Connecting Across Nationalities: Inter-Ethnic Relationships in a Kuwaiti Workplace
In mainstream narratives about migration to Kuwait and to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) more broadly, tropes of a privileged citizenry and an exploited foreign-born workforce predominate. The media, academics, and human-rights organizations commonly paint GCC societies as using their oil wealth to buy legitimacy for ruling monarchies even as they get away with exploiting migrant workers.
The emphasis on exclusionary citizenship laws and discriminatory migration and labor policies is necessary. But this focus obscures the complex nature of residents’ everyday lives with regards to migration issues. Though interactions among and between citizens and migrants are commonly seen through a lens of exclusion and exploitation, observing microlevel interactions between these groups in a particular context, for example at a Kuwaiti construction company, paints a more nuanced picture.
This article critiques prevailing narratives surrounding migration to Kuwait, especially their important but overly simplistic reliance on analyses of exclusive citizenship policies and the kafala system governing migrant employment. It presents findings from a network analysis of interactions between different ethnic and socioeconomic groups at a small Kuwaiti construction firm, illustrating that, in ways that are more inclusive than exclusionary, migrants actively play social roles that shape their everyday experiences. At the company, individuals from diverse ethnic and class backgrounds, generally assumed to be locked into unequal power dynamics, relate to one another through nonexploitative interactions in spaces that are far less exclusive than one would think.
Beyond Exclusive Citizenship and Kafala
Noncitizens constitute approximately 70 percent of Kuwait’s population of 4.4 million. The majority (57 percent) are from South or Southeast Asia, 39 percent are from Arab countries, and the remainder hail from Africa, North and South America, Europe, and Australia. Some 17 percent of the noncitizen population was born in Kuwait to migrant parents.
The lived experiences of this noncitizen population are most commonly understood with reference to two systemic forces: ethnocracy and kafala. The first is a form of nationalism common to the GCC that views the nation as a “pure” community—not in the sense of race or language, but of shared descent. Kuwait’s 1959 Nationality Law espouses a restrictive jus sanguinis concept of citizenship by blood, abandoning the jus soli principle of territorial citizenship found in the previous 1948 decree. The linchpin of the country’s ethnocratic regime, the law effectively shut the door on most newcomers ever becoming formal citizens. Only Muslims can now become citizens and the number of non-Gulf-origin naturalizations is limited to just 50 people a year.
Kuwait and the GCC are hardly unique in their use of jus sanguinis laws, and there exist legally defined paths to citizenship. But the criteria for eligibility are extremely high and, in practice, arbitrarily administered by political authorities. Gender discrimination means that Kuwaiti women who marry non-Kuwaitis cannot pass their citizenship on to their children. Adult children and non-Kuwaiti spouses of Kuwaiti women are treated like any other foreigners seeking residence, unable to access the social, economic, and political benefits of citizenship available to the families of Kuwaiti men.
The kafala system further treats noncitizens across the GCC not as potential permanent immigrants but as temporary contractual workers, for whom the question of integration is irrelevant. It is based on citizens’ sponsorship of foreign labor whereby the kafeel (sponsor) takes financial and legal responsibility for the worker. The kafeel is generally an individual citizen (especially in the case of employment of domestic workers) or a private business. Moreover, in Kuwait, the Labor Law prohibits migrants in the private sector from establishing their own trade union. And while they may join a Kuwaiti trade union after a certain period of employment, they cannot vote. The system thus reproduces unequal power relations between citizens and noncitizens by devolving to the former a measure of state authority in the enforcement of labor and migration regulations.
Abuse and rights violations, including the confiscation of passports, poor working conditions, and unpaid wages, result from these discriminatory and unequal legal structures. They are especially detrimental to the lives of the most disadvantaged migrants, domestic workers and unskilled laborers. Taken together, these concepts constitute the “politics of exclusion,” which in media accounts and academic texts color all aspects of the lives of citizens and noncitizens alike. For example, in July 2018 Kuwaiti social media influencer Sondos Alqattan drew sharp backlash when she criticized laws giving Filipino domestic workers one day off per week and the right to keep their passports. A reliance on ideas of exclusion is therefore often unavoidable and valid.
However, this framework has major shortcomings. Anthropologists Natalie Koch and Neha Vora point out that the focus on kafala reinforces the dichotomy of the exploitative citizen and the oppressed migrant. It presumes exclusion and pure economic motivation as inherently characteristic of noncitizen life, disregarding the possibility for migrants to form a sense of belonging or experience inclusion in their everyday social interactions. Meanwhile, the emphasis on ethnocracy has contributed to the assumption that national identity formation is directed at citizens alone. Together the two concepts often lead to a conflation of ethnicity with class, obscuring the existence of middle and elite classes composed of non-White migrants.
