DOHA — Sahar Bsata moved to Qatar with her former husband in 1984. They were carried by waves of migration bringing upwardly mobile Syrian teachers, doctors, engineers and merchants to the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf since the mid-20th century in search of salaries adequate for building new lives.
Originally from Aleppo, Sahar is now in her 60s. She wears thick plastic glasses, a pearl necklace and yellow dress with white flowers. As she speaks, she smokes her own homemade berry and red grape mixture from her hookah.
“All the people who came to the Gulf area, they never dreamed of staying,” she said. “Just to make a little bit of fortune, buy assets in their countries while they were here. Even very simple workers, every year they would buy a piece of land or a small shop in their country. Syria or Egypt or anywhere.”
The discovery of vast oil and gas reserves in the region attracted millions of workers in the second half of the 20th century, including a professional class of Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Egyptians, and later a wave of migrants from elsewhere.
But if the American Dream—however mythical—is about exuberance and assimilation, the dream in the Gulf states could not have been more different. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries made clear from the start that although foreigners could come for work, they would eventually have to depart, never to assimilate. The monarchies have long restricted pathways to citizenship, offering only short-term work visas. But even that model may now be changing.
Today, Syrians living here are still working. However, many who came by choice are now caught in a purgatory. It’s no longer viable to entertain returning home, but there are also signs that their welcome, and for other foreigners, is coming to an end.
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For generations, diaspora communities working in the region were meant to observe prescribed social boundaries—come and work, remit and one day retire back home. Unrest in Syria changed that, however. The revolution and outbreak of civil war in 2011 made the country a less attractive place in which to invest or retire.
The already decrepit economy has descended into hell since 2019, thanks to multiple crises including neighboring Lebanon’s liquidity catastrophe, ongoing sanctions, the Covid-19 pandemic and now knock-on effects of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Syria is also experiencing its worst fuel shortage since the start of the war because Iran, the Syrian government’s major supplier and backer, is reeling from its own economic decline.
The Syrian pound has also lost half its value compared to the US dollar in the past year. And the February 2023 earthquake in the country’s north damaged thousands of buildings, affecting 8.8 million people, according to the United Nations.
“Everything has changed due to the Syrian war,” Sahar explained. International sanctions and concerns about funding terrorism have made it harder for the diaspora to send money to families back home, so most use informal hawala exchanges. And the more than a million Syrians currently living in the region have no desire to return to a homeland that is a shell of its former self.
In the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council today, migrants account for around 30 million workers, or an average of 70 percent of the total employed population. Over 95 percent of private sector workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are foreigners.
But the Gulf states have started to address the reality that their populations are vastly outnumbered by migrants. In 2022, the Saudi government restricted employment of foreign nationals in several sectors. Others, too, have intensified their efforts to diversify from dependence on their huge oil deposits alone and nationalize their workforce, using terms like Saudization and Emiratization, to integrate their own citizens into a more diversified market while forcing foreign labor out.
Kuwait City may be home to the oldest and most concentrated of the Syrian communities that came to the region in search of work. Kuwait currently has the fifth-richest population in the world, according to the World Bank. The Syrian diaspora is the fourth-largest expat group in the capital, approximately 300,000-strong with representation from nearly every segment of Syrian society.
Syrians there consist of several overlapping circles formed by class, religion and origin. Doctors from Damascus, cement masons from Daraa, mechanics from Deir ez-Zor, butchers born in Al Nebek, Druze journalists from Suwayda and other social pockets are all present and active.
Taissir Hassan sits across from me at his desk at the Kuwaiti Society of Engineers, a cantilevered building across from Kuwait City’s bald corniche. Looking at me with puffy eyes over a tiny gray, black and silver sliver of a moustache, he puckers his lips before explaining why he moved from Damascus to Kuwait 35 years ago. He previously had a respectable job working for the Syrian government’s media office, but could feel both tightening economic and political restrictions. “My sister living here told me to come. Kuwait was the pearl of the Gulf,” he says.
Given the current situation in Syria, Taissir has no plans to return. At 63, he has worked half his life here, but must continue to plod away to remain, or risk losing his residency permit. “I am not happy here, not exactly comfortable, but I am secure here,” he says. “But I will have to work here until I die.”
