In September 2022, Khalid Mustafa Medani, a former contributor to Middle East Report, received the Best Book prize from the American Political Science Association’s Middle East and North African Politics section for his 2021 release, Black Markets and Militants: Informal Networks in the Middle East and Africa. In many ways, Medani’s work speaks to the themes of MER issue 305. It asks readers to rethink where and how “centers” are constituted in areas and among people often characterized as peripheral to power, examining the practices and flows that connect these areas to the region’s recognized centers. Medani speaks with Noora Lori, who served on the prize committee, and whose own book on the impermanence of citizenship in the Gulf states, Offshore Citizens: Permanent Temporary Status in the Gulf (2019), likewise poses powerful questions about the practices of peripheralization. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Noora Lori: For those who haven’t had the chance to read the work yet, I want to start by explaining why the prize committee commended Black Markets and Militants as an exemplar in the field of comparative politics. Your highly original account explains how economic globalization, particularly labor remittances originating in the Gulf states, has impacted social, religious and political communities in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. You show how boom and bust cycles of capital inflows interacted with underlying levels of state capacity and local political cultures to construct divergent social and political outcomes across these cases. Despite robust scholarly literatures focused on migration, Islamist militant groups, informal networks and political economy, your breakthrough account links these diverse subjects in a single, coherent narrative.
So, first, congratulations. Coming to this issue of MERIP and the idea of “peripheral centers,” I would like to start by asking about your novel way of bringing together different domains and literatures that aren’t often in conversation. I’m thinking especially of how you combine an analysis of labor remittances and political Islam. How did you come to see these connections across time and space between the remittances coming out of the Gulf and then the impact that they’re having in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia? What was the “aha” moment?
Khalid Medani: Well, first of all, thank you so much for that acknowledgment. You can imagine how gratifying it is for me to be able to tell all the people I interviewed over the course of researching this book, “look, you know, we did this together and some people found it informative.” So that’s really important to me and, hopefully, to them.
In terms of the “aha moment,” it was very much an inductive process. It started with observing violence against actors working in the informal economy at the very micro level in Sudan. Since members of the Islamist elite were themselves generating profits from speculation in informal financial exchanges, they perceived others operating in the informal economy as a threat to their own commercial interests. As a result, the Islamist regime not only imprisoned but executed individuals they alleged were operating in the “black market” in foreign exchange. That was puzzling to me. Why would state elites find these kinds of informal markets so threatening?
I mention this as the “aha moment” because I want to emphasize two things. First, the idea behind this book did not originate with a focus on the subject of political Islam as the outcome to be explained. Hopefully, readers will see that it’s really about local communities and how they struggle with the exigencies not only of state repression but also with a particular form of economic globalization or internationalization. Economic and commercial transactions in the “black market” are not only linked to the state, which most scholars acknowledge. They are linked to something larger. They’re linked to regional and global economic forces. And given that remittances are the most important source of foreign exchange for the majority of Middle Eastern and North African countries, “black markets” are also linked to labor markets. In this way, labor remittances are not only significant at the level of community and the household, but, as Charles Tilly argued, they are big business for national and regional economies. I realized almost immediately that this was not just a story about local communities in Sudan.
The second point is that there’s nothing peripheral about these countries, and I’m really happy about the theme of this MERIP issue, given that MERIP is where I first began exploring some of these themes years ago. I think what this book has shown—in rich empirical detail, I hope—is that no country in the region is peripheral because they’re so interconnected, not only culturally and linguistically, but through decades of labor migration and large volumes of capital inflows in the form of labor remittances. If you read the book closely, it also speaks to the receiving countries, to the Gulf countries themselves, whose economies would not have looked the way they do without the huge amount of labor migration addressed in the book.
The book connects the micro-foundational aspects of how people in local communities deal with their own involvement in both the formal and informal economy. It explores how they relate to the state and, very importantly, how communities, in Karl Polanyi’s terms, establish new rules of conduct and obligations based on networks of social solidarity and trust. Rather than economic transactions governed by a “self-regulating market” based on supply and demand principles, these rules of conduct are subject to non-economic controls such as locally specific cultural, religious or ethnic norms. I link economic globalization, variations in state capacities in the different countries and how this results in changing societal practices in local communities. I believe this kind of model and framework is applicable elsewhere, whether it’s Morocco, Yemen, Nigeria or other countries that are big labor remittance economies.
