Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article appeared as a three-part series in Le Monde, June 15-17, 1982. It appears here by permission of the author. Since the article was written, the economic cutbacks in the Gulf have reduced jobs available to the Palestinians and also affected the Palestinian bourgeoisie. Remittances to Palestinian institutions (including the PLO) are now less than they were. The crisis in the PLO since the Lebanon war has also deprived the Palestinian community of its main interlocutor and defender with the Gulf regimes. In spite of these changes, the Palestinians remain an important and influential community in the Gulf and in the Palestinian diaspora, as Eric Rouleau makes clear.

The Palestinian communities spread along the Arab coast of the Gulf are unique within the Palestinian diaspora. Whether in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Bahrain, there are few if any working-class Palestinians and practically none of the impoverished refugees that fill the camps in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. The Gulf states did not take in refugees; rather, they received immigrants who came in search of a better life.

At the beginning of the 1950s, as oil production began to grow rapidly, the Gulf sheikhs sought technical and administrative personnel with the skills to build their emirates in the era of independence. In spite of high salaries, there were few candidates from most Arab countries. Only the Palestinians were ready to come, suffering as they were in the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. They met all the requirements: they were Arab, educated, often English-speaking (a big advantage in former British colonies), and not too demanding.

The first wave of migration began two or three years after the 1948 war. It was mostly made up of single men who left their families on the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon or Syria. The second and largest wave followed the 1967 war. This time, there were also families of those who had already come, those who had intended to go home to Gaza or the West Bank but who were now unable to return. Finally, the civil war in Lebanon set off a third migration after 1975.

Palestinians with the necessary intellectual or material resources to migrate to the Gulf sought to rebuild their lives for the second or third time. Those who had the means took the plane to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. They rarely went to Oman or Bahrain, which were distrustful of Palestinians from the very beginning. Migrants with the least money took the overland route to Kuwait, where they were better received than anywhere else, due to the open-mindedness of Kuwait’s ruling family.

“They Are Everywhere”

The Palestinian community in Kuwait has grown nearly tenfold, from 37,000 in 1961 to 300,000 by 1981, or possibly 350,000 if illegal immigrants are included. Altogether, more than 600,000 Palestinians live in the Arab states of the Gulf. This is a quarter of the diaspora, more Palestinians than in Lebanon and Syria put together.

The weight of this community is much greater than its numbers might suggest, for its members occupy important positions in these new states whose local elites are still in formation. First and most importantly, Palestinians staff the state administrations. By 1975 (the most recent reliable data), one out of two Palestinians in the UAE and Kuwait was a civil servant. In Kuwait by 1982, it was estimated that one out of four employees in the public sector and one out of three teachers was Palestinian.

With proportionately very high representation among the teachers and professors, Palestinians are also preponderant in the ranks of the judiciary; particularly in the UAE they are a majority among both deputy public prosecutors and judges. They are also numerous among journalists (both print and electronic media), doctors, engineers, architects, and top management of oil companies and private businesses. According to a 1975 study, one in four Palestinians working in Kuwait had a high-level professional or technical-scientific job.

The Palestinian upper bourgeoisie is much more strongly represented here than in other Arab countries, where modest resources, relatively austere “socialist” regimes or both are obstacles to the development of private capital. Are there 100 or 300 Palestinian millionaires in the Gulf? Estimates vary, but there is no doubt that most electronics companies belong to them, and that they include merchants, entrepreneurs, bankers and world-class wheeler-dealers.

“They are everywhere…like the Jews.” This is what the Gulf natives and the other expatriates say of the Palestinians, and it’s hard to tell at first whether or not they are being malicious. Some are, in fact, admirers who practice an unconscious reverse “racism.” They generalize the supposed characteristics of Palestinians: intelligent, resourceful, effective, and imbued with an uncommon work ethic. Unfavorable prejudices lead others to depict the Palestinians as a closed community: greedy, intriguing, prideful, insolent and — according to the traditionalists — inclined to Western corruption and turpitude.

Neither demons nor angels, the Palestinians of the diaspora are a minority that lives with real or imagined insecurity and acts accordingly. To make oneself indispensable is a means of self-defense, said Ghassan Thaboub, a journalist in Sharja, adding: “Without a country of our own, we cling to the host country like a life preserver, giving it the best of ourselves.”

“Education is like a religion, an obsession,” repeated several people to a visiting journalist, who was astonished to find such a high level of literacy — the highest in the Arab world. Another “obsession” is group solidarity. Adnan Darbas, for example, comes from a poor family that lived in the Burj al-Barajna refugee camp in Beirut. From his youth he worked at all kinds of jobs to pay for the education of his seven brothers and sisters. He himself became a civil engineer and is today the head of one of the biggest public works construction companies in Abu Dhabi.

‘Abd al-Muhsin Qattan, a fabulously rich banker in Kuwait, is financing the construction of cultural centers at Birzeit and al-Najah Universities on the West Bank, and he offers a scholarship to any Palestinian “whose level of study gets them accepted at the most prestigious universities in the world.” About 60 young people who qualify are now pursuing higher education at his expense in the United States, Britain, Italy, Yugoslavia, India and, of course, in various Arab countries. As Qattan explains, “My father didn’t bequeath me anything except a university degree. As he said at the time of his death, it is the most precious thing you can have, because you can bring it wherever the vicissitudes of exile take you.”

At the beginning of “exile” in 1948, the Palestinians numbered only 300-400 university graduates. There are now an estimated 130,000 graduates, proportionately more than those of Israel or Britain and five times higher than the average of the Arab world as a whole.

“Go Back”

Whether they are admired or envied, diaspora Palestinians are disconcerting to other Arabs. In the Gulf, as elsewhere, governments try to restrict the Palestinian presence and influence, looking forward to the time when they will “go back where they came from.”

