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Who Do We Think We Are?

BtH1 S8 Beyond the headlines … with Idil Akinci-Perez

23 Dec 2022


Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are beyond the headlines, the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I’m Michaela Benson.

Ala Sirriyeh [AS]: And I’m Ala Sirriyeh. In our day jobs we’re sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We’ve also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.

Hello, everyone. Welcome to this episode of Beyond the Headlines. At the moment as we’re recording the World Cup in Qatar is in full flow. And with that there’s been some limited attention to migration in the region. With that in mind, we’re really delighted to be joined by our guest today, Dr. İdil Akıncı, who is a lecturer in race and social policy at the University of Edinburgh. İdil’s research centres on national identity, citizenship and belonging in multicultural societies and with a particular focus on the Arab Gulf states. Hi, İdil.

İdil Akıncı [İA] Hi Ala.

MB: As AIa has already pointed out, all eyes have been on Qatar for the last few weeks because of the World Cup. And I think it’s fair to say that neither Alla and I are particular followers of football. But certainly with our kind of migration hats on, it’s become quite an interesting situation to observe because a lot of the media reporting around both the Qatar bid, the original bid to host the FIFA World Cup, and subsequent coverage of their developments for the World Cup has been on the conditions faced by the migrant workers who were brought in to prepare, that’s literally build the infrastructure for Qatar to host this major football tournament. So we’ve taken an article today, that is a recent piece published in Al Jazeera, that uses the World Cup as a hook to talk about migration. And the article itself reports on the response of Qatar’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, to reporting in the Western media about the number of deaths and overall poor working conditions faced by migrant workers. And really, at the heart of this is him decrying the reporting in the Western press as a campaign against Qatar. And he draws attention to what he highlights as the inaccuracies of the statistics that have been used by these outlets. The article goes on to discuss labour and immigration reform in Qatar, among other things. Now, just as I’m not familiar with football, I really am not, I’m not familiar with the Gulf states and how they approach migration and citizenship. So when I’m looking at this, I’m asking all sorts of questions about the extent to which my knowledge from quite different parts of the world might be influencing the way in which I read these things. And that’s why we’ve asked İdil to come on to speak to us about this, because she really is an expert in migration and citizenship in the Gulf States. So briefly, what we want to deal within this, is we want to use this story as a way of exploring what looking at migration and citizenship in the Gulf states might offer in terms of developing our understandings of migration at a global scale, I suppose. So it still to your mind what’s going on beyond this focus on migrant workers rights and lives in the context of the World Cup?

İA: Thank you Michaela. And again, thank you Allah for having me today and giving me a platform to talk about my work. So me neither I’m neither following football, but it’s impossible, I think, to be immune to the coverage that is around the World Cup, which is very much politicised.And as you said, Indeed, the World Cup has amplified the existing international focus there has been there already on labour wrongs in the region, particularly pertaining the regulation and treatment of construction workers. And there’s a wealth of policy as well as academic work on this, which reports on the exploitation and ill treatment of particularly migrant domestic workers and construction workers, looking at the conditions of the entry and stay in the Gulf states which is managed through a temporary sponsored workers programme known as Kafala. Yet the current media frenzy surrounding the World Cup in Qatar and the hyper focus there is on construction workers reinforces common tropes and approaches to this region as being exceptional in the way migrant labour is regulated and treated, which is attributed to the region’s inherently autocratic systems of rule, which needs to then be reformed in line with international standards of progress. And importantly, these discourses work to reinforce an ontological binary between the Gulf and other migrant receiving geographies of the West. And therefore, they work to detach this region and its connected histories, its systems of migration and citizenship through the legacies of British colonial rule for instance. It also steers I think away from reading these issues in the Gulf in relation to wider practices of capital accumulation, which rely on racial hierarchies within global systems of labour. Also, I think when we have a hyper focus on construction workers and associating their ill treatment and exploitation with or through culturalist discourses, I think we also look away from global trends that shift towards conditional sponsored and selective systems of migration management, taking skills as well wealth a main reference point to determine the rights and humanity of migrant workers elsewhere. And I want to emphasise that this isn’t to say that this happens everywhere else, so why look at the Gulf, or to suggest that, you know, their exploitation does not warrant an important focus, or to take the direction of what about-ism, which is, you know, what we’ve been seeing on social media as well. On the contrary, what I suggest is a more historically informed and globally connected understanding of this region, which will enable us to have a more complex picture about what type of mechanisms and actors at local, transnational and global level generate social and economic domination of migrant workers, as well as inequalities, the true formation and practice of immigration policy. So this perspective is really important. So that we can look through and beyond the figure of the construction worker, and the body of the construction worker, and address the systems that generate and maintain inequality across borders, which will also mean that we have to look at, you know, beyond the binary of the citizen versus migrant, and consider how informal inclusion may occur among the migrant workers in the Gulf like elsewhere, as well as formal exclusions that happen within the citizenry, including the Gulf nationals.

