In April 2020, an Emirati online celebrity, Tariq al Meyhas, sparked controversy when he posted a video arguing that the term “migrant workers” refers only to Asians (Indians and Bengalis) and not Arabs (Egyptians and Sudanese) who should be treated like “brothers.”

An Indian worker sells Indian fritters to Emiratis during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in the neighborhood of Al Quoz in Dubai, UAE, 2019. Satish Kumar/Reuters

His video defended a Kuwaiti actress who blamed migrants for spreading the coronavirus and said that they should be “thrown into the desert.” Al Meyhas was later arrested by Emirati authorities and charged with sowing seeds of division and violating principles of tolerance and equality. While the authorities did not label his remarks “racist,” many residents in the Gulf did. In the following months, conversations about race and racism in the region became even more pronounced following the murder of George Floyd—an unarmed Black man killed by a police officer in the United States—and the ensuing global Black Lives Matter protests.

What exactly is racism in the Gulf and how does it operate? For the most part, residents and scholars have attributed the social hierarchies of the region to nationality. This correlation is common in discussions about the immigrant-reliant labor markets of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the systematic discrimination and exploitation within employment and immigration processes. But a closer look at al Meyhas’s statement highlights how nationalities are not merely terms that reference passports but are also racial formations that encompass as well as exceed nationality, ethnicity, language, religion and other markers of difference.[1] Terms that invoke nationality are not neutral descriptors in a world marked by stark economic disparities, colonial histories, transnational labor migration and securitization of borders. Instead, references to nationality incorporate both local and transnational hierarchies within which people’s abilities, skills, characters and inherent place in society are naturalized—they are in fact racial categories. Analyses of social hierarchy in the Gulf region that rest on nationality miss crucial dimensions of the differential treatment of residents. They fail to account for the ways that ideas about difference are produced, reproduced and contested by residents themselves, leading to shifts in who is considered to occupy certain categories and where those categories lie within the larger social structure.

Yet not all Indian nationals necessarily occupy the racial category of “Indian” while many non-Indian immigrants are racialized under this term and its attendant presumptions.
The racial formation “Indian” circulates routinely in both English and Arabic (Hindi/Hindiyya) in the Gulf. It is a racial category, a lived experience of racialized marginalization and, in certain uses, a racist slur. At the same time, it remains also a nationality, which serves to mask the centrality of race and racism in the Gulf. “Indian” as a racial category is fundamental to the ordering of Gulf labor markets and urban spaces, and to the production of Gulf citizenship, history and heritage. The racial category can be traced back to British colonial forms of governance and labor management. It continues as a localized manifestation of a global system in which transnational employers can maximize profits by paying different wages for the same work. Employers also utilize forms of segregation and differential treatment of workers to prevent labor organizing. Yet not all Indian nationals necessarily occupy the racial category of “Indian” while many non-Indian immigrants are racialized under this term and its attendant presumptions.


“Indian” as a Racial Formation


Indian nationals are the most ubiquitous immigrant group in the Gulf: before the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020 over 8.5 million Indians lived in the GCC states, comprising approximately 30 percent of the total population and ranging from low-paid workers to the wealthiest residents. Indian immigrants live in almost every part of every GCC city, work in pretty much every profession and have long histories of settlement and well-established diasporic communities. In some cases, Indians have obtained Gulf citizenship, and in many cases—especially in Dubai and Muscat—Indian merchant communities have enjoyed special relationships with Gulf rulers. These relationships have afforded Indian merchants trade advantages and the ability to circumvent certain laws around foreign ownership of property and businesses. This ubiquity means that most Gulf residents are familiar with Indian and other South Asian products, foods, films, music and even sometimes speak Hindi or Urdu: The Gulf is inextricably intertwined with South Asia.[2]

Most Gulf residents are familiar with Indian and other South Asian products, foods, films, music and even sometimes speak Hindi or Urdu: The Gulf is inextricably intertwined with South Asia.
Yet, despite this ubiquity, “Indian” and more localized and historically specific terms that are associated with the subcontinent, such as “Bengali,” “Asian,” or “Nepali,” circulate within the Gulf relatively untethered from the actual experiences of South Asians themselves. These categories mark specific bodies as abject, disorderly, unclean, dangerous and outsider, a process that participates in constructing its supposed opposite: a Gulf (Khaleeji) Arab racial identity thought of as pure and homogenous.

Over the course of fieldwork, we both encountered “Indian” as a racial formation.[3] When Neha first arrived in Dubai, she met with a colleague who was teaching at a university there—a white American woman who was very generous in providing information about the city, its demographics and also the dynamics of segregation. At one point this colleague said something like, “If you walk behind me a few steps in Carrefour [a popular grocery chain], they will think you are my maid [Neha is Indian American].” This comment was meant to teach a newly arrived graduate student anthropologist about the ubiquity of South Asian domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But the comment itself also racialized Neha. It highlighted that she was not fully an American in the Gulf since American is a nationality that is racialized as white. Instead, she passed in and out of a more amorphous category—“Indian”—that referred to low-wage workers who are probably from South Asia and may or may not be from India.

