Dependence, disdain, and distance: State, labor, and citizenship in the Arab Gulf states
Political elites and private financiers seem to have unbridled optimism about the progressive nature of globalization in the Arab Gulf. Entire new cities are under construction, each devoted to an endeavor such as medicine, technology, science, education, or petrochemicals. In Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the value of infrastructural projects planned or currently underway totals around $2.1 trillion dollars (Kuwait National Bank 2009) and, by the decade’s end, they may reflect up to $3 trillion in investment (de Boer and Turner 2007). With thousands of cranes dotting the landscape, the frenzied pace of construction is reminiscent of the 1970s. The current meta-construction and industrialization is thus sometimes referred to as Boom #2.1
This chapter is about state, labor, and cultural identity in the midst of such developments. I focus on the sociopolitical meaning and the implications of the ways in which foreign labor is treated. This matters in all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states because foreign labor constitutes the vast majority of the private sector labor force and a substantial proportion of the overall population, sometimes even comprising the majority of residents. Foreign workers are essential to the success of the industrialization projects now underway in the Peninsula. They are the backbone of the dizzying infrastructural boom; without them, it would collapse. Yet the state uses an extensive system of sponsorship and oversight to deny these workers basic rights and protection and to marginalize them from civil associations. Sponsorship also allows the state to protect its capacity to control and deport significant portions of the labor force. Labor migration rarely leads to naturalization or permanent settlement, no matter how long a worker has lived in a country or how much he/she has contributed. They are truly “excluded essentials” (Okruhlik 1999).