The discussion in a previous post, and some discussion with friends got me thinking a bit more about the case of Asian immigrants in Bahrain. Specifically, I want to respond to a point made by an anonymous commenter, who said:
In the seven years I have worked here you have seen a massive influx of asians primarily indians & bengalis. yes they build things but you must remember this is a Arab country and at times is seems like it is becoming a third world ghetto, Bahrain seems to be losing its cultural identity. This being a very small country it shows more than large countries.
This is a common concern for many Bahrainis, and even for immigrants like me who would be sad to see the local cultural identity drowned out by a foreign imported one. A while back Homer wrote of his concern about this, trying to predict possible future outcomes (and I responded to him here). However this time I’d like to look into Bahrain’s past to gather some clues.
Settled trading families: Syncretized culture
It wasn’t always the case that immigrants from Asia threatened the local culture in Bahrain. If you think back a few generations ago, there were many trading families from India and Pakistan who settled in Bahrain to conduct their business. Because of the requirements of business, and because they knew that they would be staying here for the long term, they took steps to integrate themselves in the local society and culture. Being fluent in Arabic was an essential requirement, as was adopting other local codes of conduct such as dress, food, and even mannerisms.
And crucially, these migrants were able to raise their families in Bahrain, so their children grew up learning the local culture side by side with the culture of their parents. So today the children of these immigrants have created a syncretized culture based on their two influences. If you go to their homes they wear thobe and dishdasha one day, and the shalwar qamees another. Their meals are often a combination of local and Indian dishes; or dishes of one culinary style that have been adapted by adding influences of the other. And at home they switch between speaking Arabic and Urdu (or whatever their parent’s language is) without thinking, following a sentence in one language with another sentence in the other. Their friends (and sometimes even spouses) are made up of members from both the migrant community and from among the “real” Bahrainis.
New wave unsettled workers: Parallel culture
However this new wave of immigration that has taken place in the past seven years or so, described by Anon above, has been of an entirely different nature. These low-wage unskilled workers have been brought here in mass shipments and made to work under poor conditions. Because they are unskilled and in such large supply, they are easily replacable by their employers. They were brought to Bahrain only because they accept lower wages than anyone else, and they are less hassle for employers than Bahraini citizens (they don’t enjoy job mobility, less access to courts, labour laws and trade unions, and they don’t have access to any influential social networks). And the workers usually aren’t allowed to bring their families here.
So, they know from the beginning that they have little chance of being able to settle down here for the long term, as they can be sent back home at any time. And they don’t have much desire either to settle here in the long-term because they can’t bring their families. The sole aim for them is to earn money and send it back home for as long as possible. There are very few incentives (and in some cases, opportunities) for them to integrate themselves into the local society, or even to just learn about the culture. Things aren’t helped by the fact that many workers are housed in “labour camps” that are separated from the rest of society, preventing them from any human interaction with locals.
But the most important factor I see with this new wave of of immigrant workers is the high turnover rate… that they are constantly renewed every few years. So even if one of them does learn something about the local culture, it makes no difference because he will get sent back home after a few years — and replaced with someone fresh off the boat who knows nothing about the culture. Contrast this with the situation of the settled immigrant trading families (mentioned above), where knowledge/adoption of the local culture accumulates over time and over generations.
Well I don’t have any astounding conclusions, but just a simple and obvious point, which is this: Immigrants who arrive knowing with some certainty that they will be able to stay here long term will not pose a threat to the local cultural identity, because they will be forced to syncretize their original culture with the local one; the product of which would be regarded as an organic adaptation; just another variety within the melting pot that we label “Bahraini culture”.
On the other hand, those immigrants who are brought here solely to work, and who have little assurance that they will be able to live here for the long term, will not be integrated into the local society and culture. These immigrants will maintain their imported culture in its original form, parallel to (ie without any interaction with), or in direct conflict with the local one. Large numbers of these unsettled immigrants will be seen as a threat to the local identity because their culture is foreign to the local one.
Of course all of my claims here are generalizations, as the situation differs for each individual case. There are many other factors and aspects that need to be considered in order to get a full picture. And it should also be noted that the two examples I’ve given here are just the two extremes that lie on either end of the spectrum of Asian immigrants in Bahrain. There are a great deal of people who lie somewhere in between, that I have made no mention of here.
But anyways, this is just a first attempt at better understanding the prevailing situation. I may have a follow up post discussing my ideas for possible solutions to the current problem. But this post should give you some hints about which direction I’m going.