarity so that in later years Asian workers from the subcontinent continued to be employed as a matter of course. For instance, between 1757 and 1857, as Britain consolidated imperial rule in India, so too did her interests grow to include the Gulf region. So during this time, “British officials sponsored the migration of convict labour and free workers from India as they wanted an ‘inexpensive and controllable work force’, and Indian migrants in turn helped Aden into a major steamship port.”

The discovery of oil in the 20th century and the resultant oil export economy and the development activities further required the import of labour force, including for clerical as also skilled and semi-skilled workforce. Wherever there was a strong British presence – in Kuwait and Qatar – workers from British colonies from the Indian sub-continent dominated the workforce. Even Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO which initially recruited extremely few Indians, was forced to recruit them in large numbers during the Second World War when “the urgency to supply oil to allied forces in East Asia during the Second World War demanded an increase in its oil production and expansion of its refinery. Britain’s preference for Indian labour stemmed from its foreign policy objectives entering on the desire to maintain British hegemony in the Gulf. But Indians benefitted in the bargain. Indian diplomats, for instance, are fond of reminiscing how the Sultan of Oman, actually offered the Gwadar port, now at the centre of strategic speculation and scepticism, to India, soon after Independence.”

The high oil income during the 1970s and 80s enabled the GCC authorities to spend a significantly high proportion of their budgets on infrastructure and other development activities, leading to further recruitment of labour from the poverty-stricken economies of South Asia. But simultaneously, investment in education, healthcare, sanitation by the GCC authorities meant that there was also further recruitment of skilled labour and workforce from South Asia, where the pull factor was, of course, higher wages for the expatriates.

So while the end of British Raj saw tumultuous changes in the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, or South Asia, relations with the Gulf countries squired newer forms.

 Most interesting though is the “Asianisation” of the labour force that has consistently been taking place in the Gulf economies. Academics Ginu Zacharia Oommen and Andrzej Kapiszewski both point to the fact that though the composition of migrant workers has been shifting in the GCC, “a consistent and significant shift from Arab workers to Asians had taken place ever since the late 1970s, mainly to safeguard the political interests of oil rich monarchies”.

Shifting gears

Two major events that particularly enabled this process of “Asianisation”, spells out Kapiszewski, were: the intensification of globalisation since the 1990s which accelerated developmental activities and the demand for immigrant manpower in the Gulf states, and the withdrawal of Yemeni and Palestinian labour from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries on account of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the wake of their support to Iraq. Both these factors were instrumental in rendering numeric primacy to South Asians in the Gulf countries. Thus the proportion of the Arab expatriate population which was 72% in the 1970s was reduced to 31% in the late 1990s.

Certainly this preference was also enhanced and encouraged by the characteristic features of South Asian migrant labour: namely docility, political neutrality, flexibility, willingness. The willingness to work for lower wages, and capacity to work hard, helped in the process.

The impact of migration is multi-layered. For the sending country or region, the impact of migration is often quantified in terms of economic remittances on one hand and on the other, socio-cultural remittances, such as the “changed world views and way of life” of the migrants that they import back to their home countries. In the context of South Asia, this has meant higher living standards, and escape from unemployment and poverty, as true in the case of India as that of Sri Lankans seeking livelihood and respite from the civil war that tore apart their tiny country, or Bangladeshis seeking a way out of the grinding poverty in their villages and towns.

Not only has migration to the GCC become a major contributor to their home countries’ foreign exchange income, but they have also helped transform the economy of their respective home towns, villages, cities and states, leading to higher indices of social welfare. 
Migration has had other major by-products, not always qualified: it has led to greater autonomy for women migrants from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, who travelled there to work as domestic helpers and later – as the healthcare industry expanded – as health caregivers and nurses.

As Michele Ruth Gamburd, one of the contributors to the book notes, that many of them have “assumed the role of breadwinners and entered the ‘care industry’ of the GCC countries on a massive scale…” The social consequences of such female migration has significantly altered the patriarchal norms, the gender roles, family settings and class structure of their communities back home, because the position and authority of these women in their families and communities has been considerably fortified. In Sri Lanka, for instance, such migrant women are in “great demand as brides”.

On the other hand, such migration has also led to cultural insulation and sharpened communal divides, as in Bangladesh or Pakistan, or in the “Gulf pockets” in Kerala in India.

Going back home

Migration to the Gulf being temporary and circulatory in nature, return migration and rehabilitation of returnees have also emerged as important issues in most South Asian countries.

 Nevertheless, it is fascinating when we consider that many of the expatriates from South Asia, especially India, which constitutes the largest group, are today second or third generation migrants. For instance, about 2.6 million Indians live in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone, constituting the largest expatriate community there. While they send back home about $13.2 billion annually, they are also the largest investors in the UAE’s real estate market. So, though temporary in nature, the symbiosis has engendered a kind of continuous temporariness, even an emotional dividend.

Changing geopolitical dynamics has injected another element – that of strategic, as Ginu Zacharia notes in his contribution to the book. This was most starkly demonstrated when the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the Chief Guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi in January. A slew of accords were signed between India and the UAE, elevating bilateral relations from transactional to strategic. Similarly, India has defence agreements with other GCC countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Oman and these ties are set to only expand and deepen.

A bumpy road

Of course, it has not all been rosy and smooth sailing. There have been enough reports and cases of the abuse, oppression of migrant labour in the GCC country, especially of women with few, if any, laws existing for safeguarding their rights and for their protection. In many cases, unscrupulous middle-men from the home countries are also culpable. Zakir Hussein, in his chapter, outlines how the job market is not egalitarian in the GCC states and that the wage differential is quite high between the expatriates and the natives, with the former employed mostly in the private sector which offers lower wages and fewer facilities. He also explains how a variety of factors – high unemployment among the GCC natives, economic burdens due to the various Gulf Wars, the increase in the female participation in the labour market have all determined a more restrictive policy for migration, like the Saudi Nitaqat law, which aims at the “Saudization” of the work force in private sector in the country by easing out expatriate workers.

Nevertheless, there has been no decrease in the flow of migrant workers to the GCC region in the last one decade inspite of political upheavals in the Middle East, low oil prices, or even the global economic slump. This may, of course, change in the future.

Globalisation, liberalisation of the societies of the GCC countries, widening of human rights regime in South Asia has led to greater dialogue among these countries and their respective governments and a number of checks have been put in place to preempt and prevent the abuse and torture of the migrants and misuse of labour laws.

The fact that through the changing economic-political dynamics, the South Asian, especially the Indian migrant community in the GCC, has endured, is a pointer to the contribution that migrants make to their host countries. Moreover, when migrants make no political claims, and their contribution is acknowledged and appreciated, the relationship between the host and the migrant becomes symbiotic, beneficial to both. The narrative of migration from South Asia to the GCC serves as a beacon in these times of migrant-skepticism, bordering on migrant-phobia.

South Asian Migration to Gulf Countries: History, Policies, Development, Prakash C Jain and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, Routledge India

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