Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf

Author:   Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi, Adam Hanieh
Publisher:   GRFDT
Reviewer:   Aarthi S.V.

Khalaf, A., AlShehabi, O. and Hanieh, A. eds., (2015), Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf. London: Pluto Press, ISBN: 978 0 7453 3522 3, p.266.

Temporary labour migration is the unique reality of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) states. Beginning in the 1930s, the Gulf has seen several waves of migrants entering the region to provide labour for the oil sector and later the construction sector. Today, the GCC states are a major migration corridor in the world that goes beyond just the labour migration that is attributed to the rapid development of this region.And this book captures these different types of migrations, what pulls them to the region, and the role they place in the socio-economic-political landscape of the region.

‘Transit States’ is a collection of chapters by several scholars of labormigration, migration policy, political economy, sociology, human geography,and anthropology discussing different aspects of Gulf Migration. With Gulf migration being the central theme of the book. The topics discussed in the book are based on the 2012 Gulf Migration workshop held by Lund university in Istanbul.The book is divided into five parts with each part consisting of few chapters.

The Introduction part comprises of three chapters recording the history and politics of migration to the Gulf. The first chapter records the history of the discovery of oil in the region and the three oil booms and coinciding population booms. The chapter also discusses the introduction of ‘free market’ in the region at the dawn of the 21st century.The second chapter on the politics of migration by Abdulhadi Khalaf discusses the migration management born of political necessity and the resulting shift from Arab migrants to Asian migrants being the preferred labor force.The chapter also touches on the topic of citizenshipand its significance in the rentier economics of the GCC states. The third chapter begins by outlining theoretical frameworks commonly used in Gulf migration literature and then draws an alternative perspective of looking at Gulf migration as a process of class formation with the use of institutions of citizenship and its place in the wider middle east and political economy of the world market.

The second part discusses the legal aspects, special, and gender aspects as the dimensions of dimensions of Gulf Migration and is divided into three chapters. Mohammed Dito’s chapter is on the ‘Kafala system’- the mechanism which controls the presence of migrants in the region details the four paths of entry into the GCC. This is a well formulated chapter which is an informative read for students of migration to quickly gain an understanding of the legal mechanism that governslabor migration to the GCC; the chapter begins with the origin of the Kafala system and its political and social significance in these rentier states. In the next chapter Omar AlShehabi describe the phenomenon of mega real-estate clusters in cities across the GCC built to attract non-citizens by the simple promise of a certain lifestyle. The author reports how these projects have attracted a different kind of migration and have changed the ‘citizen-state-expat’ dynamics in the region and coins the term ‘rootless urbanism’ to describe the same. Chapter 6 is dedicated tothe construct workers who have played a pivotal role in the urbanisation of this region. A case study on the migrant labourers who built the glistening city of Dubai,Michelle Buckley formulates the term ‘Bachelor workers’ to explain the mechanisms used by the governments and respective employers resulting in these labourers leaving their family behind in their home countries and toiling away in this middle eastern kingdom. The chapter fails to include female migrants in the medical field and domestic workers who form a significant number of migrants and face the same situation.

The third part titled broadening perspectives consists of three case-study chaptersthat discuss topics that don’t quite fit together but are excellent at providing insights into different aspects on Gulf migration. Chapter 7 discusses the phenomenon of foreigners in the national security forces of countries in the region and looks at Bahrain as a case study. Next comes Neha Vora’s chapter a case-study on ‘Expat/Expert camps’ in Qatar, the chapter focuses on the less discussed demography of western white-collar workers of the Gulf. The chapter provides an insight into spatial segregation that exists in GCC states where western expats, South Asian workers and nationals are segregated and do not mingle. However, this chapter fails to throw light on similar expats/experts from South Asian countries.The final chapter in this part is a case study of the waves of political exile of the opposition in Bahrain, their political strategies and activism in exile, return and reintegration, and the role of this returned opposition in the 2011 uprising. While these chapters do not direct discussed migration; this collection of case study chapters provides an anthropological and socio-political understating of the local political landscape, thus providing a fresh perspective on issues related to Gulf migration.

The fourth part of the book comprises of a single conclusion chapter which presents an overview of recent developments in migration rights in the region, especially following media security on the region after Qatar’s was selected to host the 2022 FIFA world cup. It also reports on the interest that transnational organizations, activists, and civil societies have taken to effect positive change in the treatment of migrant labour in the region. The chapter points of the lack of strong local support for these movements being an impediment in the continued success of such positive changes.

The book covers a wide range of themes and case studies on migration and the GCC states. The unique aspect of this book is that going beyond the dominant understanding of migration in the Gulf region. The book delves into of sociological, political, and anthropological aspects that provide a fresh perspective into matters of migration in the region. Discussions on topics like expats/experts from South Asian countries, second-generation migrants and the female migrants from the Indian subcontinent who make up a large portion of the support staff in the medical field would have added value to the book.

Overall, the book is well formulated collection of themes on gulf migration that are usually ignored by popular literature on the subject. It will prove to be an interesting read for students looking to gain a well-rounded understanding of Gulf migration across subjects. And a must read for researchers studying Migration in the Gulf to be able to look at it from a different perspective.


Aarthi S.V., Ph.D. Research Scholar, Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani, Dubai Campus,Dubai International Academic City, Dubai, UAE., Email:[email protected]

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