The golden age for expats in the ‘70s and ‘80s first started to decline during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, although not so much for Syrians as Arabs from other countries. The Arab world was divided over the invasion, and some regional powers backed the attack. Consequently, foreign workers in the country, especially Palestinians and Jordanians, were deemed sympathizers to the Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. The Syrian government at the time held a deep enmity toward Hussein and sent thousands of troops to join the US-led coalition to free Kuwait. Thus, Kuwait’s Syrian community was insulated from the same degree of racism as others, and the country’s post-war reconstruction boom ushered in additional economic opportunities.
Originally from Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, Faisal Khalid tells me his children are the third generation of his family to be born in Kuwait after his grandfather came to work in the early 1960s and never left. When many foreigners fled in the wake of the Iraqi assault, Faisal’s family stayed, and his father even joined the national army to fight.
Khalid says he feels completely Kuwaiti, having been born in the emirate, and sharing tribal connections with locals. Dressed in a typical dishdasha, an ankle-length robe, with his checkered chmagh headdress piled on the sides in typical local fashion, he pulls out a pair of gold aviator glasses that has been poking out of his pocket. “I am 100 percent Kuwaiti,” he says.
Still, without a Kuwaiti passport, his belief can only get him so far. He lists a slew of benefits the government provides to citizens to study, get married and buy property. But naturalization laws in the Arab states are extremely strict. There are approximately 100,000 – 200,000 bidoon, or nationless people, in Kuwait, and some Syrians have become completely stateless in the course of their attempts to obtain Kuwaiti nationality. Khalid is considering joining the military in hopes of one day gaining citizenship, although he acknowledges that his father was never able to obtain a passport despite being captured by the Iraq army in the first Gulf war. “Still, anything can help,” he tells me.
The help Syrians provided Kuwait during its own occupation was long forgotten when Syria found itself at war 20 years later. Although the Kuwaiti government has donated large sums for humanitarian relief, it also quickly moved to ban Syrians, as well as six other nationalities, from entering the country in the summer of 2012. With its borders sealed, no new Syrian arrivals have legally been allowed to come in, limiting Syrians’ ability to have reunions with loved ones and accentuating the community’s definitively second-class status.
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The approximately 5,000 ethnic Armenian Syrians in Kuwait City, a minority diaspora within a diaspora, have tried to insulate themselves from this new reality. In a grand ballroom near the city’s main port, members of the community held their annual Valentine’s Day party, which doubled as a fundraiser for Syrians affected by the earthquake a week earlier. Chandeliers shone above women dressed in satin and sequined evening gowns as they walked around the hall to collect donations. Gold chains and BBQ pits were among the items up for auction.
As a DJ spun a playlist of Armenian ballads, Armenian Syrian businessmen, metalworkers and teachers sat around round tables covered with filigree cloths and recounted how their parents left an impoverished country in the 1950s and 1960s in search of livable wages and better economic opportunities for their children. One jeweler named Hagop, who asked that his full name not be used, explained that originally, his parents had only short-term plans. “My father planned to come here only for a few years, but here I still am.”
The guests are wary about their status in Kuwait. Nevertheless, the tight-knit community is proud it established the core institutions any Armenian needs—namely an active church and a day school, as well as youth scout groups and a busy social calendar. “It’s bad here, but it’s still worse back home. Until that changes, we will stay here,” Hagop said.
The Armenian school in Kuwait is the only one of its kind in the Gulf countries. Founded in 1961, it is one of the oldest institutions in the city founded by the diaspora. The school’s principal, Nerses Sarkisian, originally a dentist from Aleppo, was a recent transplant who arrived only in 2015. To get around Kuwait’s ban on Syrian nationals, he first applied for Armenian passports for him and his family. We discussed his adjustment to his new life driving along one of the city’s many ring roads to pick up his son from university. Expatriates, including university students, have been restricted in their eligibility to apply for a driver’s license, a basic right in his opinion.
Back in 2013, Kuwait froze the issuing of new driving licenses to foreigners below a certain income in an effort to reduce traffic congestion. Artist Andy Warhol visited back in 1977 and even then noted in his journal the country’s car craze: “Outside the sun was warm with a lot of cars going by—big Rolls Royce, big American cars. They gave us two cars but we only used one.” Despite the car culture, or maybe because of it, there is no reliable public transportation. The city’s sidewalks often serve as additional car parking.