AS: Thanks İdil. And you’ve said there some of the problems with the main focus of debate just being on migrant workers in the kind of discourses that have emerged there. And I wonder, because I think I know, Michaela said that she doesn’t know a lot about the Gulf State as a region. And I imagine, actually, because of that very specific focus that we see anytime migration is talked about in the Gulf, it’s about this very specific case, I think a lot of people will have quite a limited knowledge and understanding of broader approaches to migration in the Gulf states. So I was wondering if, and this would be a great time, actually, to say a little bit about your research, as well as wondering if you could give us a little bit of an overview about the Gulf states approach to migration, and perhaps, you know, some of the more unique aspects that people might not be familiar with,

İA: Of course, Ala. So what is unique about many countries in the Gulf is … there are a few things. First, in most of the countries, citizens are minority in numbers. So when we look at places like Qatar, as well as the United Arab Emirates, we see that only about 10% of the overall population is citizens. And the rest, you know, and that is 90% of the population are non nationals, and their access to permanent settlement and citizenship from the Gulf is severely restricted. And that also includes those who are born and raised in these countries. So again, going beyond the, you know, the figure of the construction worker, migrants are processed and regulated through temporary sponsored visas. There are a significant number of families in the Gulf who have managed to settle permanently in practice in these places. So this idea that we have around the Gulf being a transit country where migrants come for a few years, work and then leave is of course the case for some and certainly for low paid workers who do not have the privilege to unite their families in the Gulf. But you do have a significant amount of intergenerational families in the Gulf who are non-nationals. And that too, is quite unique. So this idea of inherited, legal precarity or inherited status of temporariness is quite unique, as well. And in a context where migrants outnumber citizens in such significant figures, the foreclosure or restriction of permanent settlement and citizenship access for migrants is justified on the basis of protection of national minority both in terms of socio economically as well as politically from the threats that migrants may pose. So, when compared to Western centres of international migration, it is fair to say that the borders of the Gulf is more porous in that way that migrants can, you know, easily come in and find work in the Gulf, but the settlement is much more difficult. And it’s a privilege that is only given to a few. Yeah, and I guess this makes the Gulf a key place to understand the shifting and persistent reconfiguration of citizenship, race and class. And we often do not know much about this geography, because migration to this region is still imagined as being temporary. Yes, it is temporary in legal terms, but migrants have managed to establish intergenerational families. And so therefore, we have to understand how this legal status of being temporary unfolds across class, gender and racial lines, but as well as across the life course, as people for instance, age, what happens then?

AS: You mentioned that there’s a difference in terms of people’s ability to access citizenship. And I wondered if you might say a bit more about for want of a better word which kinds of migrants find it easier, perhaps to get on that, that path to citizenship than others? What is it about their characteristics and situations that enable them to do that?

İA: Sure. So in recent years, the UAE in particular, which is where my work is, has introduced a number of reforms to allow exceptionally talented and exceptionally wealthy migrants to acquire longer term residencies. So five to 10 years, and for some, also access to citizenship on an ad hoc basis. So and this is often celebrated as signs of a more inclusionary immigration system. The majority of the Gulf migrants, including the intergenerational families that I have mentioned, are not eligible for these visa schemes. And because this requires hefty investments to property, and so on, as well as a regular income, so that makes it really difficult for people to acquire it. So instead of I think, reading this as an opening up of or a more open immigration policy, we have to see how this is going to generate new and deeper inequalities not only between migrant and citizen groups, but also among the migrant groups who are differently classed. So, yeah.

MB: I think that’s really interesting. And we’ll come back to some of those questions about the relationship between migration and citizenship a little bit later in the conversation. But I wanted to go back to an earlier point that you made when you were describing what your approach has been to making sense of all of this. And you talked about the amnesia around the significance of British colonial powers in framing conversations around migration in the Gulf states. And I wondered if you wanted to unpack that a little bit more.

