In 2006, when I conducted research for my dissertation in Dubai, I encountered a diasporic population of Indians and other South Asians who were well-settled in the downtown neighborhoods of “old Dubai” and relatively permanent despite citizenship and migration policies in the United Arab Emirates. South Asians are today the largest immigrant population in the Gulf, far outnumbering citizens in several countries. The Gulf Arab states do not allow for naturalization or permanent residency, and require immigrants to hold temporary renewable work visas or be listed as dependents of those who hold such visas.
In my book that resulted from this research, Impossible Citizens, and in my more recent research in Qatar, I note several ways that Gulf governments move to include certain immigrant populations, namely business owners and the upper middle-class. For example, Gulf governments actively hail foreign residents as part of the nation through multicultural imagery and rhetoric; free zone areas offer the ability to purchase housing and own businesses without a local partner (which come with a residency permit); children of immigrants can now attend college in the Gulf with the opening of several international campuses and in Qatar are offered loan forgiveness if they stay on to work in-country; and the UAE has initiated a pseudo “green card,” called the golden visa, which comes with long-term residency and 100 percent business ownership for the uber-wealthy. In addition, Gulf cities play first-run Indian films, there are temples, churches, and other places of worship for non-Muslims, a plethora of South Asian restaurants, groceries, and other businesses, and South Asian languages are commonly spoken.
Precarity also marks the condition of every Gulf immigrant, and this is particularly the case for those who are lower-wage. Most working class immigrants cannot migrate with family members, often live in crowded company housing on the outskirts of the city, are not welcome in malls and other semi-public spaces, have trouble shifting jobs, and may even have their passports and pay withheld from them by exploitative employers.
At times of crisis, the most precarious immigrants face increased uncertainty. After the 2008 recession, many workers, including wealthier diasporics, were laid off and had to leave the country. In the post-recession years, housing prices have skyrocketed in cities like Dubai and Doha, and many middle-class immigrants are facing housing precarity due to gentrification and redevelopment of traditionally South Asian neighborhoods. Yet, South Asian immigrants commonly discuss with me their preference for the Gulf over other diasporic locations, even within a condition of precarity. For many of them it is preferable to their home countries, as well, because the Gulf offers all of the cultural conveniences with higher pay and increased cleanliness and security. South Asians, both tourists and immigrants, often told me during my research in Dubai and Doha that cleanliness and security are what draw them to visit, work, reside, and raise families in these cities. But of course, as anthropologists and other scholars around the globe have shown us, “security” for some populations means increased policing, marginalization, and precarity for others.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperative Council enjoy a great amount of wealth from petroleum resources, which they have historically invested in public works, infrastructure, social welfare (primarily for citizens but also to some extent for their large foreign resident populations), health care, and cutting edge security systems. Citizenship in these societies is limited in order to keep benefits for citizens high. But these benefits are linked to oil prices. At times when oil prices have decreased, Gulf leaders have imposed austerity measures on their citizens. And there is also an overwhelming rhetorical shift in development plans away from social welfare toward neoliberal citizenship production.
In the wake of Covid-19, how have Gulf countries mobilized these interests and their resources? Their small size, large-scale spending capacities, and centralized governance structures allowed Gulf countries to make swift decisions about public health. They were quick to shut down schools, close borders, invest in tracking technologies, and initiate mandatory quarantines, checkpoints, and lockdowns. But the line between public health and securitization has been shown over the last few months to be quite fuzzy, and many Gulf residents have felt the adverse effects of these decisions as new forms of security intensify existing fault lines, while perhaps opening up new ones. This is compounded by another crisis: that of oil. As the world shut down, so did the demand for Gulf petroleum. Prices have plunged, and many foreign workers have been laid off and deported. Many more immigrants are now living without legal status, often with food and housing insecurity, which makes them even more vulnerable to labor exploitation.
Covid-19 might be just another crisis in the Gulf region from which these societies will rebound to their former cartography of migration, citizenship, and belonging. But there are some shifts in the way immigrants are experiencing life on the ground under heightened security and insecurity that suggest a remapping of immigrant belonging and exclusion.
Technology, surveillance, and digital divides
Security measures surrounding Covid-19 have permeated into practically all aspects of everyday life in the Gulf in ways that exacerbate existing inequities such as citizenship, race, and class. Gulf countries quickly adopted new technologies such as heat-sensing cameras in shopping malls and airports, and phone applications that can conduct contact tracing, provide health status, and track residents’ location. In Qatar, as of May 22, 2020, all residents are required to have an app called Ehteraz installed on their smartphones when leaving their homes. The app links with their Resident ID number to find their health status. In order to enter grocery stores, not only are temperature scans required but also a green Ehteraz status that shows you are negative for Covid-19. Qatari authorities have also set up traffic stops to check that residents have the app on their phones. Not having the app can lead to heavy fines.
Other Gulf countries have implemented similar temperature scanning measures and contact tracing apps. These apps have raised security concerns. In a Qatar expatriate group that I am part of, many members expressed concerns about Ehteraz requiring access to other information on your phone, such as photos and contacts. In order to bypass this problem, group members were purchasing new phones solely to run the app. However, since the app requires a smart phone, and one with a newer operating system, this means that those without the ability to purchase multiple smartphones are risking their privacy and their safety if they decide to leave their homes, and those unable to afford smartphones at all are stuck at home without access to basic services or risk heavy fines if they leave. Those who face this risk include all of my interlocutors except the wealthiest businessmen.
