Migration is at the core of Arab history, whether it was tribes moving in search of resourceful lands or people evading colonial and imperial rule. From the Levantine migrations to the U.S. between 1850 and the early 1900s, to the Palestinian exodus after al-Nakba—the Palestinian dislocation caused by the creation of the state of Israel, the roots of the diaspora are centuries old.
More recent examples of Arab diaspora include the war-led displacement of Syrian and Yemeni refugees.
Across the board of Arab diaspora tales, war, economic failure, and political instability are often the precursors to migration.
Across the board of Arab diasporic tales, war, economic failure, and political instability are often the precursors to migration. The stereotypes behind emigrating groups creates a one-dimensional story for the whole and squelches the complexities of those close to the margin.
Hardly ever are the Gulf states mentioned in academic literature or media coverage of the Arab migrant story. Granted the region’s oil-rich and politically stable attributes are seemingly well cemented, the Gulf nations may very well add on to the diaspora.
Freedom of Expression
War, economics, and political unrest aside, the drivers behind Gulf Arab migration is a struggle between progressive society and the traditional old guard. Although it may rightfully seem petty for those escaping the devastations of war, a lack of freedom of expression in Gulf societies is a tragedy in its own right.
In countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – whether seemingly liberal or hardline conservative in its policies – limits on freedom of expression significantly drive prominent and regular people alike to leave their nations.
In countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, limits on freedom of expression significantly drive prominent and regular people alike to leave their nations.
Albeit overused and often portrayed with an obscure context, the assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a clear example. His transforming of Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Watan to a progressive platform, opposing the war on Yemen, and criticizing Saudi’s ruling powers all led to his self-exile before leading to his murder.
The act of daring to question the status quos of Gulf nations usually causes one of two reactions by society: applause from progressives or silencing by traditional gatekeepers.
When it comes to the reactions of the state, it boils down to more hands-on treatment: legal prosecution and imprisonment—or instilling enough fear for dissidents to flee.
Only a few months after Khashoggi’s assassination, in January 2019, then 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed fled Saudi Arabia in hope of seeking asylum in Australia. She cited physical abuse by her family for “cutting her hair” and “dressing like a man,” adding that independence from guardianship laws was the main reason she decided to flee. Rahaf Mohammed now lives in Canada.
The Economist, citing estimates from the United Nations’ refugee agency, reported 815 Saudis applied for asylum in 2017—a 318 percent jump in just five years.
Another January 2019 case involved Kuwaiti law professor Fatima Al-Matar who was arrested after tweeting a joke about asking God for women’s rights. Fatima Al-Matar, before adhering to a court order summoning her presence, sought asylum with her daughter in the U.S.
“I was referred to public prosecution over the linked tweet, they accused me of blasphemy, insulting God and misusing a phone!” Al-Matar wrote in a tweet. “They sent me to trial because I asked God for a Ferrari and equal rights! I can no longer stand an abhorrent, hypocritical society. I no longer believe in a homeland that ridiculously jails its people.”
Although she was summoned for a preliminary hearing only, the law professor sensed Kuwaiti legislature wouldn’t take kindly to her case.
Defying or breaking a law in a Gulf country is defined by the state and if a court is convinced in its own argument, there’s no stopping it.
The crux in facing legal repercussions in a Gulf state is simple to identify and difficult to reform. Defying or breaking a law is defined by the state and if a court is convinced in its own argument, there’s no stopping it.
One legal avenue to silence dissent or police public opinion is Kuwait’s cybercrime law—the same law used to charge Al-Matar.
Kuwait’s National Assembly approved of the law on June 16, 2015. It punishes people submitting libelous commentary, blasphemous content, public indecency, and clear sedition on social media and/or the digital sphere.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the law a “blow to free speech.”
“This new law comes at a time when Kuwait is prosecuting many opposition politicians and activists, journalists, and other government critics using expansive interpretations of moral imperatives and national security requirements,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Division Director of HRW, said regarding the 2015 ruling.
“It appears designed to allow the authorities even wider legal latitude to curtail Kuwaitis’ right to free speech.”
In February 2019, Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, a Lebanon-based nongovernmental organization focused on civil rights, submitted a report on Kuwait’s freedom of expression issues to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
The report outlined several prominent cases of Kuwaiti citizens being prosecuted for unfavorable commentary. It also cited a 2018 incident when Anwar Al-Rasheed, a Kuwaiti writer, spoke to the Human Rights Council about the status of civil liberties in Kuwait. When he returned from the General Assembly, Al-Rasheed was imprisoned.
Gains and Losses of a Gulf Arab Diaspora
Involuntary displacement is hardly ever a gain in the short run and migrating to foreign lands is a unique struggle. However, in the long run, a Gulf Arab diaspora may prove fruitful despite a bitter reality.
The negative repercussions are clearer in Gulf nations than they are elsewhere. A society, where permanently moving away from wealth and security is taboo and frowned upon, is more likely to self-censor after witnessing harsh legal consequences take place.
Beyond the fears of being labeled seditious or being ostracized by their communities, Gulf Arabs living abroad get to close the cultural divide with other Arabs.
Beyond the fears of being labeled seditious or being ostracized by their communities, Gulf Arabs living abroad get to close the cultural divide with other Arabs already in a diaspora.
For example, a Gulf Arab is more likely to witness their ethnic counterparts engaging freely in civic duty and civil society.
Another gain would be to lessen mutually placed stereotypes and close a class gap between different Arab groups. Gulf Arabs, for instance, may be seen as snobby and excessively wealthy whereas Gulf Arabs may see Egyptians and Palestinians beyond the scope of indentured servants in Gulf states.
Though it might not be the ideal circumstance, having all or many different groups of Arabs living together in a diaspora, could bridge cultures and backgrounds.
Though it might not be the ideal circumstance, having all or many different groups of Arabs living together in a diaspora, could bridge cultures and backgrounds. In Gulf states, where non-Gulf Arabs are often looked down upon by classist prejudice, a wedge is more frequent than a bridge.
Ultimately, all Arabs in a diaspora may ironically reach more of a pan-Arab morale due to a shared estrangement and effort to plant new roots, and a common agreement that their homelands essentially failed them.