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Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Migrant Workers in the Gulf

Andrea Wright

Photo: Group of migrant workers in Dubai (Shutterstock)
Interviewed by Shahram Aghamir
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In recent decades, the six members of the GCC, which includes the Gulf Arab monarchies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, have lured millions of mostly low skilled and semi-skilled workers from South and Southeast Asia and Africa. For the past few months, the migrant workers in these monarchies have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.

Courtesy of Voices of the Middle East and North Africa (VOMENA)

To understand the plight of these millions of migrant workers and the history of labor migration in this region, Shahram Aghamir spoke to Assistant Professor Andrea Wright, who is in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at William & Mary.


Andrea Wright
Andrea Wright

Examines labor migration from India to the Gulf region

Professor Wright's research explores the oil industry in the Arabian Sea from the 1940s to the present in order to understand connections between energy, governance, and rights. She uses ethnographic and historic methodologies to examine labor migration from India to the oilfields of the Arabic-speaking Gulf. Based on this research, she is currently working on two book projects: “From Slavery to Contract” and “Between Dreams and Ghosts.”

“From Slavery to Contract: An Anthropological History of Labor and Oil in the Arabian Sea” looks at the history of transnational labor at British oil projects in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.  At those projects, she looks at working conditions, hiring practices, and worker strikes from the 1940s to the early 1970s. This is a period that includes the end of formal British imperialism in the Gulf and South Asia and the early years of postcolonial states. This examination of labor and oil demonstrates that, in the mid-twentieth century, oil was increasingly associated with national security and that this association was used to evacuate politics from the oilfields.

“Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil” examines labor migration as a social process that draws upon and influences not only migrants’ own communities but also contemporary governance and capitalism. It does so through use of multi-sited ethnographic research conducted in India and the Arabic-speaking Gulf. She follows migrants from their homes in rural India to job sites in the Middle East and include all parties involved in supplying manpower to the oilfields. Through focusing on the process of migration and the multiple actors involved, she critically interrogates the standard view of contemporary globalization, which understands neoliberal reforms as a process that happens from the top-down. Instead, “Between Dreams and Ghosts” shows how migrants, along with low-level bureaucrats, oil company project managers, and small business owners in India, all shape transnational migration and, in doing so, global capitalism.

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