Citizenship is a word that has haunted me the latter half of my life. My status as a permanent resident in the United States has granted me many opportunities that are denied daily to thousands of people, but at the same time has limited and restricted other opportunities. This however was a recent development. Before 2006, I was living in the United States undocumented. My family and I moved to the United States in 2002 in search of a better future. My step-dad was born a US citizen, and was able to request my mother’s documents. I, on the other hand, had acquired Spanish citizenship (additionally to my Colombian citizenship) due to my father’s lineage. I traveled to the US with my newly acquired Spanish passport under a tourist visa, and I overstayed my visa.
Due to my many experiences, as an undocumented migrant, I found interest in the study abroad course “Religious Citizenship.” It would allow me to explore further an area of the world (the Middle East), which has been the focus of my studies, and connect personally due to my complicated history with the concept of citizenship. The class presented two different models of citizenship: Qatar which is solely based on jus sanguinis or blood lineage, and Egypt, which is a mixture of jus sanguinis and jus solis or place of birth. Through these past five weeks, one main theme that struck me as prevalent is the labor-market access that the social construction of citizenship creates. Just like how in the US, undocumented migrants are limited in their access to the labor market, these two different models of citizenship exclude certain populations, by alienating them from their citizenship and employ mechanisms that control access to the labor market.
Throughout our first days of class, we explored various definitions of citizenship and how they have altered throughout time. We deconstructed citizenship into becoming an imaginary construction that defines who belongs and is a member of a specific group, state, country, etc. Although citizenship is a constructed concept, the way that it manifests into people lives makes it more real than ever.
In Qatar, we encountered a country undergoing really fast development. Only twenty percent of the population in Qatar holds Qatari citizenship. The rest are expatriates mainly from South Asia. Due to the small Qatari Citizen population and the large wealth of the country, the Qatari government is able to provide a vast number of benefits to its citizens, such as interest free loans, land, job opportunities, etc. In this sense Qatari citizenship becomes a prized and valuable possession. However, Qatari citizenship is only passed down by the father; therefore Qatari women are encouraged to marry a Qatari man. The only other accessible way of acquiring Qatari citizenship is by marrying a Qatari man. There are exceptions. The Qatari constitution states that an expatriate working for 25 years in Qatar is elegible for citizenship, but such a case has not occurred. Also the Qatari Royal Family, Al-Thani, can grant citizenship to exceptionary cases such as Yusuf ‘Abdullah al-Qaradawi.
Through our three weeks in Qatar, we were fortunate to meet all types of people including the sometimes invisible Qatari Citizens. On a day to day basis, we encountered expatriates who are the main labor force of the country. They are not official citizens of Qatar, but instead hold residency permits that allow them to work, and live in Qatar for a designated amount of time. The expatriates are therefore alienated from their citizenship—their source of formal rights and access to the labor market. Instead, a Master-Servant Habitus is established between Qatar and the expatriates. For example, we met a Nepali security guard who said that he was in Qatar for two years just for the money, and that in his job if he did anything wrong they would send him back to Nepal. In this way, due to their lack of citizenship, they are able to be exploited based on threats that endanger their provisional residence. Their lack of Qatari citizenship also shapes their social interactions, for their labor-market access dictates their social standing.
The most interesting aspect of the role of the expatriate labor is how they are used by the Qatari government to portray Qatar as a multicultural society. As one of the pre-departure videos stated: “In Qatar you will find people from all backgrounds and cultures. It is definitely a multicultural society.” What is interesting is what is not being said. Are all these cultures and ethnicities equal within Qatar? The term multiculturalism constructs a fantastical myth of a utopian society. However, this myth is fabricated upon the exploitation of the expatriates. In Qatar, social stratification is not far removed from a racial hierarchy. Certain races and cultures can only certain jobs. Yes, exceptions do exist. For example, our program coordinator Mohanna is a South Asian American writer living in Doha. However, in her daily interactions in Qatar people assume her to be of the migrant labor class and treat her as such. As Queer theorist Jasbir Puar argued in Terrorist Assemblages with the aid of Ray Chow’s theories Multiculturalism is the accomplice of the “ascendancy of whiteness,” or maintenance of the status quo or social stratification. In Qatar, the myth of multiculturalism is used to create a fantastical portrayal of the country, while at the same time racialized policies such as the Qatarization of jobs and businesses are employed.
Egypt presented us with a different model of citizenship. In contrast to Qatar, Egypt’s population is around eighty million people, and the wealth of the country is nowhere near Qatar’s. In Cairo, we encountered a society filled with historical significance. It is an overcrowded city, whose buildings once were the envy of Europe. Now, Cairo is chaos. Tons of people living in the streets, with nowhere to go. The unemployment rate is around 20-30 percent and even those who have jobs can barely survive with their low wages. The Egyptian government is not able to sustain its population the way Qatar does, and therefore welfare and civil services fall upon the many generous Non-Governmental Organizations and civil societies. With regards to the labor-market access, the situation is the opposite of Qatar. In Egypt, Egyptians themselves are alienated from their labor-market access. Foreigners tend to be better paid than most Egyptians. And the problem is not education; a vast majority of Cairo’s population are university graduates, who are struggling to survive. For example, a group of guys that I met at a café are all university graduates, but are all working outside of their areas of interest in low paying jobs. They work around eleven hours a day and still find time to go out at night to relax and enjoy their lives. As a result of this large inaccessibility of the labor market, a large portion of Egyptians resort to immigrating to other countries in search for jobs—countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As explored in Mustapha Kamel’s book Final Exit and in my experiences in Qatar, the living situation in these countries for expatriates is less than optimal. They are exploited, and confined to certain social spheres. They work extremely hard in order to pay for their necessities in the foreign country and be able to at least send some money back to their families. This is where both and Qatar intersect. Countries like Qatar import the labor force that Egypt cannot provide for. And while these works opportunities provide lots of financial benefits to the families of expatriates, at what cost? Just like in the US, many people lose their lives in search of this dream of economic stability—the American Dream or Qatari Dream. Do the economic benefits really outweigh the effects of their exploitation? Do they even have a choice? And who is really benefiting from expatriate migrant labor? These are all important questions to consider when exploring the effects of a global economy, but in order to find a solution it is necessary to find out what leads to this exploitation of populations. Stephen Cook argues in his book The Struggle for Egypt that in Egypt’s case is the privatization of business that led to the low wages. Whether it is neoliberalist policies or the flaws of a capitalist system, a reform of the whole global economic system is required, for embedded deep within these economic relations are ties to everyone around the world.