Enter the Workplace
Recent scholarship on the GCC, particularly in the field of anthropology, increasingly focuses on understanding the agency of migrants and interrogating state-driven narratives of national identity. Ahmad Kanna, for instance, presents the diversity of the voices and experiences of South Asians in Dubai as central to studying the interconnectedness of politics, the built environment, and national identity in shaping the city’s image as a postmodern, urban spectacle. Contrary to the common lumping together of all Gulf migrants into one monolithic category, he shows that some are more privileged than others. He describes how middle-class Indians claim belonging through expectations of egalitarian economic opportunities and resent pure ethnic identification.
Likewise, writing about middle- and upper-class Indians in Dubai, Neha Vora demonstrates how they are the city’s “quintessential citizens” even though they are not legally categorized as such. By looking across generations and class, Vora highlights how Indians born and raised in the United Arab Emirates claim forms of belonging that echo the calls for political rights and equality among immigrants in the West.
Turning again to Kuwait, Attiya Ahmad’s examination of the conversion to Islam by some South Asian domestic workers shows how these women’s relationships with their workplaces become, over time, less reducible to wage labor. In a volume on migrant domestic workers across the Middle East, editors Bina Fernandez, Marina de Regt, and Gregory Currie curate a set of original scholarship that explores how these individuals lay claim to spaces that are officially unwelcoming toward them.
But there is still little research on how residents’ interactions with one another reconfigure ethnic and class hierarchies, in turn shaping their sense of belonging. This is where the workplace comes in. The private sector in Kuwait employs approximately 82 percent of the country’s total labor force. A highly ethnically diverse workforce, some 95 percent of private-sector workers are noncitizens. For all the attention paid to labor migration and rights in Kuwait, the actual work environment and its human operations have garnered little scholarly attention.
Workplace interactions are relevant because they reflect and reshape organizational realities as well as larger national or regional sociopolitical forces. Employees navigate many different social worlds, which can be sliced in a variety of ways based on ethnicity, class, function, or neighborhood, for example. In this context, the power relations and material effects of kafala and ethnocracy, while omnipresent, operate across social worlds with varying effects and levels of explicitness.
Social Networks in the Kuwaiti Workplace: A Case Study
To illustrate this, consider the case of Sadeer Trading and Contracting Company. Established in 1973, Sadeer is one of many local construction contracting companies operating in Kuwait. Focused primarily on providing interior design and finishing services, its portfolio includes work on a variety of commercial and residential buildings, many of which are iconic landmarks of Kuwait’s urban spaces.
Formally, Sadeer’s organizational structure is segmented into project-oriented work and day-to-day administration with overall management oversight provided by the general manager and his deputy. As is common among Kuwaiti companies, Sadeer’s owners are all citizens while its staff are largely noncitizens from various countries. The firm employees 90-100 people at all management and staffing levels—from the storekeeper to the general manager. The author surveyed 26 of them, from the top and middle levels of the organization, about their relationships with their colleagues, inquiring into both professional and nonwork-related social interactions. Importantly, rather than presupposing the existence of nationality-based fault lines in interactions, the author instead tested for the effect of citizenship and class by looking first at the interactions themselves.
The respondents included individuals of seven different nationalities: Indians, Filipinos, Syrians, and Egyptians, as well as an Armenian, an American, and a Kuwaiti. Including the nationalities of other employees with whom they said they worked or socialized, at least 13 different nationalities were represented in the firm’s staff.
In terms of staffing level, respondents belonged primarily to the top and middle levels of the organization, but they claimed to have both professional and social interactions with their subordinates at the bottom rung of the organizational ladder as well. Sixteen of the respondents, of which only one was a Kuwaiti citizen, lived in the country for more than ten years. Half had worked at Sadeer for more than ten years, contrary to the general expectation of temporary labor migrants.
Two notable findings emerged from the author’s study of interactions at Sadeer. The first is that there was no neat overlap between ethnicity and class (as studied through the proxy of staffing level) among Sadeer’s employees. The two cut across each other, challenging the generalizability of macrolevel structural forces, such as kafala and ethnocracy, across different, albeit connected, social worlds and everyday experiences. Relationships among Sadeer’s employees, regardless of the form of interaction, existed between individuals who both conformed to and defied expectations of the South Asian clerk and the Arab manager. This phenomenon also provides renewed caution against generalizing about a specific identity group while having studied only a single ethnic group or class subsection thereof.
Second, ethnicity and class, despite being hierarchically segmented by Kuwait’s citizenship and migration policies, did not absolutely determine relationships among Sadeer’s employees. Professional interactions across these categories were rarely a function of individual choice, but respondents had social relationships across these lines as well. While the survey accounted for only a fraction of individuals’ nonprofessional lives, it still provides evidence against assuming the class-based homogeneity of Gulf residents’ social circles and the division between work and personal lives. In fact, in response to a survey question about aspirational collaboration (i.e. who a respondent would like to work with if they had the freedom to choose), employees picked those whom they considered hard-working and friendly.
An analysis of individual employees’ networks illustrates this point. Rashid (name changed) is a Kuwaiti citizen in the top level of Sadeer’s management. In his 40s, he speaks Arabic and lives with his family. He has lived in Kuwait and worked at Sadeer for more than a decade. Rashid occupies a highly central position in getting work done at Sadeer, collaborating directly with more individuals than anyone else surveyed. Rashid’s professional life involves interactions with workers from the top and middle levels of the organization and cuts across nationality lines, though Syrians comprise a large subsection of his network.