At a multinational bank in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Amélie conducted fieldwork, interviewees from various national backgrounds made racializing comments about “Indian” colleagues that ranged from judgments about their professional skills (their supposed lack of authority and frankness) to overt biological or cultural racism. A Saudi female employee, for instance, told Amelie point blank that she could not stand working with “Indians” because of their supposed body practices (she evoked noisily spitting). While she distanced herself from so-called Indians through disgust, other interviewees expressed scorn, condescension or fear of sexual harassment. In Dubai, white and nonwhite Western passport holders alike routinely mentioned “Indians” in miserabilist ways in Amélie’s presence. Sometimes these comments were meant to evoke the bad working conditions of construction workers, as if being “Indian” meant being poor and degraded. But the category was also often associated with bad drivers or sexually frustrated men, making so-called Indians both pitiful victims and potential perverts and abusers.[4]

In several Gulf countries, native Arabic speakers use a simplified version of Arabic language to speak to immigrants with low-paid jobs, and this language is called “Indian Arabic.” People routinely make fun of it, with condescension toward low-paid, non-native Arabic speakers.[5] Among Arabic speakers who grew up in the Gulf, “ya Hindi” or “ya Bengali” are common pejoratives used to make fun of each other as naive or tasteless. Gulf residents of all stripes (even Indians themselves) use “Indian” as a pejorative to connote certain types of unwanted people, behaviors and affects—which are fundamentally about class, labor and comportment. “Indian” as a racial marker can be compared to the way “Srilankiyye” circulates in Lebanon to reference migrant female domestic workers, even though Sri Lankan nationals no longer populate that employment category.[6] “Indian” is a common-sense racial category, one that quickly gets naturalized by new arrivals and is internalized by those who grow up in the region. As such, “Indian” underpins two interlinked and ongoing processes: the ways in which capitalism relies on and profits from a system that racializes nationalities and the development of Gulf nation-states based on Arabness.


Colonialism and Racial Capitalism


In the Arabian Peninsula, like everywhere else in the world, nationality, language, gender and race mediate people’s ability to migrate, the jobs they can get and their compensation. Today’s transnational labor networks are the result of intersecting histories of colonialism and racial capitalism. In GCC countries, labor and migration systems appear to be starkly divided by nationality due to state restrictions on permanent residency and citizenship. This division means that an immigrant worker’s daily life is circumscribed by the passport they hold and the relationship of their home country to the Gulf country where they reside. Immigrants with so-called strong passports, like those from the United States and Britain, do not need to obtain visas to enter Gulf countries, and thus their mobility is less restricted.[7] Passports also appear to set the market value for salaries. For example, Australian and Canadian immigrants in many organizations get paid more than Filipinos and Indians for equivalent work. Western passport holders also tend to have higher positions and better careers, whatever their education. State officials, residents, employers and economists all claim that workers are paid more or less in accordance with their earning power in their home countries. This form of differentiation appears normal in a world where nation-states and markets are treated as natural—but this is fundamentally an effect of racial capitalism and specifically its manifestations in the Indian Ocean. The pearl diving industry as well as British and American oil companies played a central role in shaping racial capitalism in today’s GCC countries because they produced differentiated categories of workers by racializing them.

The production of racialized hierarchies is interlocked with the production of gendered and sexualized difference. Racial capitalism in the Gulf involves biopolitical regimes, specifically, state constraints and benefits that regulate and differentiate the lives of inhabitants. On the one hand, there is no state responsibility for the reproduction of the working class. Low-paid workers cannot migrate with children because only workers making above a certain salary threshold are allowed to sponsor family members. There are no public schools and no childcare facilities for low-paid workers’ children since they are expected to remain behind in home countries. In addition, unmarried immigrant women can be deported for becoming pregnant. On the other hand, married middle-class and elite immigrants, in contrast, are allowed to bring family members. Some companies even encourage them to do so by providing employment packages that include subsidized schooling and other perks. Their children become a consumer market within Gulf cities, through their use of private schools, day cares, children’s shops, insurance and a host of activities. The commonplace referencing of the Indian or Nepali male construction worker as a bachelor regardless of his age or marital status can also be contextualized in these biopolitical regimes. Low-wage migrant men are subject to highly regulated living and working conditions that are designed to remove them from the social fabric of Gulf cities and from family formations. Their presence in public and semi-public spaces is thus suspect. Crafters of government policies and members of the middle and upper classes see workers as sexually deviant and possible criminal elements and maids as potential prostitutes, prejudices which are used to justify the state’s constraints on immigrants’ personal lives and mobility.[9]


Purifying the Gulf National


Khaleeji, or Gulf national, like “Indian,” is also a racial formation as well as the product of intentional racial projects undertaken by GCC governments that omit the history and afterlives of both slavery and migration in the production of national identity. Since independence, Gulf states have worked hard to police boundaries between citizens and non-citizens. Attempts to create a pure Gulf national rely on romantic tropes of Arab Bedouin ancestry and are manifested in heritage projects, the development of a ubiquitous national dress and investment in narrow versions of language and culture education.

