The latest Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd on 25 May by a Minneapolis police officer highlight the fact that we live in a time of multiple crises. Floyd’s killing was a wake-up call for humanity to put an end to racism, and has prompted global discussions about systematic and interpersonal racism as well as the perception and reality of justice and injustice.
As some protestors took it upon themselves to demand justice by resorting to violence and damaging public buildings, questions have also been asked about what kind of protests are “ethical”, and what lawful and acceptable methods are available to members of the public to express their anger and discontent. When it was said that protestors should seek their rights “peacefully”, activist Yolanda Renteria replied by saying, “It is not your choice to determine how an oppressed group protests.” When people feel that the law has failed them, they resort to breaking the law.
#BlackLivesMatter has inspired a global protest movement against racism and has opened new avenues for discussion by highlighting the need to address systemic and structural discrimination based on race and ethnicity. Racism is more than just an act of hatred; it starts with the belief that one can be superior to the “other”. The “other” is then demonised and seen as less human and hence less deserving of life and humanity. What happened in the US was not a spontaneous outburst of anger; it was the result of years of injustice and systematic and structural discrimination against Black Americans.
It is necessary for us to use the #BlackLivesMatter momentum to acknowledge and work on racism and discrimination in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf States, where there are a number of narratives about the anti-racist movement. Some support it while ignoring local racism and discrimination; others highlight the need to tackle racism based on colour without discussing the deeper issue of structural discrimination in the Gulf. Yet others have openly denied the existence of any type of racism in the Gulf and claimed that is an American problem. All three narratives miss the big picture. Those who claim that racism does not exist in the Gulf because of the Islamic culture — which is supposed to promote equality — were actually exposing their personal privileged status of not being impacted by racism. The narrative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US disregards the fact that you cannot fight another people’s oppression without fighting your own.
Similarly, the discussions about racism based on colour and the status of the Gulf’s Black citizens does not acknowledge that race in itself is a racial construct. Racism in the Gulf looks very different than that in the US; it is people of colour discriminating against other people of colour. We need not only to fix the law, but also re-evaluate the whole concept of racial, ethnic, familial and tribal identities.
The starting point would be to reassess our understanding of racism and check for any internalised biases. Racism is more than just black or white; it comes in different shapes and forms and is reproduced and perpetuated through everyday practices throughout the Gulf. Race is a social construct, but it also has various material implications for the lives of those who have been assigned racial categories based on their intersectionalities in social structures. Racism is essentially a form of discrimination. Discrimination as a broad term is defined thus: “The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” In fact, we should use “racial discrimination” instead of “racism”, because the latter reflects power relations and reinstates certain hierarchies such as whites vs. people of colour. The minority or people of colour may also reproduce racist behaviour towards people of other races or colour. They should not be confined within a certain power relations dynamic where they are seen as subjects of racism but not capable of “racism” themselves.
The issues of racism and discrimination are deep rooted in Gulf societies. Sometimes racist attitudes are even glorified and justified in the name of national and cultural pride in one’s ethnic roots. Although it is important that we do not treat the Gulf exceptionally with regard to racism, we have to acknowledge the specificities of the concept and practices in the region. The debate on racial discrimination in the Gulf has yet to materialise fully. When it does get discussed, the focus is mainly on migrant workers due to the international attention on the issue.
The racism against Black citizens is rarely discussed, even though they are excluded and marginalised socially. Common forms of discrimination include racist remarks and referring to them in derogatory Arabic terms, such as abeed (slave); racist jokes; and generally treating them with disrespect. We rarely find intermarriage between darker Gulf citizens and those who are not so dark-skinned. They are also marginalised in politics and economics. Indeed, other groups like Bidoon (stateless people), residents (who are not citizens), expatriates and naturalised citizens (generally second-class citizens) all continue to suffer from interpersonal, structural and institutional discrimination. There is a stigma attached to discussing such topics openly in the public sphere. As a result, racism continues to bolster hidden inequalities and obvious prejudices.
A recent demonstration of racial discrimination in the Gulf came from Safa Al-Hashem, the only female member in the Kuwaiti parliament for the past 15 years. She has repeatedly called for a tax on “expats for the air they breathe in Kuwait and for walking on the streets.” Nevertheless, she continues to enjoy public popularity and was even re-elected, suggesting that there is a degree of tolerance for such an opinion. Moreover, a young Kuwaiti entrepreneur called Balsam Al-Ayoub referred to the Bidoon community in Kuwait as “bacteria” rather than human beings. He was one of the chosen “accomplished” young people who met with Britain’s Duke of Cambridge on his state visit to Kuwait. What is alarming is that such views are not only being tolerated but also overlooked and maybe even celebrated.
Several Gulf celebrities have made unapologetically discriminatory remarks in the media. Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahad said that expatriates should be left in the desert or deported as they are putting pressure on Kuwait’s medical sector. Commenting on this racist remark, UAE poet Tariq Al-Mehyas said: “Egyptian expatriate workers are highly esteemed and cannot be replaced. God forbid you cannot compare or replace doctors and Engineers from Sudan, Egypt or other Arab countries with Indians and Bengalis.” This sums up the problem of racial discrimination in the Gulf.
In order to tackle the issue from the base upwards and uncheck personal biases we have to deconstruct discrimination. We need to look at practices that construct the “other” and “stranger-making” practices. We also need to ask how certain norms are established.
“Normalising” is how you reproduce several forms of discrimination. For example, discrimination based on race — racism — is reproduced through everyday behaviour, either undocumented or unspoken.
Before we discuss the manifestations of racism in the Gulf, though, we have to have the public debate about what discrimination even means in the context of the Gulf. Before we talk about institutional and structural racism in the region we also have to discuss how it is manifested in interpersonal relations and when we can move on to reforming laws and policies.
If we can learn anything at all from what is happening in the US, it is that we have a lot of work to do. If we can at least acknowledge this, it is a positive beginning.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.