Comment | A Gulf Apart: a Tale of Two Arabs
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, May 25, 2012 13:14 - 2 Comments
Egyptians demonstrate in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo, April 2012 (Photo: ElMundo)
On the southern shores of a shallow body of water (un)popularly known as the Persian Gulf live two Arabs- one of whom is the indigene, the other frequently indignant. When either talks collectively of ‘the Arabs’ in casual conversation, he rarely speaks in self-reference.
The indigenous Arab has lived in-situ from time immemorial; that is to say his people’s presence predates their popular memory. Much has changed for him since the debut of oil midway last century, though the tribal rulers who had placated internecine struggles in their respective locales still maintain high station and privilege in their domains, albeit in the rapidly-shifting quicksands of the petroleum age.
The other Arab is not from around here; he has been imported in the wake of the oil rush, contracted to expand the old settlements and service them. He hails from the Nile valley, the Fertile Crescent, the Yemen- occasionally even from as far afield as the Maghreb, the farthest reaches of the Arab Nation.
They have come ‘home’ to the Urheimat in droves, after things changed for them also – vortexes of political instability in their latter-day nation-states have left populations reeling in their demographic explosion. There wasn’t the time, between coup and d’état, to rein in – never mind harness – the economics of escalating scale.
That is how this Arab came to be in diaspora, though he doesn’t typically regard it as such, preferring to think of his tenure as a sort of extended business trip. The Gulf states officially reinforces this with the kafil system: at the end of his economic lifetime, a life-long migrant must pick up sticks- and spawn. Second- or sometimes third-generation progeny which do not fit the state’s economic portfolio are required to go ‘home’, or at any rate, elsewhere. In a morose poetic sense, the arid sands reject their seed- or any attempt at real assimilation. In Kuwait, groups seeking assimilation, like the ‘Bedoun’ (“without” [nationality], in Arabic), are persecuted with official sanction and painted as impostors in the public eye.
All of which is not entirely surprising given the circumstances: a tribal region with typical concomitant xenophobia, a newfound (but finite) wealth, and a flashflood of human migration traversing the steep gradient of economic disparity. The ramifications of this setup, however, may yet surprise, if only because scant little attention has been paid to the long-term effect by all parties involved.
Decades of low-intensity friction at close-quarters between the “two Arabs” has bred a mild but unmistakable antipathy. The recent protests at the Saudi embassy in Cairo literally illustrated this, with graffiti of the monarch captioned “Excuse us, your excellency- the Ka’aba is not a family heirloom” spray-painted across the entrance.
This was in response to the arrest of outspoken Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawy, en-route to pilgrimage in Mecca. He had previously filed a prominent lawsuit in Egypt protesting the mistreatment of Egyptians in the Kingdom, and was arrested on arrival in Jeddah under charges of drug trafficking (lot of Xanax, it was said). The ambassador to Cairo was recalled and the embassy closed; he returned only after a full-strength diplomatic delegation, dominated by elected MB parliamentarians, flew to hold talks at the royal palace.
Protests like this would have been unthinkable under the ancien regime in Cairo, but since its crumbling they coalesce on a hair-trigger. The regime was unable to quell the groundswell for its own stakes; no amount of pressure from seated monarchs beyond the sea is likely to yield better results in protecting external interests.
The Egyptian media did refrain from broadcasting the inflammatory graffiti in deference to requests for a détente, but they hadn’t broken the story in the first instance- both cause and effect were aired out on the social networks.
Watching the tide
This state of affairs could become dire indeed. Unlike the antagonism of the Arabs towards the Israelis, which is fuelled mainly by news reports and framed in a fundamental otherness; this is a familial antagonism often based on first-hand experience, and second-hand anecdotes. The grievances of Arab expats in the Gulf may not be comparable in sheer visceral horror to the violence wreaked on the Palestinians, but of late it has no less acquired a crucial cachet in the cause of the Arab indignados: indignant at the perpetrators of injustice, and at the State that exposed their compatriots to the wilderness of undignified ghorba, the ‘estrangement’.
The dictates of pan-Arabism have it that these brotherly spats will be mollified by sentiments of brotherhood and unity, embedded for decades in the curricula of the region’s schoolchildren. But to rely on such nebulous notions given the disparity between textbook and praxis is tantamount to taking the ‘League of Arab Nations’ at face value.
Appeals to Islamic unity are likewise compromised by the systematic offenses which occur despite any religiously-inspired ideal of brotherhood; non-Arab Asian migrants are acutely aware of this also. In resolving ‘internal’ disputes the foremost appetite is for natural justice- no ideological brotherhood is likely to subsist without parity, only an indentured labour.
In a Gulf bereft of trade unions, the enfranchisement of Arabs in their home countries represents the first serious threat to state-sanctioned commercial oppression.
The lauded Wael Ghonim, a Dubai-based (and once, Saudi-bred) Egyptian activist who created the 2-million+ strong revolutionary Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Said’, is archetypal of the catalyst demographic that is setting the new agenda. A contingent that grew up under their migrant parents’ auspices, they had the tools to learn and the economic opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency- but in the modern world order would never attain the privileges afforded others of their socio-economic class, so long as their country was underperforming and their nationality devalued.
This was further compounded by the grim material and moral conditions they saw back home, which they navigated while there and experienced vicariously when away. As they looked to rising Malaysia and growing Turkey, lamenting the ossifying of their own nations, some brazenly set out to reclaim them. Invited to speak at the IMF meeting in 2011, Ghonim articulated the forces driving this:
“I hate it when I see people eating from the trash. I work for a corporation [Google], I’m well paid, and a lot of us just sympathized with those people, but they’re not willing to pay the price of really helping them out. It’s not just me; it’s thousands of Egyptians. One of my friends who lost his eye actually drives a Ferrari. He went on the day of 25th. The second [force] was dignity. We wanted our dignity back. And dignity does have an economic aspect.”
‘Critical mass’ has since been achieved, says Ghonim, and the reaction has become self-sustaining amongst the grassroots. Their new dialectic is couched in the language of rights and wrongs, with feasibility a mere technicality to be worked out in afterthought. And the synthesis is this: a formidable bulk of latent economic and political muscle is flexing in an act of collective determination. On the eve of the region’s watershed democratic moment, it could prove wise to take note.