Between Dreams and Ghosts: A Conversation with Professor Andrea Wright on Indian Gulf Migration and Middle Eastern Oil

Editor’s Note: In the following essay, Neilesh Bose presents an overview of the recently published book, Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil (2021) by Andrea Wright and leads a conversation with the author. An excerpt from this book has been provided to Maidaanam and can be read here: The Rig and the Temple.

Neilesh Bose is Professor of History at University of Victoria. He is the author of Recasting the Region: Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014). Andrea Wright is Professor of Anthropology and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at William and Mary College.

Since the Gulf “oil boom” of the 1970s, the region has been a top destination for Indian migrants. In 2018, the Government of India estimated that there were approximately 8.5 million Indian nationals working in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other countries of the area. Currently, the India-Gulf region is considered the second largest migration corridor in the world.

Who are these migrants? Where do they come from and what are their desires? Government and non-governmental reports typically reduce Indian migrants to mere numbers, salaries, remittances, and illicit border crossings. In this world of statistics, their life worlds remain elusive.

Anthropologists and other scholars have sought to illuminate migrant life worlds through studies of neoliberalism, citizenship, race, and labor. Works such as Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims (2011) have drawn attention to the illicitness of this flow of labor across national borders in a postcolonial global space. Fiction writers, on the other hand, have taken imaginative and speculative approaches to highlight migrant experiences. This has led to the growth of a whole field of multilingual literature known as “petrofiction.” Such literary texts have worked to retrieve the migrant as “absent protagonist” and reveal the un-heroic, dispersed, or alienated aspects of their life worlds through new forms of story-telling. This is visible in novels such as Abdul Rahman Munif’s Arabic Cities of Salt (1984), Benyamin’s Malayalam Goat Days (2012), and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s English Temporary People (2017).

Andrea Wright’s Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil bridges the divide between postcolonial scholarship and petrofiction. Her work brings us into the life worlds of Indian migrants with great ethnographic depth by tracing the multiple hurdles that mark the journeys from their home villages to the Gulf. Wright draws on the broad context of global labor migration histories, but with a focus on Indian, and to a great extent Indian Muslim, laborers in the Gulf.

Source: Author

Between Dreams and Ghosts presents a unique angle on this topic for scholars as well as general readers. It centers the large and growing numbers of Indian migrants in the Persian Gulf as a feature of the contemporary world system of labor, migration, and capitalism. Wright offers an important contrast to broader labor migration studies such as Shobana Shankar’s An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India, and the Specter of Race as well as another perspective on Indian Gulf migration alongside Neha Vora’s study of citizenship in Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora.

Reflecting several years of research, Between Dreams and Ghosts probes the lives and labors of Indian migrants in various parts of the Gulf. It includes several sub-themes such as recruiting agents, networks, nationalist branding, and kinship substances. The various paths taken by Wright through the body of the work are brought together by a historically informed ethnographic approach to privatization and neoliberalism. Although these are popular topics in some areas of contemporary social science, they are rarely studied in the context of Indian Gulf migrants.

More than one million Indians travel annually to work in oil projects in the Gulf, one of the few international destinations where men without formal education can find lucrative employment. In three parts and seven substantive chapters, Wright crafts a complex story from the ground up. Focusing primarily on migrants from villages in Uttar Pradesh, she details their experiences with recruiters, the process of migration in relation to the state, and the experiences of labor in the Gulf itself.

Men from South Asia walking to work on a construction project in Dubai, UAE
Source: Author

For Wright, labor migration is a social process that is intertwined with dreams of the future as well as the ghosts of history. Rather than focusing on dusty law books or impersonal policies, she calls attention to the stories of migrants themselves. Although her gaze is focused primarily on Indian Muslims, she notes the diversity of migrants as Hindus, Christians, and members of other groups. The evidence offered focuses on particular social groups such as Indian Muslims, Dalits, Indian women migrants, and relatives of migrants.

The mention of other contemporary social actors, such as Hindu migrants, points to possible avenues of future research. This topic is most apparent in her fascinating chapter titled “The Rig and the Temple” (excerpt provided below). Here, Wright relays the phenomenon of an oil rig being popularly referred to as a Hindu temple. In another section, she mentions an intriguing image of a Hindu goddess adorned with various symbols of safety, such as masks and safety equipment. This is identified as an example of “Hindutva modernity,” a reference to Hindu nationalism as experienced in contemporary post-2014 India.

Another topic explored by Wright is the notorious world of labor recruiting. She offers an unprecedented analysis of the recruiters as well as the agents and sub-agents involved in the complex system of Gulf migration. Gulf recruitment is productive of much rumor and popular folklore but has yet to be studied in any formal way. One fascinating point of research that deserves further attention is the relationship between the colonial-era indentured labor system and the legal dimensions of the contemporary kafala system.

