Formal and informal practices of immigration and employment in the Gulf render inappropriate the classic image of an individual immigrant arriving to set stake and soon send for family. The majority of the foreigners in Bahrain reside there without family and until the 1980s were overwhelmingly male. Nonetheless, over the past century, the unique histories and circumstances of the various nationalities resident in Bahrain have led to the emergence and entrenchment of communities of foreigners. This essay explores how immigration and employment practices in the Gulf states can directly impact the personal or family status of individual residents and shape the social structure of the various foreign populations resident in Bahrain. The distinction between family status and single status immigration is shown to have a direct impact on the personal and family lives of individual migrants and to be an important axis of differentiation within the foreign populations resident in Bahrain.
Extended Sojourns — From Short-Term Contracts to Entrenched Communities
Bahrain, like other Gulf states, hosts large populations of foreign residents. Migration to the region predates the discovery of oil and natural gas in 1936.
However, the subsequent economic development led to enormous demographic shifts in the second half of the 20th century as laborers, investors, and accompanying family members took up residence in the country. Today, Bahrain’s population is approximately 60% Bahraini and 40% non-Bahraini. Yet, 64% of its workforce is non-Bahraini.Naturalization policies are restrictive enough that most foreigners cannot begin to imagine obtaining citizenship. Instead, they hold temporary residency permits linked to employment contracts of two to three years in duration. Residence visas linked to short-term employment create a circumstance in which the foreign population is understood as relatively transient.
Although the reliance on foreign labor is accepted as a long-term situation, individual foreigners are expected to remain in the Gulf for a relatively short time. Although the standard contract length is two to three years, both employers and employees recognize the value of renewing a contract when the work and worker are compatible. Three contract cycles would keep a person in the Gulf for nine years. Most stakeholders in the migration cycle would consider a two to ten year average stay a safe estimate. The foreign residents often explain their decision to migrate to the Gulf as part of a short-term plan to move them closer to a life-cycle event or an economic goal. They may plan on staying for four years, until their children are out of school or until they have saved enough to furnish an apartment allowing them to return and marry. At the other end of the life-cycle are those who plan that “six years at this salary will get me to a comfortable retirement.”
The idea of the migrant’s experience as a sojourn rather than as emigration is reinforced, and perhaps shaped, by the nature of employment and immigration practices. Not only is naturalization restricted, but employees with insufficient income cannot obtain residency permits for family members. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of foreign workers are in Bahrain without family. Such workers are commonly referred to as “bachelors” — whether or not they are single or married. Bahrain’s “bachelors” include factory and construction workers, drivers, manual and janitorial workers in businesses and homes, and skilled workers in factories, repair shops, and construction. Until recently, single status workers were overwhelmingly male. With the expansion of the service sector and the entry of Southeast and East Asian workers into the recruitment pool, single females have become ubiquitous among Bahrain’s labor force as they have among migrants globally.
Even if one earns sufficient income to apply for family residency, the terms of employment may not permit them to do so. Contracts may specify that the employer will provide visas only for single, unaccompanied employees with local marriage and/or pregnancy grounds for termination and repatriation. Other practices limiting the possibility of extending or establishing families locally include rules against romantic relationships with co-workers, bureaucratic knots that complicate the process of aligning the visas of spouses who meet and marry in the country, mandatory retirement at age 60, and, in the case of Qatar and Oman, laws that prohibit or restrict citizens from marrying foreigners. The availability of housing, which for many is provided by the employer, also can present an obstacle to family residence. Employees whose contracts provide for labor camp, dormitory, or shared apartment housing will not be allowed to house family members. Thus housing for family would be at the employee’s own expense and possibly beyond their economic means. These prohibitive or disciplinary actions by employers certainly contribute to the limited tenure of many foreign residents. Still, many others remain beyond their initial contract. For, despite the strong rhetoric and discourse of transience, the foreign communities are well entrenched, and individual and family histories in the region extend well beyond the two to ten year estimate.
Like the personal and family status of individuals, the resulting long-term populations are shaped by immigration and employment practices. The unique circumstances of each of these populations — size and duration of migration, cultural and linguistic practices, and occupations — also distinguish them from each other. While foreign residents hail from all corners of the globe, each corner is not equally represented in the population or in specific occupations.
Most observers agree that South Asians and non-Gulf Arabs comprise the largest portion of the foreign population. Multiple factors, such as geographical and cultural proximity, political relations through British India, and shared language contribute to the magnitude of migration to Bahrain from South Asia. It was not until the late 1970s that workers were systematically recruited from the countries of Southeast and East Asia, including the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea and, more recently, China.
As might be expected, the distribution of nationalities across the occupational strata is far from random or neutral. The unique histories and circumstances of each population’s recruitment and migration to Bahrain and the differential occupational status contribute to the variable social structures within and among each of the nationalities in Bahrain. Most obvious is the clear occupational hierarchy linked to nationality.Less obvious to observers are the hierarchies within nationalities. The longer standing nationalities are more complexly structured along axes of class, ethnicity, and family status. Nationalities that only have recently begun to constellate in Bahrain are not (yet) as evidently divided along these axes.
South Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the largest and longest standing foreign residents in Bahrain. Consequently, the South Asian population — with residents from the various states, ethno-linguistic, and religious groups of South Asia — is quite varied and complex. Distinctions from South Asia overlap with occupational and status differentiations structured by the employment and immigration practices in Bahrain. One important axis of differentiation among South Asian residents in Bahrain is the duration of one’s residence in Bahrain and their family status. Some claim family residence in Bahrain spanning generations. Others are recent arrivals recruited for short-term labor contracts. The first group comprises multiple generation extended families resident in the Gulf who may live in either conjugal or extended family households. Among this group are foreign residents born, raised, and schooled in Bahrain who have now started their own families and careers there. The second group comprises cohorts of mostly male laborers recruited as “bachelors” and female garment or household workers. While the South Asian merchant and professional class has a presence among Bahrain’s middle class populations, the large laboring underclass is marginalized from access to many urban spaces and resources.Bachelors working in skilled and professional positions fall between these two groups. While they have access to housing, transportation, and other amenities and services not available to their compatriot laborers, they rarely have the resources or cultural capital to establish family residences in Bahrain.
Non-Gulf Arabsand Iranians have a similarly bifurcated population. New migrants from these countries are recruited as “bachelors.” Others, whose families have been living in the Gulf since the mid-20th century, occupy positions that allow them to bring family members to reside in Bahrain. Early Iranian and non-Gulf Arab residents are the most likely to have acquired or applied for Bahraini citizenship. The relatively recent options to apply for naturalization require that the applicant not married to a Bahraini citizen be Muslim, have resided in Bahrain for a minimum of 20 years, and speak Arabic. Residents with ethno-religious origins in other Arab or Muslim countries are most likely to meet these requirements.
Southeast Asian and East Asian populations in Bahrain are not as distinctly bifurcated as the South Asian, non-Gulf Arab, and Iranian populations. These groups are relative newcomers to the Gulf, and the communities of long-term residents have not had time to take shape. For example, the Philippine government crafted their Overseas Employment Program in 1974 to take advantage of the then-economic boom in the Gulf. The first workers from the Philippines were recruited for construction work in Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, hospitals throughout the Gulf began recruiting nurses and medical technicians from the Philippines, but it was the expansion of the hospitality, leisure, and service sector in the Gulf that contributed to a significant increase in recruitment from the Philippines. By the mid-1990s, Filipina/o workers were common in hospitals, hotels, and shopping malls, working beside Bahraini and South Asian colleagues in banks, software and design firms, and insurance companies, as well as laboring in local households. Despite the growth and visibility of the Filipino population in Bahrain, they still comprise only 4% of Bahrain’s total population and fewer than 10% of its foreign population.Furthermore, labor recruitment from Southeast Asia and Asia until now has been heavily focused on domestic, service, and laboring occupations, jobs that do not qualify the employees to obtain residency permits for family members. Despite the still limited size and duration of their residency in Bahrain, signs of community formation and eventual entrenchment are evident in the development of community, occupational, and religious organizations and schools serving these populations.The fact that single women comprise a large segment of the Filipino population in Bahrain eventually may have a unique impact on the emergence of a long-term Filipino population. Marriages between Southeast Asian women and men of other nationalities, including Bahrainis, are increasing in frequency. This may be partially due to the preference for exogamy among Filipinos and for hypergamy among Gulf Arabs.These marriages may challenge the closed, rigid boundaries among national groups in ways that the South Asian and non-Gulf Arab communities have not and may become a novel way of establishing local families and community.
This cursory comparison of the range of foreign communities in Bahrain demonstrates that the unique circumstances of their migration histories, their positions in occupational hierarchies, socio-cultural specificities, and the duration of their migration to Bahrain are reflected in their different internal social structures. The distinction between family and single status visas is an important factor in all the cases. Not only can the balance between family and single status members impede or facilitate the establishment of community institutions, but the distinction between family and bachelor status provides an axis of differentiation that reinforces economic distinctions marginalizing and stigmatizing the “bachelors.”
. Human Rights Watch.
. Sharon Nagy, “This Time I Think I’ll Try a Filipina: Global and Local Influences on Relations between Foreign Household Workers and their Employers in Doha, Qatar,” City and Society, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1998), pp. 83-104; and Sharon Nagy, “Making Room for Migrants, Making Sense of Difference: Spatial and Ideological Expressions of Diversity in Urban Qatar,” Urban Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2006), pp. 1-19.
. Nagy, “This Time I Think I’ll Try a Filipina” and Nagy, “Making Room for Migrants.”
. Andrew Gardner, “Strategic Transnationalism: The Diasporic Elite in Bahrain,” City and Society, Vol. 20, Issue 1 (2008), pp. 54-78.
. Residents originating in or holding passports from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab states not in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
. Human Rights Watch.
. Sharon Nagy, “Miss Philippines Bahrain: Processes of Representation within Expatriate Communities,” City and Society, Vol. 20, Issue 1 (2008), pp. 79-104.
. Exogamy refers to the mating of less genetically related people, while hypergamy denotes the practice of seeking a mate of equivalent or greater socioeconomic status. Sharon Nagy, “Attitudes toward Mixed Marriages in Bahrain: The Eroticization of Class,” Al Raida, Vol. 20, Nos.101-102 (2003), pp. 79-84.