“They are anti-Palestinian; they hate us; they have given our neighborhood the nickname Tall al-Za‘atar; sooner or later they will massacre us all.” This young woman teacher in Kuwait gives free rein to her anguish at the “hate” which she claims the native Kuwaitis feel toward her and her people. Minority paranoia? Perhaps, but she is quite exceptional. A journalist making the rounds of the Gulf states most often hears praise for the host countries, apparently quite sincere praise, for the benefits of hospitality are evident and appreciated by these people without a country. But this doesn’t prevent Palestinians from complaining bitterly about their lot. Their ambivalence grows out of a discriminatory system that applies equally to all foreigners and is not necessarily directed against them.

Citizenship in the Gulf is a source of precious advantages and privileges, but it is only rarely given out, and then only to those who have fulfilled very strict conditions. In Kuwait, for example, a candidate for naturalization as a “first-class citizen” must be able to prove that his family lived in the country before 1920 and at least until 1959 — clearly not criteria that can be met by a Palestinian immigrant. The overall result is that less than 400 Palestinians (250 in Kuwait) out of 600,000 have obtained citizenship in Gulf countries.

There are many disadvantages to not being a citizen. The highest and best-paid civil service posts are closed. Free loans and housing subsidies are not available. Real estate cannot be owned. And without a citizen as an “associate,” it is impossible to start a business, to own a commercial or industrial company, or to speculate on the stock market. In most cases, the law requires that the citizen be a majority owner of the enterprise, and such participation is usually obtained with no investment or effort. “It’s the highest tax in the world,” a Palestinian industrialist said bitterly. He then revealed that his associate had given him the equivalent of $300 in 1966 and is today worth $80 million, without ever having set foot on the premises.

Certain governments in the Gulf would apparently like to push the Palestinians to seek other havens. Though Palestinians have traditionally been numerous in the ranks of the teachers, their presence has been progressively reduced in recent years — in absolute terms in Bahrain and in relative terms in the other countries — in favor of Egyptians, whose ideological perspectives are more reassuring to the sheikhs. In the civil service, generally speaking, preference is given to Asians, who are politically inoffensive and less demanding, or to Arabs from various countries who can be sent home at the slightest indiscretion.

The Palestinians have a sense of living in very temporary circumstances. Employees of the public or private sector who reach retirement age are required to leave the country, along with members of their family, no matter how long their period of service. The law holds that travel visas and work visas are identical. Although it applies equally to all foreigners, its consequences are most serious for Palestinians, who generally have no place to go. They can’t go back to their native country, now Israel or the Occupied Territories. If they have no passport, virtually no country in the Arab world will receive them or even give them a transit visa, for fear they will settle down permanently. If they have a passport, they have no other choice than to go to their adopted country, to which they usually have no attachment other than their official travel document.

“We feel foreign everywhere,” say the Gulf Palestinians. “They are unassimilable,” say the Gulf natives. “We dont want to assimilate,” reply the former, “for Palestinians we are and Palestinians we will remain.” There are two nationalisms here: one exacerbated by statelessness, the other still developing among the peoples of the Gulf. Both reinforce the Palestinians’ wish to have a state where they can finally be masters in their own house.

“Next Year in Jerusalem”

The influence of the Gulf diaspora is nothing magical. “It’s no more mysterious than the influence of the Zionists in the United States or, more broadly, in the West,” people say. The “sensibility” of the sheikhs who govern the region has not only been determined by the fact that they are Arab or Muslim. It was also formed in their youth by Palestinian tutors and, later, by counselors, top administrators and big businessmen who became their friends and who did not disguise their sympathies for the PLO. Along with the younger generation of native intellectuals, the rulers have not escaped the nationalist ideology exuded by the mass media, which everyone agrees is “dominated” by numerous and talented Palestinian journalists. But nonetheless, the sheikhs remain vigilant.

The kingdoms and principalities of the Gulf are microcosms of the Arab world, as sensitive as a seismograph to tremors in any country of the region. The Palestine problem generates agitation, revolutions, and wars which threaten to shake these fragile and vulnerable regimes to their very foundations. There is no doubt that the Gulf regimes ardently hope for a peaceful resolution of the problem, preferably negotiated with the PLO, the only force capable of making a lasting peace. But while supporting the PLO, they hesitate to do anything that would put in question their prosperity and their stability. Here, even more than elsewhere, the interest of the state takes precedence over the sentiments of those in power. The latter therefore take preventive or repressive measures to deal with the “Palestinian peril,” even though it is far more potential than real.

This duality of the rulers provokes an ambivalence among the Palestinians toward their host countries: gratitude for the hospitality but also a solid mistrust toward “the Arabs” whose “verbal solidarity” is seen most often as a snare and a delusion. In a time of crisis like that of the invasion of Lebanon, this bitterness becomes outright indignation in the face of the “passivity” of the Arab regimes.

The political climate has changed considerably among the Gulf Palestinians. “Maximalists” in the past, they discretely but firmly opposed the 1974 plan of the PLO leadership to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Now even those who led the opposition accede that a “mini-state,” even an “emasculated” one, is preferable to prolonged exile. Drawing lessons from the experiences of recent years and weighing the international balance of forces, many — especially those over 50 — despair of seeing a compromise reached in their lifetime. But none doubts that, in the longer term, “the racist Israeli entity” will give way to a “reunified Palestine,” binational or not, depending on whether the state is founded peacefully or by violence.

If we can push the parallel further than usual, it might be said that the Palestinians of the diaspora are no less “Zionist” than the Jews who for many long centuries never failed to repeat in their ritual prayers, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Translated by Jim Paul

How to cite this article:

Eric Rouleau "The Palestinian Diaspora of the Gulf," Middle East Report 132 (May/ June 1985).

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