When it comes to informal social relations, however, his interactions are more constrained to those in the organization’s upper management. And while he occasionally socializes, he is nowhere near as relevant to connecting others socially as professionally. Counterintuitively, despite his centrality to Sadeer’s work life, only one person—a mid-level Syrian employee who has been at the company for just a few years—indicated they would choose him to be on their team for a future project.
Meanwhile, several migrant workers at the firm appeared to be important connectors across ethnic lines. Afzal is a project engineer in his mid-20s who has worked at Sadeer between four and six years. Born in India, he now resides with his family in Kuwait, speaks Arabic, and celebrates the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr with friends in the country’s Indian community.
When it comes to work life, Afzal is very collaborative, working with individuals from across the company’s hierarchy. His social interactions, though comparatively sparse, are primarily with mid- and lower-level staff. Yet Afzal is a good contact to connect other staff with those outside their direct social group. He is also one of two people with the highest number of people—both mid- and top-level staff—indicating they would choose him to be on their project team. Overall, despite the dominance of other Indian citizens in his professional and social relations, Afzal’s everyday interactions cut across ethnic lines.
The other person most commonly chosen as a desired project teammate was Hamad, a 30-year-old mid-level architect with Syrian citizenship. Hamad has lived and worked in Kuwait for four to six years but claims to not participate in any cultural activities with his co-nationals in the country. Despite this, at Sadeer, Hamad is a good connector between different social groups and is himself connected to other popular staff. At the firm, he connects others professionally, and to a relatively high extent, he works directly with staff who are themselves highly collaborative. In terms of ethnicity, while he may be Arab, Hamad’s interactions are dominated by Indians.
These findings from Sadeer cannot, of course, be generalized to other workplaces or social milieus in Kuwait. Still, taken together with other scholarship from Kuwait and elsewhere in the GCC, this case study demonstrates that there is much more to these migrants’ and citizens’ lives and relations toward each other than the kafala system or the laws surrounding citizenship would seemingly allow. At face value, this may seem a rather banal observation. However, given the overwhelming perception of Gulf migrants’ lives as consistently marred by exclusion and exploitation, especially in mainstream policy discourse and to a lesser degree in academia, these findings constitute significant normative shifts.
These findings and the work by others in this area complicate the mainstream understanding of migrants’ experiences living under kafala and ethnocracy in Kuwait, challenging the use of these structures as the primary lenses of analysis in studying their lives. The interactions occurring in Sadeer’s social world, and the relationships that they constitute, are not boxed in by either nationality or class. Importantly, while the personal lives of employees may or may not revolve around relationships within their own socioeconomic and ethnic group, in the workplace these individuals have created a social world that allows for various forms of inclusion, contingent on identity and position within the web of social relations.
Moreover, workers at the firm are less constrained by sociopolitical categories than is often assumed of workplaces in the GCC. The identities of a working-class Syrian project engineer and of a well-to-do Indian project manager are fixed only to the extent designated on official government and corporate paper. Meanwhile, their roles at the firm and the ways they are perceived are continually shaped by individuals’ interactions with one another. Thus, greater analytical focus on social relations is essential to move beyond the simplistic narratives of exclusion in the forms of kafala and ethnocracy in Gulf societies.
What does any of this mean for policymaking around migration and the economy in Kuwait and the GCC? Clearly, it shows that exclusion and exploitation are only part of the migrant experience. Highlighting the diversity of social relations in these societies can contribute to a shift in the narrative about migration to the Gulf, thereby broadening the range of policy options for both governments and human-rights groups.
Kuwait’s government is increasingly concerned about unemployment among citizens and financial strains on welfare systems. The demographic imbalance caused by the large number of migrants has proven an easy scapegoat. In addition to ongoing efforts to replace migrant workers with citizens, for example, the government has also significantly raised health-care fees for foreign residents as a means to buttress state coffers.
Examining the everyday, mundane, and contextually specific interactions of Kuwait’s multiethnic communities can highlight the social, economic, and cultural roles noncitizen residents play in supporting the country’s development. This could in turn help explore the potential for further tapping into the vast noncitizen population as a long-term driver of economic and social growth. Such micro-level network analysis can also help illustrate the limitations and costs, both economic and sociocultural, of migration policies that aim for a drastic reduction in the region’s noncitizen population.
Similarly, for civil-society groups in the GCC advocating for better conditions for migrants, looking at networks of workplace relationships and of support within migrant communities can also be helpful. Current strategies largely adopt human-rights discourse in their engagement with the state, citizens, and migrants. However, very few initiatives involve the equal leadership of citizen and noncitizen organizers alike. A social network analysis approach can inform more effective programming by identifying possibilities for joint action as well as establishing linkages between migrant rights and issues such as gender equality, corruption, and environmental conservation, thus treating migrants as an integral part of broader Kuwaiti society.
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