The Persian Gulf conjures romantic images of sheikhs, minarets, and camels, not Hindi films, saris, and chicken biryani.
But since the oil boom of the 1970s, the Gulf states' demand for labor has transformed the region's character, with native populations rivaled in size by a wave of professional and unskilled workers from Asia, primarily India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
"The migration to the Middle East has been very important," says Graziano Battistella, editor of the Philippines-based Asian and Pacific Migration Journal. "For the Gulf states, it was vital, as it provided them with the much-needed labor force.... For the Asian countries, it constituted a significant outlet for an underemployed labor force at a time of economic crisis."
Pakistani cab driver Omar Murad came to the Arabian Gulf in 1961. He says working in Qatar has allowed him to build a life that would never have been possible in his native Pasni, a rural fishing village. "There, it would have been difficult to sustain nine children. Here I had peace of mind. Living was nice and easy."
He moved his family back to Pasni during the Gulf War, but within six months his wife and children demanded to return to Doha, the Qatari capital. "My children were born here and raised here," says Mr. Murad. Fingering an "I love Pakistan" key chain, Murad adds that his various jobs have enabled him to build a large house for his retirement in Pasni and to buy an apartment building in Karachi.
The Asian experience in the Gulf is comparable to other ethnic groups' epic migrations, whether the movement of Chinese natives to Malaysia or Eastern and Southern Europeans' exoduses to America. The crucial difference is that settlement in the Gulf can only be temporary and offers no hope of citizenship, says Mr. Battistella. In most Gulf states, the right of citizenship depends on having a father who is a citizen.
In the United Arab Emirates, it is estimated that 50 percent of the population is of Asian origin, while little more than 30 percent is indigenous. In Qatar, more than 36 percent of the population is Asian, and Qataris make up no more than 20 percent. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also have large, foreign-born worker populations.
Beyond introducing Hindi and Urdu words into the local vernacular, the Asian presence has impacted the Gulf's character tremendously, says Aboubakr Abdeen Badawi, the International Labor Organization's representative for Kuwait. Dr. Badawi believes the heavy dependence on foreign workers has ended up hurting the Gulf. "We are creating and raising generations without the will to work," he says. "The influx has also created the premise of socially acceptable and unacceptable forms of work."
The foreign labor presence also poses a threat to long-term stability, as foreign workers - who have few legal protections - begin to press for more rights. "The second or third generation of children from expatriate workers feel they should have more rights rather than just be treated like their grandfathers and fathers have been treated," he says. Badawi also notes the November riots of unemployed Egyptian workers in Kuwait and riots five years ago by Asians in Dubai over the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in India.
The money sent home by foreign workers, meanwhile, can have a significant impact for struggling economies. In Sri Lanka, remittances from workers in the Middle East rank as the fourth-largest foreign-currency exchange earner after the nation's garment, tourism, and tea industries, says Sugeeswara Sendahira, the associate director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Columbo, Sri Lanka's capital. He adds that 80 to 85 percent of Sri Lankans who stay two years overseas build a house or start a business upon their return home.
Allakadan Kandyan Prakashan, originally from Kerala, India, has been working in the Gulf since 1976. A framed poster in his shoe repair shop reads: "Customer complaints are the school from which
we learn." In 1989, Mr. Prakashan returned to India to invest in an electrical repair shop, but within three years, a brother convinced him to head back to Qatar. "I did not think I would ever come back, but money is important," he says. "Why earn only 10,000 rupees ($229), when I can make much more here?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society