As temperatures intensify in the summer months, the thermo scanners are also starting to malfunction, with friends who reside in the Gulf reporting having to be scanned more than once before entering shops, which in turn is leading to longer lines and hotter tempers. While Gulf governments have the spending power for high tech monitoring, technology implementation has not accounted for the existing disparities between Gulf residents, and it is clear that these continue and are even exacerbated by new forms of surveillance.
The labor of security
Ironically, the labor of security falls to those who are among the most insecure themselves. In the Gulf, security guards are usually young men from a handful of national backgrounds that command some of the lowest salaries in the ethnoracial hierarchy of Gulf employment, and yet these men are tasked on a daily basis with policing the mobility of wealthy patrons in hotels, shopping malls, and housing complexes. It is not surprising that they face a lot of hostility and have trouble asserting authority over Western expatriates and Gulf nationals. This was a common theme in conversations I had with Indian and Pakistani security guards when I lived in Dubai for my dissertation research, and with Kenyan and Filipino security guards in Education City and other parts of Doha when I conducted research in Qatar more recently. Security guards usually live in company housing, which is often in the same area as other low-wage workers’ dormitories on the edges of the city; in Doha, many are housed in or near the industrial area and bussed into work. When the Covid-19 crisis hit, many faced increased labor precarity even as they were tasked with longer hours and more stressful work conditions, having to scan people all day long and contend with argumentative customers. Even though Gulf governments have claimed that they are taking care of foreign workers by taking care of struggling businesses, there is little oversight, and stories of unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions are all too common. These will only intensify as the summer drags on and technology and nerves become ever more frayed.
Security, citizenship, and mobility
It is not surprising that those hit hardest by the pandemic in the Gulf, both by the illness itself and by the uneven application of prevention measures, are low-wage migrant workers, particularly those who live in crowded dormitory-style housing at the edges of the city. As Andrea Wright has reported, Indians who work in the oil industry are particularly precarious since the industry has seen a large drop in production and many are now out of work. In addition, both Gulf governments and the Indian government have closed borders and initiated lockdowns making internal and international travel almost impossible. In the Gulf, entry was suspended even for those with residency visas starting in March (it has since reopened), meaning foreign residents who were traveling were left unable to return to their jobs. Meanwhile those left without work could not return to India even if they desired. A lockdown of Doha’s industrial area also meant that access to food and other resources, including health care, became more spotty, and the risk of infection higher. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has reported that before these closures went into effect, some low-wage migrants were illegally detained and deported. Many migrants have not been paid or provided the benefits promised as part of their work packages.
On May 7, India began allowing repatriation flights from the Gulf, and the Consul General of India in Dubai reported 350,000 Indians had signed up for these flights, amounting to a tenth of the UAE’s Indian expatriate population. These repatriation flights are taking place in other Gulf countries as well, and for other national groups. Such large return migrations could have long-lasting economic and social impacts on Gulf cities, as well as on home countries. However, the number of people actually taking these flights appears to be much lower than those who have signed up. Many have a change of heart at the last minute, perhaps choosing to wait and see if job prospects will open up, perhaps finding it difficult to return to hardships at home. Others have realized that these flights are quite costly and not usually covered by the return-ticket benefit that is promised upon hire by employers. But many have decided to leave anyway, perhaps signaling a shift away from the sense of security that Indians once enjoyed in the UAE.
The pandemic has created tensions between India and the UAE, with each country blaming the other for a poor response. The trade relationship between these countries relies upon labor migration from India to the UAE, and each country often praises and accommodates the other’s interests. Another area in which the Indian diaspora’s affinities with the Gulf region seems to be shifting is in the heightened online presence of Hindutva agitators within Gulf social media, especially in the wake of the pandemic. The prominence of right-wing Hindu nationalists in India and in its diaspora is well known, but in the Gulf region, even though Hindus still comprise the majority of the Indian expatriate population, Muslims make up a disproportionate number compared to other contexts, and many choose to immigrate to the region because they feel more comfortable there. Even among non-Muslims, I have found more respect and knowledge of Islam in the Gulf than within diasporic communities elsewhere.
Therefore, I was surprised to see news of multiple Indians being fired for posting Islamophobic messages on social media in the weeks following the coronavirus outbreak. In India, the Hindu right has claimed that Muslims are intentionally spreading the disease to Hindus as part of a “jihad,” conspiracy theories that started to appear on some Indian expatriates’ Twitter accounts, which led to their being reported and ultimately fired and deported. The public outrage prompted by these messages was so great that it led to statements by the Indian government denouncing them—further highlighting the importance of the relationship between India and the Gulf even amid the economic precarity wrought by the pandemic. It is unclear whether these flare-ups of Islamophobia mark a new element within the Gulf’s Indian diaspora, or if current events have merely emboldened public expressions of existing Hindu nationalism.
Covid-19 and the heightened security measures that it has prompted and enabled is producing a range of insecurities for Gulf immigrants. After the 2008 global recession, some of the demographics of Gulf cities shifted as immigrants lost their jobs and left in large numbers. But even though South and Southeast Asian workers left in droves, even more were hired and migrated to the region in the following years. What the lost jobs and repatriations from Covid-19 will bring has yet to be seen, but as with other crises, this one is highlighting both the transnational interconnectedness of the Gulf region and the inequities that mark daily life for the majority of its residents.