Noora: Often, when we think about which migrants pose a greater threat, the narrative is one of cultural distance: They can’t integrate and, therefore, they’re threatening. But, I think, from the perspective of the Gulf States, what we see in a lot of cases is that the threat of migrants from other parts of the Middle East was precisely their cultural proximity—this idea of shared language and, therefore, possible organizing. In the Gulf States, we know that especially with the rise of Arab nationalism, with labor strikes and unionization, there was a real fear of other Arab migrants, especially after the 1960s. I wonder how this plays out in your research. Particularly, what were the implications of changing demographic flows once fewer people from the Middle East were able to go? Does anything about this strategic shift away from Arab labor come into your findings?
Khalid: In fact, this question that you posed is so central to my book’s argument that I actually open the first chapter on Egypt with a story from an Egyptian return migrant in the 1980s. His narrative is illustrative of the fate of millions who migrated to the Gulf to seek better opportunities and one that speaks directly to the dramatic impact of changing labor policies in the Gulf on the sending countries. This young man, a plumber by profession, went first to Libya, and then ended up in Saudi Arabia before having to return to Egypt in great part as a result of new emigration policies that favored Asian over Arab labor. His trajectory fits with the way the book is divided. The first part deals with the period of the oil boom for Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. That is, the era in which all three countries witnessed a boom in expatriate remittances fueling the expansion of informal markets that came to be regulated by religious or ethnic networks. The second part of the book addresses the impact of the dramatic decline in remittances and how these generated severe economic crises and the imposition of economic austerity policies. It is here that I turn to the dramatic political and social impact of return migration and the recessionary downturn in the region.
Among the consequences of the boom were the rising fortunes of Islamist movements in Egypt and Sudan, which gained popularity in part by providing the kind of services that previously were not available, such as social welfare provisioning, the disbursement of financial loans to Islamist loyalists based, ostensibly, on Islamic principles and the securement of employment and forms of social protection to workers in the informal labor market. But the cycle of boom-and-bust also changed the economic policies of the state. Egypt, for example, had encouraged out-migration of labor during the boom as a safety valve in order to implement neoliberal reforms without risking political instability. Out-migration tampers factors that increase economic and social grievances that underpin popular protests and insurgency against the state. It does so by decreasing the labor pool in the sending country, helping to alleviate unemployment and may also increase the incomes of the remaining workers. Moreover, expatriate workers often send money back home, enhancing their families’ standards of living and contributing positively to the sending nation’s trade balance. Taken together, these factors significantly reduce political instability in the home country. Alternatively, the interruption or slowing down of emigration adversely affects political stability. Indeed, by the 1990s, the Egyptian state, realizing that it could no longer rely on out-migration to the Gulf, shifted policy. This is where you see the implementation of financial liberalization and, I would argue, increasing state repression.
As the opportunities of securing prosperity by migrating to the Gulf have dwindled, young activists that I have interviewed in the region recently understand that their fate—their economic and life chances—are now predicated on employment at home. These changes in the regional economy have influenced mobilization around national economic policies and calls to address local issues, particularly with respect to unemployment and underemployment. I emphasize this because it shows that the recent popular protests, particularly in the labor exporting countries, like Egypt and Sudan, are a partial consequence of changes in policies originating in the Gulf.
Noora: I love that this project has a connection to MERIP from the beginning, and I wonder if you can say something more about that.
Khalid: One of the things I wanted to do with this book was link these countries to the international economy and address the impact of economic globalization at the level of local communities. Most of the political science literature on the Middle East and Africa at the time was focused on state-civil society relations as the primary unit of analysis in ways that exceptionalized these regions. It was MERIP that took a wonderful, I wouldn’t say risk, because all the work published is rigorously reviewed, but MERIP has long supported scholarship that is committed to a critical political economy perspective and that situates the countries in the region in a larger global economic landscape. In contrast, much of the literature in political science on economic globalization was almost exclusively applied to the advanced industrialized countries. I was really perplexed by the fact that we were not applying the framework of Karl Polanyi or other theorists of economic globalization and marketization to the Middle East and Africa. It didn’t seem to me that this was a fruitful or generative kind of omission. So it was very important that MERIP supported not only my research but other work which likewise builds on those connections in both theoretically and empirically grounded ways.
Noora: This speaks to peripheral centers in a different way—centers of knowledge production, both in terms of political science and, specifically, Middle East political science. We know that now, for example, everyone is interested in discussing migration and how migration is connected to security, etc. Migration matters for political outcomes. But with the exception of Ari Zolberg and Myron Weiner’s work, that’s a post-Cold War realization. Prior to the 1990s, migration was somewhat peripheral to political science, especially international relations, because it was seen as a “low politics” question, not the “high politics” of national interest and diplomacy. Analysis of labor remittances or labor migration often used the push/pull frameworks from economics as if they’re completely detached from political systems. Even when I was doing my PhD, I remember getting pushback that maybe this was too niche of a topic.