Sarkisian’s son Ara, a freshman studying microbiology at Kuwait University, found us idling in the parking lot and got in. “I never thought I would still be here,” Sarkisian said. His plan was to stay here temporarily before moving his family to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where he planned to reopen his dental clinic.
“My dad still wishes he was a dentist back in Aleppo,” Ara said from the back seat.
“Yeah, I still mistakenly tell my wife I am going to the clinic,” his father said. He thinks he made a mistake by bringing his family to Kuwait. Amid rising rent and commodity prices, he is not able to save the money he had hoped to earn to go start his own clinic in Yerevan.
Even in his current financial bind, Sarkisian still won’t relocate his family to Armenia, where he fears his sons would be conscripted into the army, for which they would both be eligible, in light of recent and rising tensions with Azerbaijan. “We are going to ride it out here, I guess,” Ara piped in, as the car crawled along in afternoon traffic.
I am not happy, not exactly comfortable, but secure. But I will have to work here until I die.
According to Diana Al Sadi, a Syrian born in Kuwait, her parents always said when she was growing up that they would soon have enough savings to return to Syria. However, she now sees this type of behavior as a “Gulf syndrome,” more denial than daydream. “I remember once I picked up a camera my father had just bought, and he fussed at me to put it down,” she said. “He told me, ‘This is for us when we are back in Syria.’” For those still in the diaspora, that day may never come.
But now the situation in Kuwait has changed. Xenophobia among the local population spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic while the oil-dependent economy slumped. “Like everyone worldwide, they were really afraid. Kuwaitis panicked and pointed the finger at all the foreigners working here,” Al Sadi said.
In 2020, Kuwait’s parliament passed a law to rebalance its foreign residents from 70 to 30 percent of the population. Parliamentarians called for replacing all expat jobs in the government within one year. Although that didn’t happen, the proposal still limited the number of visa renewals, forcing many foreigners to leave.
“It was a wakeup call,” Al Sadi said. “We all have an expiry date.” Many fear the restrictions will eventually spread to high-skilled labor as well, she added. This past February, the country’s Education Ministry notified more than 1,800 expatriate teachers that they would be replaced by Kuwaitis at the end of the academic year.
“Kuwait is home for us, but for the first time, my father told me to leave to another country if I get the chance,” Al Sadi said. “For him to suggest splitting up the family, I could tell how unstable he feels about the future.”
A separate ruling banned the renewal of work permits for foreigners over 60 who did not hold university degrees. That was an attempt to allay native Kuwaitis’ fears that elderly foreigners were crowding them out of the country’s health sector. The ban was later amended, raising annual processing fees and instituting a requirement for expatriates to purchase private insurance.
Mohammad, an elderly Syrian who asked that only his first name be used, is still trying to stay in the country. I met him at the second-largest mall in the Middle East, a source of pride for Kuwaitis and foreigners alike. After he completed his Syrian military service in the early 1980s, he was told he would have to join the reserves. “That was too much for me,” he said, slouching in his chair while playing with the zipper of his puffy yellow vest. Instead, he moved to Kuwait in 1982 to work as a French teacher in a government school, planning to stay outside Syria only for a short stint.
“But then we got kids and responsibility,” he said, looking over to his wife, Widad, an Arabic teacher, and his daughter, Sarah, who works in a pharmaceutical company, sitting around a coffee table. When he retired in 2014, Mohammad found a workaround and got an independent residency permit. But in early 2023, the Interior Ministry notified him he would need to switch his residency to become a dependent of his wife, who was still working, or of one of his children. He is currently trying to challenge the order.
Mohammad thinks the Kuwaiti government ought to be more understanding. “I am not asking to be treated as a citizen of this country, but merely as a human. I’ve taught children here for 35 years, and I can’t go back to Syria as there is war there. What am I supposed to do? Return to a place I no longer know and wait for the lights to come on?”
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Southwest of Kuwait, the extremely small, fabulously wealthy nation of Qatar juts out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf. Doha, the futuristic capital, contains shapely skyscrapers, angry roaring generators and white SUVs that gleam under the intense desert sun. Young palm trees stand as silent witnesses to the country’s recent and rapid transformation, particularly since the country’s then-ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came to power in 1995.