İA: I think it’s important to bring forward the history of British colonial rule in the region to understand contemporary practices of migration governance in the Gulf, and there is a large body of work that demonstrates the legacy of this past in shaping Kafala worker sponsorship system in the Gulf. So we see already from the 19th century onwards how the systematic processing of migrant labour began under British colonial rule, regulating migrants through the sponsorship of then British administrations. So migrants to the region are predominantly brought in by the British to carry out the various functions of the colonial administrations predominantly from other colonies such as the Indian subcontinent as well as the United Kingdom. And much like today in contemporary Gulf societies, migrant communities which were brought were not expected or required to integrate within their local communities. Actually, it was better for them to maintain their distinctive ways of being in order to avoid the formation of a class conscious labour force. So the innovation that was introduced by Gulf rulers to the system was that sponsorship was only going to be allowed to be undertaken by the citizens of the Gulf. So these efforts to separate citizens from migrants supposedly, you know, protecting them from the, you know, various threats, one of which was also a political threat that they could pose were again, because of a fear of migrants and citizens coming together to improve labour conditions. So, in that sense, we can understand and read the history of Kafala system as a effective tool to depoliticize both citizen and migrant populations and particularly, when we look at the citizens, when they have the right to exert economic and social control over the migrant labour, you can understand how then the Gulf labour market is shaped through this racial ordering, which is you know, then tethered into legal doctrine. But also you can understand how this is not a product of inherently autocratic regime or practice or can be found through a cultural understanding of our Bedouin past where, you know, the Kafeel, the sponsor has always been welcoming the foreigner and regulating it, we can then understand how global practices of racial capitalism unfold in the local context of the Gulf. So therefore, I guess, again, looking at this historical connections, it’s important to read the Gulf from globally connected lens and not as a completely isolated case, which is what’s been the main media and political discourse surrounding the World Cup.

AS: And it’s really interesting thinking about colonial histories. So I was wondering if you could tell us about how this experiences around citizenship in the Gulf states might develop our understandings of the concept of citizenship more broadly.

İA: I guess, Gulf states provide us with a case study that is literally unfolding in real time to understand the generative and productive force of immigration and citizenship regimes. And with that, I mean, how they give a shape and a form to legal categories of migrant versus the citizen. So while the circumstances and interests of classifying populations in this way through the binary of citizen and migrant differ across time, space and in the national context, what is similar is that they really naturalise our understanding of who a national is, and determining who can be considered as deserving citizenship and who is rendered as forever arriving, thus peripheral to the national community. And these conversations are happening and are of relevance to elsewhere especially if we consider the global proliferation of anti-immigrant nationalisms where ideas of deservingness, entitlement, nativism, who is you know, an original citizen who has more entitlement to resources is of common concern. So when we then you know, move back to the local context of the Gulf. It is important to mention that the idea of a Gulf citizen which is racialized as Arab, has not been a straightforward process. It’s important to mention that the coastal cities of the Gulf have been centres of immigration, through trade, colonial links, Indian Ocean slavery for centuries. Even though we come to know about these places, the cities, such as Doha, Dubai, in relation to the oil boom, which has created mass forms of immigration from South and Southeast Asia, and non-Gulf Arab countries as well as Africa from the 1960s onwards. When we look at earlier histories of immigration we see how minorities among the Gulf citizenry and their histories have been sidelined in the official discourses that define Gulf citizenships. In recent years, a number of academic works try to demonstrate the temporal and racialized constructions of the Gulf national as, as an Arab. And in the case of my work in the UAE, we see for instance, how citizenship policy chose 1925 as the cutoff date for eligibility for citizenship. In fact, this is not just in the UAE. But in all the oil rich Gulf states that we see this criteria that enabled citizenship access to those who can trace their lineage to a cutoff date prior to the discovery of oil. So 1925 is, you know, chosen to determine the discovery of oil, so that the number of people who can benefit from this resource could be as small as possible. However, the story is more complicated, because there were competing interests, both by the British and Gulf rulers, which created disagreements about who could be or who should be given citizenship. So there was a significant number of minorities in the Gulf from Persia, from across the Indian Ocean, and from Africa. So they were not Arabs. And the disagreements were as to whether they could be considered a part of citizenry, thus, Arab, was very much based on political and economic imperatives of the British administration, as well as different Emirates. So for instance, in the case of Dubai, which heavily relied on trade as economic activity, issuing passports to non-Arab merchants, such as Africans, South Asians and Persians, it was a economic imperative for the for the Dubai rulers. Whereas when we look at Abu Dhabi economic income is based on fixed assets like oil, the ruling elites adopted more restrictive immigration controls and citizenship, and they did not include or didn’t want to include non-Arabs as a part of the Arab citizenry. And similarly, we see that British authorities were against Dubai’s issuing of passports to non-Arabs, and they did not, the British did not perceive them as being Arab. So therefore, they had to be excluded. And this agreement that is important to also mention that created a legally complex formation of nationality in the UAE, as Abu Dhabi has become the central power of the Federation, their understanding of citizenship, which is highly restrictive has become the national policy, which then created complications for those who were issued passports by different Emirates such as Dubai, but was not acknowledged at the level of the Federation, which meant that not everybody has a full citizenship right in the UAE and in some other countries in the Gulf as well, which is really important to also understand when we look at inequalities based on citizenship.

