Guarini Institute: the Politics of Exclusion in the Arab Gulf

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On Monday, July 8th, the Guarini Institute had the pleasure to present The Politics of Exclusion in the Arab Gulf: Women, Stateless Persons and Migrants, a lecture by Farah Al-Nakib, visiting professor from the American University of Kuwait. The content of the lecture was drawn from her ongoing research on the urban history of Kuwait City, as well as from the findings of other historians and anthropologists who conduct research on different Gulf states.

Professor Al-Nakib started the lecture by outlining the history of the Arab Gulf states before oil. Born as commercial ports linked to the Indian Ocean trading network, the cities of the Gulf coast were melting pots of people of diverse backgrounds, religions, and cultures.

After the discovery of oil in the early- to mid-20th century, the city-states of the Gulf experienced rapid urban growth and modernization, which drew a massive influx of new immigrant workers. Non-nationals soon outnumbered nationals in most Gulf states. It was in this context that nationality laws were first passed in the Gulf, which created clear distinctions between nationals and non-nationals, with citizens having access to unprecedented welfare benefits from which non-nationals were excluded.

The rapid development of government structures and the adoption of exclusionary policies through citizenship and welfare had a particularly negative impact on the living conditions of women, migrant workers, and stateless persons. Women experienced a shrinking of their previously active role in society, which was redefined as subordinated to that of their male relatives (fathers or husbands). Migrants were completely excluded from welfare benefits and could only seek employment from citizens. Somewhere in the gray between citizens and non-citizens, is a pool of stateless persons, or bidoon. Excluded from citizenship when the nationality laws were drafted, this group was originally admitted to welfare benefits. However, their status changed from “without citizenship” to “illegal residents” in 1986, as a consequence of the massive influx of refugees provoked from the Iran-Iraq war. Unable to find employment in the public sector, they can only seek temporary low paying jobs from private employers. Their life is characterized by constant harassment, exploitation, and fear of deportation.

Exclusionary policies have a spatial manifestation in the urban structure of the Gulf city-states. Women’s access to public housing is subordinated to their relationship with a male citizen (their father or their husband), and divorced women are discriminated, moved to housing facilities of lower value, and spatially segregated. Migrants usually occupy overcrowded housing facilities far removed from the space dedicated to citizens. Bidoon are even more segregated. They live in temporary housing facilities that were originally built to host those Bedouins which later were integrated as citizens in the society.

Based on artificially constructed national identities, exclusionary policies are resulting in serious social injustice. In her final remarks, Professor Al-Nakib suggested that Gulf societies should rethink their national identity in light of their multicultural and multiethnic pre-oil history, in order to build an open and integrated society for the common benefit of nationals and non-nationals alike.

Long and intense discussion followed, with students and professors alike engaging in constructive and informative debate on the socio-political and cultural life of the Gulf states.