Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait

Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait

Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait

Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait

Synopsis

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the sight of tens of thousands of non-Kuwaiti Arabs, Indians, East Asians, and Westerners fleeing or trapped under occupation made the outside world suddenly aware of a singular fact of Kuwaiti society- that Kuwaitis are an absolute minority in their own country. Basing her analysis on extensive fieldwork and archival research, the author examines the social dimension of labor migration to Kuwait since independence in 1961, exploring how the presence of over one million foreign workers has influenced the way Kuwaitis organize their lives and perceive themselves. In particular, Longva looks at the relations between two sharply differentiated social categories and the politics of exclusion that have allowed Kuwaitis to protect their rights and privileges as citizens against infringement by the huge influx of expatriates. Longva examines the little-studied system of kafala, or sponsorship, under which all foreign workers enter and reside in the country, showing how it has become the most critical source of power for native Kuwaitis vis-à-vis immigrants. She also addresses aspects of ethnicity and class, describes the life of expatriates, and looks at developments in gender relations and the role of women in building the national identity in the context of migration and modernization.

Excerpt

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the world reacted with surprise at the sight of tens of thousands of non-Kuwaiti Arabs, Indians, Eastern Asians, and Westerners trapped under the occupation or trying desperately to reach the borders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This surprise grew after liberation, when the predicament of approximately four hundred thousand Palestinian residents in Kuwait became a matter of international debate. Suddenly, and in a dramatic way, the world was made aware of the problem that has haunted the Kuwaitis since independence in 1961, namely the imbalanced composition of their population and labor force.

The situation in Kuwait and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula has by now become a classic case of international labor migration (Birks and Sinclair 1980; Sassen-Koob 1981). In nearly all the oil-producing states along the Arabian Gulf, the number of migrant workers is equal to, or higher than, the number of the citizens, and it has been so for an uninterrupted period of several decades. Although migration to the Gulf has been a central concern for workers and governments in the labor-sending and host countries, the subject has aroused rather limited interest in the social scientific community--limited not so much in terms of the number of studies carried out as in terms of the analytical depth and range of approaches. In the case of Kuwait, which is undoubtedly the most studied of all the Gulf countries, migration research focuses almost exclusively on general economic and demographic trends and policies (e.g., Nagi 1982; Sherbiny 1984). A few studies proceed beyond economic patterns and statistical material to investigate the legal framework that regulates labor migration in Kuwait (e.g, Beaugé 1986; Russell 1989a) and to look into migration as the outcome of political concerns (Russell 1989b). To the best of my knowledge, only two studies present . . .

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