Wright presented aspects of her research at a workshop at Victoria, British Columbia, now included in South Asian Migrations in Global History: Labor, Law, and Wayward Lives. I had the chance to speak with her about the potentials, limits, and future possibilities raised by her book.

Neilesh: How did you get interested in this topic?

Andrea: I first became aware of the large number of Indians living in the Gulf in 2006. At the time, I was studying Urdu in Lucknow, India, and I was doing research on historic Muslim medical practices in the Middle East and India. During one of my breaks from studying Urdu, I went to visit a friend in Beirut, and I had a long lay-over in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). While I was there, I met a group of men from villages near Lucknow. This started my interest in the almost one million Indian men who travel to work as unskilled or semi-skilled workers in the Gulf every year.

Neilesh: How did you choose your research sites in India? Where in India were they and what determined these choices?

Andrea: A few years later, I began studying this topic in detail. Because men from all over India migrate to work in the Gulf, I began by conducting research at a recruiting agency in Mumbai, India. I chose Mumbai because it is where a large percentage of Indian recruiting agencies are located — a 2005 study found that just over half of the registered recruiting agencies in India were based in Mumbai. As I discuss in the Introduction to the book, recruiting agencies were challenging places to initially begin ethnographic research. It took me time to find a recruiting agency that would allow me to conduct ethnographic research there, but once I was able to begin research at that agency, it facilitated my research at additional recruiting agents (through working at one place, people met me and felt more comfortable with my research). One of the biggest impacts this had on my research was the fact that I focused on staffing of oil and gas projects.

I also conducted ethnographic research at a recruiting agency in Hyderabad, where the practices were very similar to Mumbai agencies. Regarding the rural areas where I conducted research with returned migrants and migrants’ families, I mostly did research in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, largely because of my language skills (I know Hindi and Urdu best). I did do some research outside of Hyderabad with families of returned migrants and with an organization of returned workers.

Neilesh: You focus on migration as a social process, not a fixed event. Can you say more about what this means? How does this relate to your understanding of capitalism?

Andrea: As part of my research, I accompanied recruiters to rural Uttar Pradesh, where they were hiring manual laborers for an oil construction project. In one village, I met Ahmed, a young man who lived on a farm with his parents, his brothers, his brothers’ wives, his nieces and nephews, and his sister.

As we spoke, Ahmed explained that there were few jobs in the area and that the farm did not produce enough food to meet his family’s needs. They were heavily in debt to a local moneylender who charged high interest rates. In addition, Ahmed’s eldest sister, Naheed, needed to get married, but the family did not have enough resources to provide the funds for her to do so. Ahmed’s parents wanted him to go to the Gulf to earn money, help support the family, and contribute to his sister’s marriage.

Many of Ahmed’s friends already worked in the Gulf, and he saw it as his duty, as a son and brother, to work abroad. He reflected, “My friends have gone. I also must go.” After his interview, he and I walked through his village. He pointed to his neighbor’s new pucca house, a house made of bricks, and a tractor parked in front. The neighbors bought their house and tractor after two sons began working in the Gulf, and Ahmed did not want to be “left behind” as those from his village who migrated improved their living situations. As we continued our conversation, Ahmed told me, “My dream is to fly on an airplane.”

Between Dreams and Ghosts looks at the process of migration and follows men as they move from villages in rural India to Mumbai where they look for jobs to their jobs in the Gulf and then their return home after their work is finished. Through considering migration as a social process and focusing on the everyday lives of migrants and their families, we find that economic models of migration, which often use supply and demand to explain labor in the Gulf’s oil industry, miss critical aspects of migration.

Indeed, as anthropologists of migration have shown in a diversity of contexts, such frameworks ignore many structural inequalities and lived realities. A couple of years later, I met Ahmed again—this time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where he was working.

He described his arc from India to the Gulf: “The problem with India is [I] cannot save much, [it is] not raining well, I do farming, so [no rain] is a big effect. [Also] in India, it is like you go here and there and you spend [money]; here [in the UAE] you just go back to your room, so you can save.”

For many poor Indians, the oil fields of the Gulf are one of the few international destinations where men who do not have formal education are able to find lucrative employment. But Ahmed’s choice to migrate was also informed by his dreams, familial obligations, and friends’ activities. In addition, multiple parties, including recruiting agency employees, government bureaucrats, and oil company managers, also participated in his migration.

Neilesh: Although it is not your primary focus, you do integrate a consciousness of religion and various markers of identity for Indian migrants. Indian Muslims appear as sympathetic protagonists while Hindus are less detailed as political and social actors. However, the “Rig as Mandir” section shows that Hindus are part of a significant transformation of Gulf spaces such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

Andrea: In the Rig as Mandir chapter, one topic discussed is how those who are often excluded from discussions of India’s development also envision themselves as contributing to India’s development or, in the words of my interlocuters, to “making India modern.”