MB: I think both this generative approach to understanding citizenship and recognising the different political interests, the different economic interests, the different power struggles that go on in defining that is really helpful in terms of showing the kind of the constructive nature of citizenship and kind of debunking those ideas around citizenship as naturalised in some kind of way. But I suppose the counterpoint to this is to do with thinking about this in the present day and thinking about, you know, that extremely restricted legal trajectory for migrant or citizen in the Gulf states, and what this might help us to make visible in terms of understanding that relationship between migranthood and citizenship.

İA: Definitely, as I’ve mentioned earlier, what makes the Gulf states unique is that temporariness is a permanent status, regardless of the years migrants spent there. So that’s, you know, the lack of legal trajectory, as you said, from, you know, being a migrant into citizen do challenge our understanding of the relationship between migranthood and citizenship. Yet, the story is complicated when we look at varied experiences of this temporary legal statuses among the migrants based on their socio-economic resources, based on their gender, their nationality as well as how circumstances and life course shape, or reshape, temporariness as a source of concern. So as I said, there is today second, third, fourth generation non-nationals who are born in this countries and yet this doesn’t get picked up as much for instance, as the case of Construction workers. And there’s a very large pool of residents in the Gulf that have over time acquired what in effect is a permanent status yet under temporary visas. So for those who are financially stable, being temporary isn’t much of an issue because they can invest in citizenship from another country without even having to cross international borders from a distance, or they can invest in property in the Gulf, which will give them a longer residency. Or it could it be that their socioeconomic resources are so great that acquiring a stronger passport, including that from the Gulf is not a source of concern, or it’s not of interest to them. And Neha Vora talks about this form of economic citizenship among migrants in the Gulf. Yet, for migrants who do not have solid socioeconomic resources, temporariness becomes a source of concern. Along with class, it’s also the nationality of the migrants in the Gulf, which then determines their sense of insecurity in the Gulf. So to that end, my research looked at the experiences of UAE-born Syrians in the aftermath of the war in Syria, in 2011. So I tried to understand how a population who is primarily connected to Syria by virtue of holding passports from Syria were impacted by what was happening in Syria. So my research demonstrated an increased sense of insecurity and global immobility among this group, which then compelled them to seek an alternative citizenship or permanent residency from elsewhere. And for those, again, who were financially able, this insecurity wasn’t felt as much or they had solutions to it yet, for those who didn’t have the means to, for instance asylum seeking emerged as a solution among UAE-born Syrians. So in a number of European Union states, so really the experiences or consideration of onward migration from the UAE among not just Syrians, but other populations, who perceive the Gulf as their primary home, really shows the consequences of inequalities premised on citizenship and the type of complex onward journeys that they generate. So I guess that again, demonstrates the importance of looking at migration in the Gulf from a broader lens in order to understand inequality.

AS: I was really struck by what you said earlier, and what you’ve referred back to you through this discussion about how it’s only a minority of residents in these countries who are citizens. And that I think, when we first heard that, that statistic from you, it was really quite striking and surprising considering some of the kind of assumed discussions we have about migration. For example, within Europe, it’s really quite quite a different context. So as you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about how, how people live with this, in this situation, this kind of inherited precarity for generations with this kind of permanent temporariness. And you’ve talked there a little bit about how people kind of managed through thinking about onwards migrations or acquiring other kinds of citizenship, I was wondering if you could perhaps say a little bit more about some of that kind of day-to-day work of living under these conditions, what is it like for people to live in that situation of inherited precarity?