Attempts to create a pure Gulf national rely on romantic tropes of Arab Bedouin ancestry and are manifested in heritage projects, the development of a ubiquitous national dress and investment in narrow versions of language and culture education.
The result is an imagined community stripped of its multicultural, multilingual and multiracial pasts and presents—one that can only be maintained through violence and erasure. Creating this artificial community means excluding most people with non-Arab ancestry from citizenship or inventing Arab origin stories for those citizens whose more recent roots can be traced to places like Zanzibar or Iran and who are expected to perform Arabness through language and other cultural and social practices.[10] Actively ignored are the shared histories of the Gulf and South Asia, especially under the British empire when protectorates encouraged Indian migration to the Gulf.

Until recently academic scholarship has often been complicit with state projects by representing Gulf nationals as a homogenous Arab group, even when on-the-ground experiences with Gulf nationals quickly belie this presumption. Gulf nationals range in phenotype from whitest to darkest with a range of facial features. Marrying outside one’s national group is common for men, as it is in many Muslim-majority societies, which means that many Gulf citizens have non-Gulf-citizen mothers. Gulf citizen women also marry foreigners. In some countries their children are able to attain citizenship while in others they are prohibited from it. Gulf citizens speak a range of languages and often their first language is not Arabic due to the presence of a foreign nanny as the primary caretaker in the home. Many Gulf families are transnational across the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. In addition, there is a long history of African slavery in the Arabian Peninsula. Oman has a long imperial connection with Zanzibar and merchants have settled in the Gulf from both the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean.

Gulf citizens grow up deeply aware of hierarchies that are rooted in these legacies, such as class, sect, tribe, ethnicity, skin color, maternal origin, language, culture and a range of other factors that are fundamentally about divergences from an idealized pure Arab Gulf national identity. As a result, national citizens with Indian ancestry often try to hide their background since it can be considered shameful, although it varies by country and community. For example, in Oman there appears to be much more openness about Indian family connections than in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2006, Neha presented her nascent research about the Indian diaspora in Dubai to a classroom of mostly silent and some hostile Emirati women. Afterward, two women came up to her and quietly whispered that their mothers are Indian. That was all. They just wanted to tell her that. Such concealment of Indian ancestry crystallizes the complexities of racial formations in the Gulf states, of how capitalism built on the racialization of nationalities and citizenship based on essentialized Arabness have led to silencing more complex stories of ancient and contemporary circulations and encounters.


[Amélie Le Renard is Permanent Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, Centre Maurice Halbwachs, Paris. Neha Vora is an associate professor of anthropology at Lafayette College.]





[1] Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennet and Laura Pulido, eds. Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[2] Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[3] Amélie Le Renard and Neha Vora, “Interrogating Race in Gulf Studies,” POMEPS Studies 43 (forthcoming, 2021).

[4] Amélie Le Renard, Western Privilege: Work, Intimacy and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

[5] Marion Breteau, Amours à Mascate. Espaces, rôles de genre et représentations intimes chez les jeunes (sultanat d’Oman) (Université d’Aix-Marseille, 2019).

[6] Sumayya Kassamali, “The Kafala System as Racialized Servitude,” POMEPS studies 43 (forthcoming, 2021).

[7] Shaundel Sanchez, “Protecting the Passport: Defending US Borders Built in the United Arab Emirates,” American Anthropologist 121/1 (December 2018).

[8] Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (London: Verso, 2020); Andrea Wright, “From Slaves to Contract Workers: Genealogies of Consent and Security in Indian Labor Migration,” Journal of World History, 32/1 (March 2021).

[9] Michelle Buckley, “Construction Work, ‘Bachelor’ Builders and the Intersectional Politics of Urbanization in Dubai,” in O. AlShehabi, A. Hanieh and A. Khalaf, eds. Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf (London: Pluto Press, 2015); Pardis Mahdavi, Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrant Lives (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[10] Amin Moghadam, “De l’Iran imaginé aux nouveaux foyers de l’Iran: pratiques et espaces transnationaux des Iraniens à Dubaï,” Arabian Humanities 2 (2013).


How to cite this article:

Neha Vora, Amélie Le Renard "Who is “Indian” in the Gulf? Race, Labor and Citizenship," Middle East Report Online, June 16, 2021.

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