My focus on unskilled and semi-skilled labor meant that a large percentage of Muslims were interviewed – a disproportionate number of Indian migrants working unskilled or semi-skilled (government categories) in the Gulf are Muslims (for example, at that site it was over 50%). 

But the chapter is not only about Muslims. Indian Hindus who identify are members of “scheduled” and “other backwards castes” are also disproportionately working in the lowest-paid jobs in the Gulf. While members of these groups are often seen to be the focus of modernization projects, this chapter attempted to show how they understood themselves as active participants in such projects.

Neilesh: Can you say more about “Hindu nationalism?” How is it understood or reflected by your interlocutors? How did you end up including the particular people in your final version of the book?

Andrea: Over the course of my research, many of the Indian workers I interviewed in the Gulf associated Hindu nationalism with modernity and development. In the book, I wanted to depict the variety of ways migrants engaged with Hindu nationalism in order to draw attention to and reframe the meanings of state and nation. In particular, I was interested in showing how migrants position themselves as part of India’s development and how they critically insert themselves as part of the national body.

For example, Mohammed, a Muslim from northern India, worked at the rig construction project. As he described the importance of his work building oil infrastructure, he told me it helped him be a good son by allowing him to send money to his father. But the meaning he gave his work at this project extended past fulfilling his familial obligations to also reflecting a way he contributed to the future of India. Mohammed explicitly connected his work to the process of “making India modern” and described his migration as a way to help both his country and his community progress economically and ideologically.

Mohammed was not the only person who situated work on Gulf oil projects as part of India’s modernization. Both prospective migrants and current migrants tell me, with sincerity and excitement, that they work, or want to work, in the Gulf to “make India modern.” When men like Mohammed tell me this, I usually inquire as to what “modern” means, as the word seems, to me, to be amorphous and fleeting.

In their answers, Indian migrants describe modernity and development as improvements to infrastructure, which includes airplanes, electricity, and clean running water. They also describe it as the increased consumption of commodities.

In addition, workers from groups that face structural inequalities, such as Muslims, Adivasis (indigenous Indians), and Dalits, tell me their work in the Gulf contributes to modernity because it helps their community “stop being backward” or improves their community’s socioeconomic status.

However, “making India modern” is not limited to material consumption and infrastructure; it implies more difficult-to-articulate dreams, including freedom; living in the city; doing what you want; and love matches as opposed to arranged marriages.

Neilesh: You mention “racialization” and “securitization” in the context of Indian workers in the Gulf. Can you tell us a little more about these intertwined processes?

Andrea: During Ramadan in 2010, I traveled to Sharjah, UAE, to take iftar, breaking the daytime fast Muslims observe during the month of Ramadan, with the residents of an abandoned camp.

The men I ate with had, what many migrants described as, the “bad luck” to work for companies that had gone bankrupt or were in financial difficulties following the 2008 global economic crisis. As a result, these companies closed their operations completely or laid off large numbers of workers. Often the company owners fled the UAE in order to avoid debtor’s prison, while the workers—many of whom had not been paid their wages—were left stranded in the UAE.

These migrants most often worked at smaller companies that provided parts or day labor to larger multinational corporations (MNCs). With the economic turmoil of 2008, many of these smaller companies were unable to pay their bills or their employees. The low-level employees of these defunct companies continued to live at the camps, but because their employers no longer paid the bills, the residents had no water or electricity. Due to the hot weather, the residents of the camp pulled their mattresses onto the roof of their buildings to sleep at night.

Men I spoke with at the abandoned camp told me they were “stuck” or “trapped.” Many believed that they could not get another job in the Emirates. Some did not have their passports because their employer had been holding them. When their employer disappeared, their passports disappeared as well.

Some employees still had their passports, but they thought they would be unable to find another job because their work visas were tied to their employer. Finding another job was hopeless, they said, because in order to transfer one’s visa, they would need an employer who would be willing to navigate the Emirates Ministry of Labour on their behalf. Stuck, waiting in camps, these abandoned workers had no plane ticket home, no paycheck, and nowhere to go.

In the book I am currently finishing, Producing Labor Hierarchies: A History of Oil in the Arabian Sea (Stanford University Press), I examine the history of labor and oil production in the Arabian Peninsula in the twentieth century through interrogating the relationships among governments, oil companies, and mobile workforces.

In considering how lines between citizens and noncitizens were drawn and enforced, Producing Labor Hierarchies explores oil’s increasing connections to national security while workers were increasingly segregated by their nationality. These processes of securitization and racialization ultimately led to the evacuation of politics from the oilfields. This builds upon Between Dreams and Ghosts, where I look at how contemporary governance and corporate practices help inform migrant workers’ precarity in the Gulf.

Abandoned Workers from South Asia taking Iftar during Ramadan in Sharjah, UAE
Source: Author

Editor’s Note: An excerpt from this book has been provided to Maidaanam and can be read here: The Rig and the Temple.

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