Chasing dreams in the Gulf

A social and cultural anthropologist, Samuli Schielke works as a senior researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. He is the author of Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States (AUC Press, 2020).

Here is what Schielke told AUC Press recently about hid book.

You decide to focus one migrant in particular–Tawfiq, a young Egyptian man that you describe as “a peculiar, exceptional person.” Why focus on him?

I also describe his experience as in many ways “common, even typical.” But when we look at individual humans, nobody is typical. Everybody is peculiar in one way or another. Add to that the fact that anthropologists often learn a lot, especially from people who themselves have an analytical take on their society—a desire, and a skill to reflect on their life. Tawfiq is that kind of a man, and he is very good at it.

Focusing on the trajectories of individual people—not as atomistic units, but as members of families and societies—allows us to appreciate details, motivations, and experiences that are shared by many people, and which would remain invisible if we were to try to give a broad, representative account. Accounts of the latter kind are already available, and with Migrant Dreams I wanted to show some of the personal and societal hopes, frustrations, and small moments of accomplishment that drive the worldwide process of migration.

You suggest that “working in the Gulf for money is a moral, spiritual condition, and imagination is a scarce resource.” Could you elaborate on that idea?

We tend to think of the economy as something detached from the moral aims for which we need money, and of imagination as something that is free from material constraints. But this book is all about the moral projects people need money for, and about dreams that are not free. I think that the economy, morality, and our hopes and dreams are not autonomous realms. They often reproduce each other, and when that happens, it becomes a very powerful and compelling process, where people both want to, and have to, participate. That’s why, everywhere, we see houses being built in migrants’ countries of origin (worldwide, not only in Egypt), even if they don’t live in them: the house seems like a safe and profitable investment; it is the morally right thing to do and as such it is expected by families and communities of the migrants; and many people are motivated to migrate in the first place because they dream of building a comfortable house. Houses have emotional, moral, and financial value, and in order to understand how compelling it is for people to build those houses, even when they know that they will probably not live them, it is important to think of these different dimensions in combination.

Departing from Cairo for Dubai, October 2014. Photo by Samuli Schielke

The conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf are generally challenging. What is their biggest hardship: the monotonous nature of their job, the meager salary, the poor accommodation, the sponsorship / guardianship policy, the lack of legal recourse for claiming unpaid salaries, limited transportation, racism . . . ?

I would call them exploitative rather than challenging. But I wouldn’t know how to separate these hardships. They add up together to a powerful system of exploitation in which people are compelled to continue working for profits that are meager but nevertheless better than packing up and going home. A more paradoxical hardship is that, especially when people do manage to make some profit out of their work, it becomes more difficult to return home, and they end up staying for one more year, and then another and another, and so on, “until the oil runs out” as one of them told me.

You state that “Egypt is a migrant nation.” What is the long-term effect of migration on Egyptian society?

I don’t know yet what the long-term effect of this will be. This is something I hope to follow up with new research among Egyptian diasporas. But already now we can see that migration has created families and communities that exist across distances, between villages and cities, and between Egypt and countries abroad, and long-term absences and a degree of estrangement have become prevalent features of people’s lives. Overall, it has given conservative and identitarian movements new strength while at the same time distancing people from traditional ways of life. Egypt, after the first forty years of international mass migration, has become a society that is overall very conservative but no longer traditional. Additionally, especially among higher-income migrants, migration can also produce a greater plurality of lifestyles. I find it striking, for example, how many of the people among young urban intelligentsias in Egypt have grown up in the Gulf. This is also something I hope to look into in my future research.

Migrants, whether from Egypt, the Maghreb, Bangladesh, India, or Nepal, work in the Gulf to make money—money that as you say, “creates choice but also alienation.” Does the latter outweigh the former?

The quote refers to an argument by Georg Simmel, who wrote a very influential book called The Philosophy of Money back in 1900. In my book I say that the money that low-income workers in the Gulf are after, comes with rather less choice, because it is needed for specific moral purposes, such as getting married. So the situation is different from Simmel’s theory. The alienation migrant workers experience comes from working far from home for tasks that have no other meaning for them than earning money; but overall, people have little choice over where and how to work, and what to spend their money on. Again, this is true mainly of the low-income workers who make up the vast majority of Egyptian migrants in the Gulf. There are also people who migrate for well-paid and highly skilled jobs, and they also tend to have more choice, as well as less alienating living conditions—for example, they can bring their families with them.

Despite the hardships that migrants face, migration for many still implies hope. Is that a good thing? Since money is at the center of much of this hope, power of the imagination, and dreams, what happens to dreams that cannot be bought with money?

I don’t know if it is good or bad. It is the reality of the world we live in. As for dreams that cannot be bought with money, much of the book is actually devoted to such dreams, which involve, for example love, poetry, revolution, and religion. The crux is that it is easier to have such dreams when you first have enough money and material resources, a bit of surplus time and space to think, reflect, and search. The exploitation of migrant workers worldwide is so effective also because they are put into a situation where it is so difficult for them to have other dreams than those that are conventionally expected and can be bought with money.


Migrant workers by law are not allowed to settle permanently in the Gulf. If they were though, would that change anything with regards to their financial security and social mobility?

It would be a major improvement. Then many people would settle permanently in the Gulf and make it their home—at least those with higher incomes who could afford to rent apartments and pay for schooling. And they would make political claims and want to be recognized as citizens with equal rights and obligations, as do migrants and their descendants in Europe and North America. Which is why the Gulf monarchies do not want to allow it.

Do you think that if there were more economic opportunities for young Egyptians here in Egypt, fewer workers would migrate to the Gulf? Or does the powerful dream about making it in the Gulf ultimately tempt migrants to try their luck there regardless?

As long as there is a large income gap between Egypt and the Gulf, there will be large-scale migration. Egypt also has a very high rate of population growth, and it is difficult to create jobs for so many more people coming of age every year. However, more opportunities in Egypt would definitely mean that the pressure to migrate would be less strong than it is today. People would be under less pressure to accept dubious offers and exploitative working conditions. More highly qualified people could find good jobs in Egypt and stay.

The dream of migration is so irresistible to many young people precisely because it is difficult. The risk seems worth taking because one usually tends to hope for more than what one can eventually gain. And because it is so difficult and expensive to migrate in the first place, people can’t easily come back after a couple of months and say: “Oh well, that wasn’t my thing, I’ll try something else instead.” But that dream would eventually fade without the global inequality that marks some people as employers and others as workers simply because of where they come from.



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