This year, in the afterglow of Qatar’s successful hosting of the 2022 World Cup, inflation surged 5.93 percent, according to the Planning and Statistics Authority. Simultaneously, the demand for work, especially in services and construction, has waned. Construction companies, a major sector for Syrian businessmen in Qatar, are concerned about a massive slowdown. Large infrastructure projects begun in the run-up to the games, including building the entirely new city of Lusail and several ultra-modern metro lines, revamping the port and renovating the sewage system, are now complete. Thousands of workers are being told they need to exit the country.
That is only the latest headwind for Syrians in Qatar, who have tried their best to ride out several external and internal shocks. As its political influence grew in relation to its economic weight in the aughts, Qatar flipped its geopolitical position, choosing to back the Syrian opposition and oppose the Syrian government at the start of the conflict. Many Syrian political exiles joined the entrepreneurial diaspora in Doha. The Syrian National Coalition, a collection of opposition groups, opened its own embassy there in 2013.
Amid a cluster of diplomatic compounds just north of downtown, the three-starred flag of the Syrian revolution can be seen waving in the wind. As I stepped through the door, one of the staff greeted me with “Welcome to Syria.”
The team showed me through a warren of rooms with photographs on the walls of Syria’s ancient archeological treasures as well as fresh memorabilia from the Qatar World Cup tournament. At the top of a spiral staircase, the charge d’affaires, Belal Tourkya, welcomed me into his office.
Warm and affable, he offered me a glass of thyme tea and explained how his office strives to reverse the deep and longstanding fear many Syrians had long associated with their embassies, which are commonly seen as outpost of Syrian secret police for spying on the diaspora. “Before, when you entered a Syrian embassy,” he said, “you thought you were finished, and if you made it out, you were considered reborn.”
At the outbreak of the war, some 42,000 Syrians lived and worked in Doha, according to Tourkya. Around 20,000 additional Syrians with family connections in Doha came as “visitors” to escape the conflict. Qatar does not grant refugee status.
Members of the postwar wave must reapply every two months to ensure their sponsors are still in Doha, and they are barred from working. A Syrian school has also opened, offering a curriculum free of charge. “Now in Qatar, we have those with the opposition, those allied with Assad and those in the grey,” Tourkya said.
In 2017, six countries led by Saudi Arabia blockaded Qatar due its divergent foreign policy, including ties with Iran and support for the Muslim Brotherhood. While many residents tried to move their assets out of Doha, it wasn’t easy for Syrians who face restrictions setting up new bank accounts and conducting financial transactions.
But the Syrian business community in Doha proved to be an asset to newly isolated Qatar, helping strengthen the economy in the face of the boycott. In one example, Saudi Arabia previously controlled most of Qatar’s dairy market, and early in the sanctions regime, Qatar flew in milk and yogurt products from Turkey and Iran. A Syrian-Qatari business firm eventually stepped in with its subsidiary, Baladna, which produces dairy products, to help the country become largely self-sufficient.
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Looking forward, Moudar Al Debis tells me is impossible for two Syrians in conversation not to eventually get on the subject of their futures. Al Debis is a storyteller. Every question I ask brings out an anecdote about life since he moved to Doha to avoid military conscription back in 2006. He got a job working in a pharmaceutical company and eventually married and had children. After the Syrian uprising turned violent, he brought his parents from Syria.
Despite its strong financial situation, neither Qatar nor any of the other monarchies represent stable choices for Syrians, especially families, since they will never become citizens, Al Debis explains at a Damascene restaurant in Doha’s main market. Although the Syrian communities in the Gulf have shrunk, emigrating to other countries where they might better stretch out their savings, Al Debis believes they still represent key sources of remittances for friends, relatives and neighbors stuck inside Syria as the civil war continues to simmer.
The Syrian community in the Gulf kingdoms play an increasingly critical role in making money to support their families back in Syria and elsewhere. The fact that the largest earthquake in a century had hit Syria and Turkey the night before, killing thousands and leveling city blocks, loomed over our conversation. For many, the Gulf dream is no more, replaced by a reality that their compatriots in Syria are in debt and they have a renewed responsibility to help them survive what seems to be a never-ending nightmare.
Al Debis’s wife worries their children’s futures are not secure in Doha, as he could lose his job at any time. “Then where will we go?” he says, echoing his wife’s concern. In order to prepare, the family decided to start learning German. But every time he considers emigrating to Germany or another European country, something his father once told him always comes back into mind: “If you leave, five other families back in Syria depending on you to send something back will die.”
Top photo: The skyline of Doha at night (Torsten Reimer, Flickr)