Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil

Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil. By Andrea Wright. (Stanford University Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Neha Vora, Lafayette College

Perhaps no region of the world today is more associated with migrant labor exploitation than the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. The plight of migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, was front and center most recently in the media coverage of Qatar’s World Cup 2022. Within this coverage, Gulf leaders—and by extension Gulf citizens—were often cast as the perpetrators of these seemingly exceptional or intensified conditions, enabled by a supposedly local Arabian practice of migrant sponsorship called kafala, which ties immigrants to the Gulf to their employers through temporary labor contracts and makes any recourse for unsafe or unfair labor practices almost impossible. Indeed, “unskilled” migrant workers—employed in large numbers in the oil and gas and construction sectors, face harsh working conditions and a range of exploitation in the process of migrating to and working in the Gulf states. However, as Andrea Wright so carefully shows us in her book Between Dreams and Ghosts, their experiences in the Gulf cannot be blamed on Gulf states and citizens alone. Rather, labor and migration laws and practices in home and host states are shaped by layered histories of trade, colonialism, and neoliberalism across the Indian Ocean, and involve a range of actors that extend well beyond the borders of host states, including the Indian state, recruiting agencies, families and communities, transnational oil companies, and subcontractors.

In this rich, multi-sited ethnography, Wright follows migrating men as they interview with recruitment agents in India, to their workplaces on oil rigs and oilfields in the United Arab Emirates, and back to their natal villages and homes. She not only interviews the migrating men, but spends time with government bureaucrats, recruitment agents, oil company managers, and the men’s families. By introducing us to the range of actors and institutions invested in this migration, and centering the narratives of migrants themselves, Wright challenges much of the existing Gulf migration literature, which is economically reductionist and explains labor migration in terms of supply and demand and rational actor decision-making. Migrants themselves articulated a range of reasons for migrating, including “future dreams” of what their life might become through this process and fears of what might happen if they fail, based on stories of previous migrations (“ghosts”). For many, migrating is part of family expectations, as remittance money will translate to gold to gift for their sisters’ or daughters’ weddings, and thus strengthen kinship ties. Masculinity and male family expectations are thus woven into and reproduced within the migration process.

Wright convincingly argues that migrants are not voiceless victims of labor exploitation but important agents in large scale shifts in global capitalism. Migration (as well as oil production) here is brought forward as a sociocultural process that relies on histories, personalities, negotiations, kin, and the building of what migrants themselves call “influential networks.” Migrating men produce and reproduce social networks within migration, and their forms of resistance and critique influence corporate and state actions. Indeed, local networks in India and the Gulf, which are built through local hierarchies and social connections, are central to the process of transnational migration, and impact the ability of people to migrate in the first place, as well as their experiences as migrant workers. These experiences offer a window into the workings of global capitalism, neoliberalizing states, and the ways that transnational institutions take on local specificities.

Between Dreams and Ghosts shows how, at every step in the process, the source for migrant precarity is a transnational assemblage of actors and institutions that includes, but is not primarily reliant on, Gulf leaders and Gulf citizens. Indian state officials and policies regulate out migration by recuperating colonial discourses of protecting vulnerable workers with low education, while also expecting emigrants to embody the brand of liberalized India. Recruitment agencies and other middlemen in India shape how workers get hired by seeking out the poorest candidates from struggling states who will be willing to work for less pay, even as they impart “entrepreneurial” skills through language and other training. Transnational oil companies and their (usually White Western) managers shape on-the-ground experiences of labor, work to prevent labor organizing, and blame migrant injuries and deaths on the migrants themselves; the use of subcontractors further protects corporations from incurring liability for deaths and other harms. Wright carefully unpacks these layers through her well-researched chapters, showing us how the current system of out migration in India, especially for those going to the Gulf, is rooted in forms of colonial differentiation that are now continued by oil companies, Gulf states, and an Indian state and elites who envision the Indian nation as a Hindu one. Although scripted out of national belonging, migrant workers, who often come from low-caste and/or Muslim backgrounds, re-write themselves as agents of India’s development and modernization through their discourses and practices.

There is much more to say about the importance of this book: it challenges scholars to rethink “oil” as a distinct economy, and one that is driven by scarcity and surplus; it recuperates historical evidence that is not well known in colonial studies to understand the origins of laws and categories of migration in the contemporary Indian Ocean; and it shows how national imaginaries hang not only on contestations of belonging in the domestic context, but also within emigrant diasporas. The research for this book was multi-sited, and Wright also conducted her interviews and archival research in multiple languages. To complete such a wide-ranging project, she developed deep relationships of trust that allowed her to gain access to and navigate male-only spaces that are often wary of external questioning. Between Dreams and Ghosts is an essential text for both undergraduate and graduate students of South Asian studies, Gulf and Middle East Studies, political economy, labor, and migration; it also provides an important intervention for a range of non-academic audiences, including policy makers, journalists, labor organizers, and human rights groups.

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