Easy money creates lazy GCC prejudice

Easy money creates lazy GCC prejudice
Comment: Borderline racist attitudes toward GCC nationals sometimes masquerade as progressive politics: what easier target than a group of hereditary monarchies bankrolled by environmentally disastrous oilfields?
5 min read
12 Mar, 2015
Easy money make Khalijis easy targets for lazy prejudice [Getty]

The stereotype of a cravenous, uncouth Gulf Arab has taken on a life of its own. In the West, it has survived multiple waves of political correctness to become one of the few prejudices that continue to be socially acceptable across the political spectrum. Dismissive attitudes, bordering on the racist, towards the nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, can even masquerade as a kind of progressive politics: what easier enemy to unite the left than a group of hereditary monarchies bankrolled by environmentally disastrous oilfields?


     Anti-Gulf attitudes amongst non-Gulf Arabs have a telling resemblance to Western racism towards the Arab world and the East.

The fact of easy money, quite literally coming out of the ground in the Gulf also creates a moral panic around capitalism: if the societies of the GCC can have access to so much wealth without going through the experience of industrialization, then surely there is something wrong with the world. People in wealthy European countries find themselves questioning some of the founding tenets of world capitalism (only the bravest souls point out how European nations continue to profit from the gains of colonialism). While it may be cloaked in progressivism, anti-Gulf prejudice is just another means to antagonizing the nationals of the Gulf states, at a time when their outlook and cultural values are becoming increasingly crucial to the rest of the world.


One of the more ludicrous manifestations of this prejudice is when you come across expatriates living in the Gulf complaining about the “locals”. In the local patois which merges English with Arabic and several Indian languages, it’s a moniker used to denigrate the indigenous population. Using it serves to validate the guest workers’ positions on the pecking order: they were hard working, enterprising and intrepid travelers, and they needed to convince themselves that the original inhabitants were slothful. What other justification could there be for them to be in those positions, and for the indigenous population not to be?


For decades, the above order of affairs worked out. The nationals of the Gulf states – only a tiny minority of the newer migrants were ever naturalized – were given the promise of sinecures in government ministries, while foreigners filled in roles that were increasingly vital, and in some cases giving them strategic power over the country.  With time, however, a surprising thing happened, and the Gulf nationals discovered their own voices.


Ali Fakhro, a former Bahraini government minister, expressed the grievances of millions of Gulf nationals when he addressed an academic conference in Doha last December. In a remarkably forthright statement for a former minister, Fakhro was irate about how government policies turned the six Arab states of the Gulf into “labour camps” where the natives feel like foreigners.


In the industrialized West, where immigrants might make up 10 percent of the population and have avenues for integration, such sentiments might be dismissed as jingoistic rabble-rousing, but in the Gulf it’s a reality:  upwards of 70 percent of the population in the Gulf countries are not natives, and one can spend a lifetime in the Gulf capitals without having to use the native language. Navigating spaces in the Gulf is, in a very real way, like visiting a foreign country for their nationals. It doesn’t help when even the expatriates who flood your country tend to look down their noses at you.

Arab anti-Gulf prejudice

For Esraa al-Muftah, a well-known Qatari social activist, the pendulum has already started to swing the other way. She is beginning to resent how, “Qataris have become preoccupied, almost to the point of obsession, with the idea of the foreigners who are overrunning their country. It is a form of xenophobia.”


Yet she also sees the factors that lead to it, how young, promising Qataris are regularly sidelined, regardless of qualification, and crash against glass ceilings when trying to progress professionally. When your country’s most important industries are controlled by foreigners jealously protective of their positions, and you are starting from a disadvantage, it’s easy for you to be typecast as the slothful do-nothing, and for that to become a self-fulfilling, and hope-sapping, prophecy.

Esra’s own personal experiences illustrate another feature of this anti-Gulf sentiment: other Arabs tend to be enthusiastic proponents of it. When introducing herself at a pro-Palestinian meeting in New York – just the kind of group that one expects to welcome any and friends they could get – she remembers how a Palestinian lawyer cringed when he learned that the NYU graduate student presenting herself as an ally of the Palestinian cause was a Qatari.


Anti-Gulf attitudes amongst non-Gulf Arabs have a telling resemblance to Western racism towards the Arab world and the East: in both cases, differences in hierarchical structures of power and the comparatively late arrival of the technological revolution were elevated to essentialist truths that justify dominance and racism. Ironically, it was the Palestinian cause which was one of the first flash points of the now growing rift between the people of the Gulf and the expatriates: it was when popular outrage over the Palestinian Nakba threatened the possibility of industrial action in the oil fields that governments here decided to rely increasingly on imported, more pliant labour forces.


While the plight of the Palestinians continues to be a rallying call for Arab nationalists of the old school and Islamists, many others in the GCC are increasingly open about their resentment of the perceived benefits which the local Palestinian communities based in the Gulf receive – in Kuwait, these resentments resulted in 2013 legislation that aimed to reduce the nearly 2 million population of expatriates by more than half over a decade.


Fakhro’s outspoken Doha statements fit in with the growing willingness of Gulf nationals to protest. The recent spat in intra-GCC relations was remarkable for the way it showed that popular rage and group sentiment could be used as an effective, if blunt and cumbersome, weapon.


Regardless of what inspired the social media outpourings – some have suggested that they were orchestrated – they illustrate the fact that the genie of public opinion cannot be put back into a bottle once let out. With increasing wealth and armies of youth who strut effortlessly across the globe, the Gulf countries will only grow in importance for global economic, social and political trends. The rest of us ignore them at our risk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.