İA: So I guess for the most part, this is naturalised as a way of living in the Gulf, even among those who are born and raised in these places, and always in the back of their mind that there is a possibility of having to leave the Gulf one day. And that possibility means different things to different people. And again, the nationality that the migrants hold is very, very important because, I mean, if you hold passports from countries with ongoing political conflict or political violence, where do you go? Right? So in case you lose your temporary visa, which is linked to employment, predominantly, that means you have to find a different place to live. So it’s really important, I guess, to look at, you know, legal status together with nationality to understand inequality. So that’s one. Socioeconomic resources, again, is a second one. So as one of the participants in my study has said that upper middle-class migrants in the Gulf or the elites, the ultra wealthy, do not even think about being temporary in these places, because they’ve got the security of having a property, having businesses, having invested in businesses and, or citizenships from elsewhere. But the groups that I look at, which can be called middling migrants, they do not have vast resources, and what they rely on and this is something that came up in a recent study that I have conducted with ageing migrants in the Gulf, they rely on their social networks in the Gulf, who can provide them with continuous or extended residencies, even if they may have lost their residency statuses or their employment. So it’s not always also economic capital, but it’s also really the, you know, the lived experience of the Gulf across decades and generations, some people are able to, you know, put together a solid social network, which they can rely on. But of course, that is, you know, not something that can be a permanent solution to a structural problem.

MB: I think it’s really fascinating. And it’s making me ask questions about what it would mean to kind of centre, the Gulf states within understandings of migration and citizenship. I mean, a few episodes back, we spoke with Cecilia Menjivar, about her work on legal liminality in the US, which of course, is really different context, where you don’t have minority citizenship as you have in the Gulf states, so I can really start to see how you could draw out those connections with those conversations that are happening elsewhere in the world. So thank you very much İdil. And can I just ask you, where people can find out a bit more about you and your work?

İA: I guess, as someone who’s not very active on social media, perhaps my university page and otherwise maybe one day if I published my forever-taking first book, in which I look at, yeah, various ways in which migrants see and citizenry in the UAE is entangled rather than a binary. So this book is tentatively titled ‘The making of natives and immigrants in Dubai’. So through interviews with young people in Dubai, both nationals and non-nationals, I explore process of racial formation of these categories in relation to both older and with that, I mean, pre-nation migrations as well as newer forms of migration, which is post-oil migration to Dubai. So my focus is on the ethnic minorities among Dubai citizens and non-nationals who are born and raised in the city.

MB: Thank you so much İdil. That’s been absolutely fascinating. And yeah, I think I understand a lot more now than I did before we started so thank you.

İA: Thank you very much for having me. It was really nice to be in conversation with you. Thank you.

AS: Thank you very much.

MB: You’ve been listening to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyehand Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for production and post production support, and to George Kalivia for our fantastic cover art and social media assets. We’d also like to thank Niamh Welby, who provides much needed support behind the scenes to get these episodes together. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts, and links to all our socials. You can also find us at That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another headline in the next month.


All eyes have been on Qatar because of the World Cup. And with it, attention to the poor working conditions and treatment of migrant construction workers. We go beyond the headlines with İdil Akıncı-Pérez (University of Edinburgh) to explore the back story to these issues. We look in depth at how the Gulf States approach migration and citizenship, from the Kafala sponsorship system to restrictions on citizenship which mean that only 10% of the resident population have citizenship. We move beyond the suggestion of the Gulf States as exceptional to consider instead how their approach converges and diverges from migration-citizenship regimes closer to home, and what this makes visible about global migration and citizenship regimes.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode on the Who do we think we are? website.

In this episode we cover …

  1. Kafala and labour conditions
  2. History of citizenship and migration in the Gulf
  3. Legal precarity across the life course


"If you hold nationality of a country with ongoing political conflict and violence where do you go if you lose your temporary visa that is linked to employment which means you have to find a different place to live? It is really important to look at legal status together with nationality to understand inequality." — İdil Akıncı-Pérez

Find out more about …

Our guest İdil Akıncı-Pérez and her work and follow her on twitter

Our headline for this episode from Al Jazeera

We also loved this episode about Qatar and the World Cup from one of our favourite podcasts, NPR’s Throughline

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