Wednesday, August 12, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Being strangers in the land of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the US, or wherever

posted by David Mednicoff

The Bible is perhaps the most famous of very old sources that remind us of the importance of how we treat “the stranger in our midst,” which is also often cited by political philosophers as the true test of any civilization. The early Jews were commanded by God in the Old Testament to treat well the stranger in your midst, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the contemporary world context where countries endure alongside unprecedented trans-national flows, this issue most obviously applies to the way that national governments treat non-citizens, which is another way of describing a country’s laws relating to migrant workers.

I’m starting to think about this issue systematically, as part of a research network trying to develop insights and policy ideas regarding the treatment of non-citizen workers in Persian Gulf Arab countries. The countries in this region are highly unusual in a number of respects. For one thing, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are well-known for their extensive and rapid recent development through oil and oil-related revenues. Because of the speed of this development, the relatively sparse population of many Gulf states and the ambition of each country’s trajectory of growth, the vast majority of workers come from outside of the native population.

Western-based and rarer Gulf-based international human rights organizations, and the sheer numbers and diversity of expatriates in Gulf societies, have led to increasingly uncomfortable global spotlights on the treatment of foreign workers. Some of these can be sensationalistic, focusing on the very bad, even criminal behavior, of high-status members of the ruling families of Persian Gulf societies. As important as it is to highlight the misbehavior of the most powerful, when stripped of their possible anti-Arab or anti-Muslim background, such stories in the Western media really underscore how pervasive the problems of non-native workers are in Gulf societies. In the Persian Gulf, as elsewhere, unscrupulous agents in labor-rich countries like India or the Philippines entice skilled and unskilled workers with promises of quick and easy wealth in Gulf societies. When these workers get to the Gulf, they have frequently found their passports confiscated by employers and the price of their air tickets needing to be repaid through their wages. Domestic workers, in particular, have found been extremely vulnerable to conditions approximating servitude.

The unusual nature of Gulf societies, where non-Arabs vastly outnumber native Arabs, creates unique spins on the question of treatment of “strangers.” Gulf Arabs face a real issue of how to preserve a sense of fragile, recently-constructed national identity in countries where they are themselves, in tangible senses, strangers. Thus, the fact that a native Emirati or Qatari must use English as their daily lingua franca or navigate some of the most rapidly globalizing streets in the world complicates the picture of how to relate to “guest workers.” At the very least, it has made it all-too-natural for a system to emerge of limited protection for foreigners and generally impossible prospects for non-natives to gain citizenship. Many natives and officials of Gulf countries are aware of the injustices and burdens the kafil system of private employer sponsorship of migrant workers has placed on the latter. In some countries, like Kuwait, the system is likely to change, in favor of much greater public regulation.

In Western democratic societies, the issue of the treatment of foreign strangers appears different, in that long-term residence and citizenship are possible and national identity is much better-established. Yet, even in a place like the US that prides itself on being built and re-imagined by immigrants, we know of many instances of specific, or even institutionalized, sub-optimal treatment of non-citizens, whether in situations of exploitation through illegal employment, discrimination or racism. As a professor of law and politics related to the Middle East and Islam, I naturally have watched the issue of mistreatment of foreign strangers most closely with respect to recent government treatment of Arab and non-Arab Muslims allegedly linked to suspicious activity. In Saudi Arabia, I met a gentle former computer science Ph.D. student in the US, who had been charged with (and acquitted by a jury of) fomenting terrorism by providing assistance to a Website that included some strong Islamist political criticisms of the US. While I don’t myself know all of the facts of the case, the man’s treatment while incarcerated and subsequent deportation, along with his family, made for a gripping and disturbing story. The general kinds of problems that non-citizen people of Middle Eastern (and not only of Middle Eastern) background can experience with US Homeland Security received poignant fictional cinematic treatment recently with the film, the Visitor. And don’t get someone like me, who teaches civil and human rights, started on Guantanamo Bay and places like it…

My point here is not to skewer US Homeland Security or to lump together possible security threats with illegal foreign visitors to the US with foreign visa-holders. Rather, I mean to point out that treating non-citizens well in any country is a challenge, because we have all sorts of reasons to justify giving non-citizens unequal rights. In addition to security threats and concerns about national identity, which also occur, and even in reasoned ways, in the US, there are concerns about jobs for citizens. More broadly, it might appear that a nation has no meaning or capacity if not based on who is (and is not) a citizen. Thus, even as our values might mandate much greater compassionate use of law to treat strangers more equally, the existential and practical questions to national government of large-scale global flows of people cannot be trivialized. And this is precisely where humanities fields like history, philosophy and religion, provide important starting grounds to ask questions.

When I teach the comparative rights of national citizens and non-citizens to university students, one of the early questions I ask is why the specific place in which someone is born should make so great a difference in what sorts of rights and opportunities they experience. I suppose I can’t help but believe that there is a great deal of arbitrariness in terms of whether someone grows up likely to enjoy great privileges of citizenship in a wealthy country, or be more likely to have reason to flee their own country to be a stranger somewhere else.

And I feel as if I’m still coming to grips with this arbitrariness in my own life. Last year, my family and I were fortunate enough to adopt an abandoned child from southwestern India. Our new son is an utter delight and is likely to be an enthusiastic and useful citizen of his new home country. My daughter, wife and I are all grateful to Indian and American private individuals and public officials for facilitating integrating this wonderful presence into our daily lives. Yet, at an emotional level, I remain somewhat befuddled by my memory of the hundreds of US visa-seekers in Delhi , every one no doubt with a good reason to come to my country, who watched while my new son and I got everything we needed at my Embassy for the child to change instantly from stranger to lawful American. Can we imagine or achieve a world some day in which the reasonable and less-reasonable arguments to separate the strangers from the citizens break down to allow a practical way for the arbitrariness of national origin to be less palpable?

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