GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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From Segregation to Integration? Discourses on South Asian Labor Migrants in Saudi Media
Paper Proposal Text :
Saudi Arabia is facing tremendous social, economic and political challenges: Since 2011, several countries in the region have heavily struggled with tumultuous developments. While these transformation processes have also had widespread effects on the kingdom, protest movements have been lacking so far and critical voices against the political system are scarcely heard.
Saudi society still has to face increasing socioeconomic problems due to rising unemployment, the damaged future prospects of young Saudis, a dearth of job opportunities in the governmental sector and insufficient diversification, privatization and liberalization. To tackle these challenges, the Saudi government is seeking to realize a successful “Saudization programme” (nitaqat), which aims to reduce the number of more than eight million foreign labor migrants (of a total of 27 million inhabitants) within the kingdom in order to create more job opportunities for Saudi inhabitants. Against this background, more than 1,000,000 illegal migrants, most of them originating from South Asia, were expelled at the beginning of November 2013, after a sixth-month period to register themselves as legal migrants had expired. As a consequence, riots and ad hoc protests occurred in several Saudi urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh, police raids searched thousands of companies for illegal migrants and, due to the expulsion of labor migrants, even legally registered laborers avoided working out of concern of being expelled as well. As a consequence, daily and working life in urban centers has come to a standstill due to the deep dependence of the Saudi economy on labor migrants. Simultaneously, a robust discussion took place in the national media about the so-called ‘regulation process’ of the Saudi market. Although a majority of journalists, experts and politicians have appreciated the political decision, a controversial discussion has started within forums, blogs, the mass media, op-eds and social networks about the treatment of labor migrants and their meaning for society as a whole. In addition, questions of stronger integration and even citizenship for ‘strangers’ have arisen.
Until now, the academic discourse about labor migration in Saudi Arabia has mostly been discussed through the lens of human abuses, economic productivity and migration flows. What has been neglected so far is the controversial debate that is taking place in the Saudi media discourse regarding more integration, civil rights, and the question as to whether South Asian labor migrants have become an integral part of society.
Thus, South Asian labour migrants working and living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can serve as potential actors of transcultural and transregional exchange. This perception has been rather neglected in contemporary research in media science, area studies and Islamic studies. First and foremost, South Asian labor migrants have been described as excluded and segregated groups of “others” living only temporarily in the Kingdom, closely tied to their homeland and segregated from the Saudi majority. However, this assumption of “closed spaces” between homeland, host society and diaspora has to be seen as widely obsolete in times of translocal and global connectedness, due to increased transcultural mediatisation processes and the changes the Saudi media discourse is undergoing. In these processes, the presence of and discussion about labor migrants can act as catalysts for social change and social transformation processes within the Saudi-majority society. Today, the existing media discourses in Saudi Arabia are discussing the increasing integration of former “outsiders” into the “daily life” of Saudi society, the limits of integration, still-existing mutual prejudices, obstacles to the religious respect of the Saudi public for the South Asian labor force, and new ways of expressing opinion in a changed media landscape due to new electronic media. This means that the categorization between the Saudi “Us” and the South Asian “Others” is in some ways loosing its fundamental relevance and could be redefined in the future, the more the media discourse undergoes liberalization processes.
All these phenomena challenge the traditional “imagined Saudi community”, based on hermetically sealed imaginations about the Saudi identity, nation and culture. Due to mediatisation processes from a south-south perspective, this will modify the Saudi society as well as its view on outside influences and the latter’s impact on Saudi society as a whole.
Based on my Ph.D. project entitled “Pakistan’s Labor Migrants in Saudi Arabia: Social Change in Mediatised Transcultural Environments” at the Humboldt University of Berlin, the paper will present current media discussions about the situation of South Asian migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia. It will focus on the debates that have occurred during the process of migrants’ expulsion from November 2013 until spring 2014 by analyzing reports, opinions and discussions taking place in national mass media outlets as well as in social media, blogs and forums. This analysis will shed light on the controversial and heterogeneous discussion within the Saudi media landscape with regards to the ‘labor migrant issue’ with a focus on the theory of mediatisation in transcultural societies. For example, questions on the equality and inequality of the kafala system have been raised in Pakistan’s media discourse in recent years. Furthermore, critical discussion has also increased about private staffing institutions organizing the transfer of Pakistani migrants to Saudi Arabia as a fee-based service.
In this regard, the approach to evaluating developments within the media discourses seems of outstanding relevance for an understanding of the changes in Saudi society. For this reason, the projects aims at enriching the current research conducted on Saudi Arabia, which shows the Kingdom not only as a homogeneous, more or less isolated society without dynamic and connected media discourses, only influenced by a “top-down-approach” and led by the elites of the Al Saud, but also as a changing society, opening up socially in times of deep-going globalisation processes.