Antía Mato Bouzas and Lorenzo Casini (eds.), Migration in the Making of the Gulf Space: Social, Political, and Cultural Dimensions (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2022. Worlds In Motion Series).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Antía Mato Bouzas and Lorenzo Casini (AMB & LC): We have carried out research in the Gulf, mainly in Kuwait, in the fields of migration (Antía) and Arabic literature (Lorenzo). Our interest in the Gulf was in terms of the Gulf’s connections to other regions, namely South Asia and the wider Middle East. We were puzzled by the fact that while migration plays a central role in the building of Gulf societies, it is often neglected when discussing issues of nation building and national identity. Migration is an integral part of Gulf societies and, through migration-related networks, the Gulf continues to exert an influence on other regions. We were interested in the transnational spaces resulting from these interactions.

Although there are some academic works on Gulf migration, attention is generally given either to the migrant community or to the relationship between migrants and citizens as separate groups. However, there is a middle space to investigate because migrants appropriate the space they live in as their own and this amounts to claims to membership. We wanted to discuss with other scholars this relationship of appropriation that denotes a social continuum rather than separation. For this reason, we organized a workshop at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, in December 2019, which was a very enriching experience. We realized that our research questions and approaches combined very well. The authors’ contributions are based on long ethnographic studies that tackle key aspects of the social production of space in the Gulf from different disciplinary perspectives and focus on under-researched themes.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AMB & LC: This book is organized in two sections along two main themes: Gulf cosmopolitanism, belonging, and national imaginaries, and the Gulf as an aspirational place. Both themes are related to each other because the deployment of Gulf cosmopolitanism intersects with the portrayal of the Gulf as a place to fulfill life and attain life expectations. The first centers on the effects of the apparent contradiction between the state’s deployment of cosmopolitanism, and the exclusivist nation-building projects pursued by these statesIn Chapter 1, Elizabeth Derderian explores the use of non-citizen artists in the United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, between 2009 and 2017. Nadeen Dakkak in Chapter 2 reflects on the possibilities of citizenship that come out of claiming belonging in the two novels Samrawit (2012) by Haji Jaber, and Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (2017), which are set in the cities of Jeddah and Abu Dhabi, respectively. Rana AlMutawa in Chapter 3 offers another dimension, that of the citizens, through an ethnographic study of the experiences of Emirati women from the upper-middle classes of the city of Dubai. Both Derderian and AlMutawa discuss Gulf cosmopolitanism as a tool of governance from above, while Dakkak addresses the recognition of the transient character of the migratory experience from below.

The contributions in section two focus on the meaning of the migrant experience in the Gulf that can have an impact at the level of society or at the level of personal trajectories. The two chapters in this section highlight the character of the Gulf as an aspirational place that continues to hold attraction for all kinds of migrants. In Chapter 4, Jaafar Alloul analyses how Dubai becomes a heterotopian space where the feelings of exclusion and inferiority experienced by educated Europeans of Maghrebi background become thoroughly reversed. In Chapter 5, Shafeeq Karinkurayil examines a much larger and better-known social group in the Gulf—migrants from the Indian southern state of Kerala. He focuses on the role of pictures and looks specifically at the sartorial choices of the people portrayed in these pictures, and how these choices create a specific imaginary of the Gulf as an aspirational space. In the concluding chapter, Lorenzo Casini dialogues with author Deepak Unnikrishnan on the major themes touched upon in his novel, Temporary People, which largely coincide with those of the book. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AMB & LC: We, the editors, come from different disciplinary backgrounds but carried out fieldwork together in the Gulf during two academic years and we were both based at The French Research Centre of the Arabian Peninsula (CEFREPA). Antía Mato Bouzas is a political scientist with a background in South Asian studies while Lorenzo Casini is a scholar of modern Arabic literature whose previous work mostly centered on the study of Egyptian literature.

AMB: My interest in the Gulf region is linked to my previous research in the Kashmir region, which resulted in the book Kashmir as a Borderland. The Politics of Space and Belonging Across The Line of Control (Amsterdam University Press 2019). I noticed a strong migration to the Gulf from the mountainous border region of Baltistan (in northeastern Pakistan), which was also connected to development and religious networks, and how the transnational space created by migration had an impact on this border area. I decided to study this transnational space and this led me to understand the Gulf context in which migrants spend large parts of their adult lives.

