Egyptian emigration to the oil-producing Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC) is a reality for many families across Egypt and became so in the lead up to the economic open door policy launched by former President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1973. Most studies that deal with this phenomenon have mainly focused on the economic aspect, which is considered the main reason driving Egyptians to emigrate to the Gulf. Yet in the process of seeking economic security and upward mobility, Egyptians choose to live in different cultural and social environments, often characterized by segregation and religiously conservative values.
Egyptian migration to the Gulf started prior to Sadat’s policy, as a result of Arab nationalism and the Pan-Arab aspirations of former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. At this time, highly skilled emigrants were part of a political project focused primarily on Arab empowerment through education and skill-building to create a network of cooperation and solidarity. Egypt was for a time the leading and dominant force in the region. However, the balance of power shifted toward the Gulf in the 1970s, as Egypt’s economy faltered and the Gulf states reaped the benefits of rising oil prices following the 1973 OPEC embargo. Since then, migration to the Gulf became a component of Egyptian youth’s socio-economic trajectories and the Gulf an important destination for Egyptian labor migrants.
The Gulf is linked with wealth in the minds of many Egyptians. It is perceived as a gold mine and a space for sending remittances to the homeland. For some, the draw of the Gulf includes the Islamic and religiously conservative environment, where wealth may be perceived as a blessing for right action and an antithesis to an assumed secular and more culturally distant Western European or American destination.
According to a study published by the International Labor Organization on Egyptian citizens and descendants living abroad, it was found that the number of Egyptians in Saudi Arabia had reached 2,925,000 by 2016. The study further shows that most Egyptian workers are employed in education, health care, tourism, and oil and gas industries. Based on the work permits granted to Egyptians by occupation, the study further shows that Egyptian migrants in the GCC countries are more skilled relative to those from Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. During the early 1970s, many Egyptian workers were employed in construction. Since then, the percentage of scientists and technicians increased and the share of production workers has declined. A 1985 study conducted by CARIM captured this shift, revealing that more than 40 per cent of Egyptian migrants in the region were entering skilled fields and prestigious jobs in engineering, medicine, education, and law.
This state of affairs contributed to a sense of resentment against Egyptian and other professional immigrants dominating various social and scientific fields. In time, GCC countries applied restrictive and nationalist policies. The KSA, for instance, applied what is called a “Saudization policy” to address and alleviate unemployment among nationals. Th effect of this and other similar policies in the region displaced many migrant workers and afforded nationals greater opportunities. According to cultural and social anthropologist Samuli Schielke (author of Migrant Dreams), labor migrants in the Gulf as a result often experience “subaltern racism”, which is not a coincidental side effect but “part of an architecture of power in which an entire society is systematically depoliticized and demobilized”. Egyptians are not granted citizenship and do not have much involvement with citizens, except through very limited connections at work or school.
Egyptians and other labor migrants live together at expatriate residences in separated districts. Migrants, like Ziad Gadou who was recently interviewed for the Egypt Migrations Gulf exhibit, confess experiencing clear segregation in everyday life from Saudi Arabia to Oman and the UAE. Others have reported being subjected to racist acts, bullying, or abuse from citizens. In response, the safest recourse is often to avoid interaction or actively ignore discrimination in favor of accepting this migration as a transitory phase of life. Categorized as expats, Egyptians carry a more pressing concern during any confrontation: the fear of deportation.
This sense of otherness and segregation is evident in many facets of life and has come to define the Egyptian labor migrant experience in the Gulf. Migrants are expected to abide by local customs and behave according to what is culturally acceptable. For instance, a country like Saudi Arabia which is characterized by strict Islamic practices inspired by Salafi-Wahhabi thought, enforces gender segregation in public places, and codes regarding attire, music, films, and other cultural expressions which are either tightly controlled or banned. Despite how some may wish to adopt and adapt to local cultures, migrants can never integrate fully nor be granted naturalization, or even permanent residence. Mohsen Elshimy, another migrant interviewed for the Gulf exhibit, lived and worked in Kuwait for most of his life before migrating to settle in the United States. He told the interviewer, Alya Osman, “I stayed in the US for 6 years and I gained American nationality. On the other hand, I lived in Kuwait for 30 years and didn’t even get a permanent residence. You’ll never be treated as a citizen.” In legal terms, Labor migrants in Gulf states are described as residents (Muqmin) or arrivals (Wafedin). They may also be designated as foreigners (Ajanib), hired on a temporary contractual basis. Once the contracts expire, workers are expected to leave immediately.
As noted by Mona Abaza and confirmed through recent conversations with Gulf migrants, Egyptian returnees may be influenced to some extent by the social and cultural customs, traditions, and conservative ideas. In Egypt’s latter 20th century, the perception of Islam and its role in society shifted, represented by the increasing presence of Hijabs, Niqabs, long beards, and linguistic choices to incorporate words from the Khaliji dialect on Egyptian streets. Migration is not unidirectional but connects homeland and hostland economically, socially, and culturally; a topic in need of greater attention and interrogation to better understand the Gulf labor migrations which are so central to modern Egypt.
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Amira Elmasry is a Writing Intern with Egypt Migrations. She studied Economics and Political Science at Alexandria University and has been working in the development field for three years in areas related to Gender, Refugees and Migrants, and Education. Amira aims to promote a culture of dialogue, the value of acceptance of others, and peaceful coexistence through her initiative “OHANA” which educates refugee and Egyptian children about peace and non-violent communication.