On top of the concept of migration being in some ways “peripheral” to other concepts in political science, there’s also the question of the peripheries of the Middle East in terms of what academics have historically considered the center(s) of the region. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, but not the Gulf states, right? Those were seen as not key power brokers in this region, there was less production of knowledge around those areas. And I think that that’s true also for Sudan and Somalia—these cases raise the question of “does this fit into the Middle East?” What’s interesting in this book is that you’re bringing together these interactions between the peripheries of the Middle East in multiple ways, not only in terms of how we imagine the region but in terms of the production of knowledge about what constitutes this part of the world.
Khalid: I empathize with your journey in terms of working on labor migration, and migration in general, in the discipline of political science. Yes, it’s been neglected in political science, historically, though sociologists and economists have looked at it in different ways. For my part, I always focus on the research question itself above all else rather than evaluate or even consider seriously what is peripheral and what is not peripheral. By which I mean if the outcome of interest has to do with understanding the geopolitical role of Iran and Saudi Arabia, naturally, I have absolutely no problem with the centering of these in terms of the primary research question. However, I have always been apprehensive about Somalia or Sudan being considered as peripheral because this not only obscures their respective contributions to important political issues in the region, such as those addressed in my book, but also because this blinds us to the integral linkages these and other countries have to the wider region.
The book begins with a Somali proverb that profoundly speaks to this problem of designating certain countries or communities as “peripheral.” The proverb is “abundance and scarcity are never far apart. The rich and the poor frequent the same houses.” This proverb encapsulates the entire framework of the book and situates Somalia at the very center of some of the most important developments throughout the Middle East and Africa—that is, the boom-and-bust cycles that link regional politics together and which have resulted, as I note in the book, in the dramatic transformation of the economic and political landscape of the entire region. No country exemplifies the wages of boom-and-bust cycles and their political consequences as clearly as Somalia does. I should point out that by working on Somalia, I was able to generate some key insights in the course of my research in the informal housing areas of Imbaba in Cairo. In particular, my observations and analysis of the role of traditional justice institutions, clan networks and conflict over land among rural migrants to Imbaba were generated from my work in Somalia where I first observed the importance of these informal networks for our understanding of national and transnational level politics.
Somalia was also important at a larger theoretical level. This book builds on some insights from Polanyi. It is based on a historical institutional framework that takes seriously the relationship between state policy and the political consequences of a variety of socially and politically constructed formal and informal markets. In this respect, the case of Somalia is analytically central because Somalia provides the clearest example of the erosion of historically weak formal institutions that, in the context of economic globalization, dissolved in ways that ushered in what Polanyi famously termed the “rise of market society.” That is, a state of affairs wherein public goods such as education, health care, social security and the right to earn a livelihood are subject to market principles, resulting in major economic, social and humanitarian crises. Observing these dramatic consequences and their horrible impact on Somali communities made me curious about what effects similar processes might have in Egyptian communities, albeit in different ways. As I discuss in the book, I observed that informal financial networks played a key role in inter-clan conflict in Somalia, while in Cairo, I found that informal markets in labor and housing provided important contexts for the recruitment of young men to militant organizations. My point here is that my analysis of the politics of informal markets in Egypt built upon my research on Somalia as well as Sudan, where I first observed the truly dramatic relationship between state action, informalization and political violence.
In my view, the terminology of “peripherality” does a great disservice. It obscures our understanding of each other’s countries as well as important insights that are at the heart of the analytical advantage of comparative political analysis. As another example, the last chapter on the global War on Terror tackles the issue of informal financial networks and the global war against terrorist finance. Building on survey research in Somalia, I show that informal banking systems do not finance terrorist organizations for a variety of social and political reasons. So, the question is, what can Somalia teach us about this global issue? No Middle Eastern country is unburdened by the consequences of the global War on Terror. Somalia’s experience, then, contributes to our understanding of the impact of the War on Terror globally and, importantly, at the level of the community, and it is one that affects all the countries in the Middle East, including the “central” countries of the region.
Noora Lori: Well, what a poignant way to end, I think, with a plug for the comparative method and a reminder to de-exoticize these different parts of the region and to think about commonalities and connections on a global scale. So, thank you, Khalid.
 Charles Tilly, “Trust Networks in Transnational Migration,” Sociological Forum 22/1 (March 2007), p. 3.
 Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers, The Power of Market Fundamentalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).