LC: I have been working for many years on the fictional works by Arab authors who travelled or migrated to Europe. I wanted to explore similar topics in the Gulf literature written by/on migrants, initially by focusing on works published in Arabic language. I later expanded my focus to embrace fictional works published in other languages by authors from the region, such as the novel Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, which is discussed in this edited volume.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AMB & LC: We hope this book opens up avenues for discussion on ongoing societal processes in the Gulf region and elsewhere which are linked to issues of migration and citizenship. We believe the book can be of interest for researchers and graduate students working on the Gulf from different disciplinary backgrounds: political science, migration studies, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and literary studies. Moreover, since it makes innovative contributions to general debates on the themes of space, belonging, and citizenship, the book can also be relevant for scholars of the social sciences and humanities working on these issues. The book has also a few contributions with a focus on the cultural production of space, some of which can be read similarly to a literary work.

Since migration is an intrinsic reality in the making of the Gulf space, this book represents one of the first coherent endeavors to go beyond the paradigm of citizen/foreigner as an epistemological basis to understand Gulf societies. The book offers a complex, multi-dimensional image of the Gulf space. Some of these dimensions are seldom examined even by Gulf specialists and they challenge ideas of a pervasive sense of exclusion. We hope that the book will offer new lenses to examine the complexity of the Gulf space and the role of non-citizens within it. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

AMB: I am currently working on a project on Pakistani migration to the Gulf.

LC: I am completing a book on the politics of imagining the West in the Egyptian novel. This book reframes the study of the European theme in modern Arabic literature by connecting it to current debates in the emerging field of “Occidentalist studies.”


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction by Antía Mato Bouzas, pp. 1-8)

Migration is a constituent feature of Gulf societies. It is framed in temporary terms, as if migrants remained for the period of their contracts and then left, presumably without a trace. Yet, migration has been a constant phenomenon for many decades, which in some cases has involved various generations of the same family and from the same communities. This volume examines the social reality of the permanent transient resident who is an active part of the process of placemaking and of the transmission of knowledge in the region. The contributions, which are from various disciplinary fields, draw on two main assumptions: first, that migration is regarded as integral to Gulf societies; and second, that the Gulf continues to exert an influence on other regions by way of migration diplomacy and on the construction of transnational spaces that involve citizens and noncitizens living in the Gulf. The chapters underscore how nonnationals of different categories try to appropriate this space as their own in what amounts to claims of membership. The volume also includes the often-underrepresented perspective of those who belong to the nation—that is, the ways in which citizens, in this case women from privileged classes, distinguish between “Gulf” and “non-Gulf” spaces in their condition as a minority group. Most of the contributions focus on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), yet the issues addressed in the chapters are representative of the rest of the Arab states in the Gulf. By being and living in the Gulf, migrants engage in a dialogical relationship with these ever-present others. However, this presence also affects the ways citizens and government actors negotiate their “own” Gulf spaces.

The aim of this book is to analyze how, by constructing new spaces, migration is shaping the Gulf Arab States. The volume emphasizes in particular the interactions of political, economic, social, and cultural fields. In this volume the notion of Gulf space bears a transnational dimension; what happens in the Gulf impacts the regions that send migrants there. Chapter 5 illustrates this in relation to the impact of Gulf migration on sartorial practices in the Indian state of Kerala. Therefore, the focus of this volume is not only on the Gulf states, but also on the regions that send migrants there. This approach reveals an “enlarged” Gulf space whose influence in other regions is enduring. Other contributions, such as those written by authors brought up in the Arab Peninsula, underscore the tensions that exist between the lived space of constant segregation and the representational space of the Gulf as a cosmopolitan place. How does this “enlargement” in terms of the Gulf’s influence in other regions relate to its “shrinkage,” given that the Gulf is the result of what remains after constituting a wide range of outsiders?

