GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Transnational lives of Cameroonian migrants in Dubai
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper deals with the contemporary presence of Cameroonian migrants in Dubai. In particular, it focuses on their economic and social activities, their strategies of dealing with the constraints and caprices of the UAE immigration system, and their contributions to transnational relations and identities connecting Africa and the Gulf. The paper draws on research conducted since 2007 that includes extended periods of fieldwork in Cameroon as well as repeated visits to the United Arab Emirates (2008, 2011, 2014). In my fieldwork, I have worked in close collaboration with Cameroonian researchers and interlocutors, allowing me to participate in the migrant experience first-hand. My methods included participant observation, informal conversations, and semi-structured interviews, as well as photo and video documentation.
Compared to Africans from the Horn and East Africa who look back a long history of relations with the Gulf (be it in the context of slavery/forced labor, religious mobility, or Indian Ocean trade; e.g. Hopper 2010, Khalifa 2006), Cameroonians are relative newcomers to Dubai. The start was made by traders who began to frequent the region in the late 1980s (cf. Marchal 2001). Their need for intermediaries to facilitate their stay soon paved the way for more permanent forms of migration. Furthermore, Dubai's reputation as a global city and the relative easiness of getting a visa (as compared to destinations in the West) has attracted many migrants in search of business and employment opportunities. While Cameroonians in Dubai are a rather heterogeneous group that comprises individuals from different parts of the country, Muslims and non-Muslims, who work in a variety of jobs (import/export, security, frontline hospitality, health, and banking), they share in common a vision of the city as good for trade and business. The majority, in one way or another, is involved in the so-called 'cargo' business and many acts as migration brokers for aspiring compatriots. They thus link Africa and the Gulf in various ways: by importing goods and remitting money to Cameroon, by facilitating the arrival of newcomers, and by instilling Dubai in the mental map of Cameroonians abroad and back home. Moreover, with traders and migrants shuttling forth and back, Dubai is increasingly being perceived as an extension of Africa. However, the role of Cameroonian migrants as brokers for their compatriots is contentious, as it thrives on the exploitative potentials and the vagaries of the UAE immigration system as well as on the neopatrimonial structures in Cameroon's society and state. The experiences of Cameroonian migrants in Dubai are often ambiguous, including stories of disappointment and deception by fellow compatriots, uneasiness with the UAE immigration and labour regulations, as well as instances of 'deskilling' (Malit & Oliver 2013), mistreatment and racial discrimination. Nonetheless, many praise Dubai for its economic opportunities and liberty. Thus, similar to Vora's (2013) Indian middle-class migrants, these Cameroonians buy into a neoliberal discourse that favours the 'brave' and 'enterprising', and attributes success to individual merit and stamina. Yet different from South Asian and East African migrants, Cameroonians constitute a migrant network 'in the making' that lacks the historical depth of connections to the Gulf States. Moreover, while their orientation is largely focused
on returning and investing back home, many Cameroonians aspire to lead a transnational life that embraces both Africa and the Gulf.

Scholarly contribution

This paper seeks to fill an ethnographic lacuna regarding the insertion of Western/Central African migrants in Gulf societies. Moreover, by critically reflecting on the role of personal networks and migration brokers, it seeks to engage with current debates on neoliberalism and citizenship in the Gulf.


Hopper, Matthew (2010). Globalization and the Economics of African Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire. Journal of African Development 12(1): 155-184.
Khalifa, Aisha Bilkhair (2006). African Influences on Culture and Music in Dubai. International Social Science Journal 58(188): 227-235.
Malit, Froilan T. and Tchiapep Oliver (2013). Labor Migration and Deskilling in the United Arab Emirates: Impacts on Cameroonian Labor Migrants. Cornell University, ILR School site: (last visited 15.12.2013).
Marchal, Roland (2001). Mille traffics. Dubai entre Afrique et Asie centrale. IN Dubai: City Globale, Roland Marchal (ed.) Paris: CNRS Editions, pp. 85-110.
Vora, Neha (2013). Impossible Citizens: Dubai's Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.

Profile contributor:

Michaela Pelican is Juniorprofessor (Assistant Professor) of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne. She is also co-director of the University of Cologne Forum "Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Perspectives from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe". Her current focus is on South-South mobility and migrant transnationalism, and involves research in Cameroon, Gabon, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Concurrently, she is working on indigeneity in Africa, a topic that emerged from her previous research on interethnic relations and identity politics in Cameroon. Moreover, she has a strong interest in visual and media anthropology, and has been using methods of visual and theatre anthropology throughout her research. Her publications include an upcoming article on 'Urban lifeworlds of Cameroonian migrants in Dubai' in Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development (UAS), 42 (3-4), 2014; an article on 'International Migration: Virtue or Vice? Perspectives from Cameroon' in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2), 2013; and an article on 'Migration to the Gulf States and China: local perspectives from Cameroon' in African Diaspora 2(2), 2009. She has also taught on transnational migration; most recently an interdisciplinary course on 'Labour migration to the Gulf States' with a focus on Africa-Gulf relations.