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 Thinking West Asia: Migration, Marx, and the Mediterranean

Majed Akhter


Growing up Pakistani in Saudi Arabia, most of my family’s social interactions were with other middle-class and professional Pakistanis: households of doctors and engineers. On the four-hour flight from Riyadh to Lahore we took every summer however, a different world presented itself. Most of the passengers were Pakistani laborers. They had the scent of hard work and wore shalwar-kameez not trousers. They would sigh and rest their calloused feet on the armrests, making me and my siblings giggle. I would often find myself seated next to a Pakistani worker on these flights. Before landing, he would shyly present me with his passport and disembarkation card – could I, a ten-year old boy, help him? Although border crossing was central to the economic lives of these men, they needed my help with the bureaucracy of it all. Puffed up with importance, I would grab their cards and passports and start scribbling.


This snapshot from my childhood condenses three themes: migration, nationalized labor, and the question of Europe. The first two are related. As Adam notes, much of the regional population is circulating non-citizen working-class Asians. The ILO reports that foreign workers are the majority in Bahrain and Kuwait, and more than 80 percent of the population of Qatar and the UAE. These migrants are their households’ hard-currency earners – tasked with living too cheaply to send inflation-proof riyals home. This geography of labor overturns political and geographic assumptions about labor markets. Although Marx wrote about the Irish in London, he could not have foreseen the volatile mix of petro-capital, police-state, and Asian labor that characterizes the region’s political economy. Where are the chains that bind these ‘workers of the world’ – which state should they usurp? While Adam brilliantly discusses the internationalization of Gulf capital, how does attention to the inter-Asian or Afro-Asian circulating working class change our maps of the region?


I filled out the disembarkation cards not in Arabic or Urdu – but in English. This brings me to my second theme – the dominant role of Europe in conceptualizations of the ME. These regions are of course densely connected. Consider the rich web of connections and sedimented histories of the Mediterranean trading world, or the geography of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, European empire continues to hold power – witness the politico-cultural dominance of the Anglosphere. And yet, the ME is more than Europe-adjacent. Indeed, the ME and Europe should together properly be called West Asia – subregions evolving within a continental and hemispheric dynamic. Let Asia and Africa shape the mapping of this region – as world regions, not only as part of ’the global’. I agree ’terminological anxiety’ has serious limits. But names provide clues about positions, proximities, and orientations. If the ‘Middle East’ is Europe clasping the region near, let me offer ‘West Asia’ as a rival for your cartographic affection. Whereas ’Middle East’ gestures to a world where Europe dominates the geographical imagination, ’West Asia’ provokes a world regional future that tries to map, to echo Wang Hui, an “Asia that isn’t the East”.


Thinking West Asia is not easy – we need new social infrastructures. A properly internationalist citizenship has yet to be imagined, and a proliferation of political and literary translations is sorely needed. Perhaps our conversation is a small step in this direction.


Majed Akhter is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at King’s College London. He is writing a connected history of developmental nationalism and decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, c. 1950-1975.