[…] As an epistemological tool, the notion of Gulf space in this volume allows the contributors to overcome the dichotomies of citizen/noncitizen and receiving/sending migrant regions and shifts the focus of inquiry to the existing social realities created by these very separations. These realities are exemplified by the case of the youth of migrant origin who are brought up in the Gulf cities, and who, once they reach the age of majority and can no longer remain under their parents’ visas, will often need to leave for a third country to study and work so that they can later return to what they feel is their home. The meaning of home as a place of safety becomes, in the Gulf context, redefined as a struggle for a home. Similarly, some of the works in this volume explore the meanings of Gulf-branded cosmopolitanism in terms of embracing selective inclusion, or “contingent citizenship,” and in terms of incorporating the class aspirations of Europeans of Maghrebi migrant origin. Two challenges emerge in our dealing with the notion of Gulf space: that of conceptually grasping the transience associated with this space, which is constituted by precariousness, and that of the still-unacknowledged enduring element (or influence) of this space that has resulted from the multiple interactions of the trajectories of migrant lives and the engagement of individuals and groups from the Gulf with others in different regions. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s argument that space is produced by specific actors for certain purposes, this volume examines the disentanglement of what the Gulf means for different groups of people whose life trajectories are connected to the region in order to critically reflect on the intersection of mobility with citizenship, modernity, and cosmopolitanism.

Mobility, Modernity, and Citizenship

During my second fieldtrip to Kuwait in January–February 2019, which was part of a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG-Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) in which I studied a migrant and development network between Kuwait and northeastern Pakistan (Mato Bouzas 2018), I by chance met Muhammad, a taxi driver whom I later interviewed several times, often while traveling in the city. I initially approached him in Urdu, or the creole Hindostani often employed in the Gulf, and then we slowly switched to English, a language he spoke fluently. Muhammad was born in Kuwait, although his family hailed from the city of Sialkot, in Punjab, Pakistan. His father and other relatives were carpenters and were recruited to work in the oil fields of preindependent Kuwait because at that time there was a significant amount of available work in carpentry. The whole family lived in Kuwait for several decades, with some interruptions of up to two years, until the oil crisis of 1973 when they returned to Pakistan. Muhammad went back to Kuwait and has been moving between Kuwait and Pakistan since then. He narrated the story of his early childhood and recalled that the family was living in the desert.

“Kuwait at the time was only desert, nothing else. One day, a government official came to the oil field and asked my father if he would like to register us as Kuwaiti nationals, but he refused.”


“Because at the time [early 1960s], Pakistan was a young nation and there were many expectations. Kuwait was not modern, and there was only desert, and no cities—nothing of what you can see all around now [he gestures with his head to the city landscape marked by high buildings]. The British had just granted independence, but there was nothing here except for oil. My father thought that Pakistan had a bigger future, and it was better for us to remain Pakistani nationals.”

“But if you now had Kuwaiti nationality, and not Pakistani, you would be receiving many benefits from the state.”

“Yes, you are right. My father made a mistake. . . . Mine is a wasted life.”

The conversation with Muhammad and the meaning of a “wasted life” is revealing when examining his whole trajectory, which is beyond the scope of this introduction. Muhammad spoke Arabic fluently with a Kuwaiti accent, something he said allowed him some privileged access to Kuwaiti society in terms of relations and friendship. Yet, in the end, he was living with his brother in an apartment, and his life was not that different from the segregated nature of other migrants’ lives in the city.

The excerpt above reveals the often-neglected aspects of the way we approach the study of migration to the contemporary Gulf. Migration to the Gulf can be described in terms of South-South mobility in the sense that the Gulf states, despite being able to achieve high standards of living for their citizens, share a history of colonization or indirect rule similar to those of the sending regions. This “shared past” is present in the ways migrants deploy their relationship to this region. This relationship unfolds the complexity of Southern geographies of belonging and different understandings of modernity. For Muhammad’s father, Kuwait was not modern at the time, especially as compared with the promising future of Pakistan during the “Decade of Development” (1958–68). The issue of nationality, however, became important for Muhammad, whose wife and three children returned to Sialkot in the 1990s because his earnings were not enough to keep them with him. Moreover, after working and living most of his life in Kuwait, it was difficult for him to settle back in Pakistan […].