©Brice Krummenacker

©Brice Krummenacker

A Cosmopolitan Dream?

Text by Martin Lestra, Photos by Brice Krummenacker

In recent years, many French Muslim professionals have left their home country to find their luck on the Arabian peninsula, fleeing the growing Islamophobia and racist discrimination. The Arabian peninsula not only offers excellent job opportunities but most importantly promises a life in a modern, cosmopolitan Muslim society without social and religious exclusion. But is it as wonderful as it looks at first?

Whatever they do, Muslims’ loyalty is, in Europe, a usual suspect. While current French presidential candidates might show some tentative allegiance towards a foreign religious leader – the Pope – the braves gens freeze with angst when Muslims refer to French, or worst, foreign, imams. Muslims on the move are also moving targets. The flight of young European religious radicals to the Levant has popularized the term of hijra. But this is only one recent, unconventional, type of flow.

In a book chapter I co-authored with Dr Elyamine Settoul, we examined an older and more structural type of migration that connects two entities of bad repute: French Muslims working in the Gulf. Although only 3% of all French expatriates (less than 50,000) reside in the Near East or Middle Eastern region, they represent an ever increasing flow that has attracted media attention. In 2014, three French nationals were settling in Dubai every day; in 2015, 4,000 French citizens lived in Qatar, the largest European cohort second only to the British. Among these, the number of Muslims could be considerable. If neither the French nor Gulf authorities provide adequate data, emerging platforms for prospective expatriates like Arabia Talent or Hegire boast more than 7000 followers on social media: “90% of emails (about 150 per month) and of people attending the meetings are French of Maghreb descent”, says Arabia Talent founder Fouad Kemache.

Helped by these tools, or simply by friends or family, a number of young, unmarried French Muslim graduates move to the Gulf. They usually make for success stories. Children of the democratization and internationalization of higher education of the 1990s, they have moved academically and socially upwards from the relatively humble backgrounds of their immigrant parents. Most of them, prior to their departure to the Gulf region, had experienced mobility, notably through the European-funded Erasmus Program. Their university degrees in finance, engineering, communication or hostelry commands a high price in the Gulf, where demand for foreign qualified labour is high.

They are interesting because of the reasons that lead them to leave France. Are these choices motivated by religion, culture, profit-seeking strategies, or all of these? To answer this question, we drew on the experience of about 30 professionals, Muslims or otherwise, who have worked, wish to work or are working in the Gulf.

The Gulf appears - the fall in hydrocarbon prices might here already warrant the use of the past tense – economically attractive to French professionals. To fulfil their ambitions, Gulf petro-monarchies hire foreigners in all sectors and capacities. Meanwhile, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike are suffering from a lack of opportunities at home. Recent articles in the French press recommended the youth to “get out” of the country. Anne, a Catholic thirty-year-old, is adamant: “working conditions in France are dire – I couldn’t be able to do there what I’m doing here in Qatar”.

 

Forged by comic books, films and advertising, stereotypical images of the Gulf Eldorado have gained some visibility in France, not least because of the visible relations that France and the Gulf principalities have established with the Louvres-Abu Dhabi, or Qatar’s acquisition of the Paris Saint-Germain football club. Qatar, in particular, resonates in French politics. After the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs, along with the USA and Sweden, it showed interest in developing partnerships with entrepreneurs, social workers or promising leaders in the capital’s deprived neighbourhoods.

For some Muslims, this is migration as usual. Hisham tells us: “You know, I did feel racism in France, when I was kid, but I never felt discriminated in my job”. This view is rather the exception than the rule. Many also interpret their expatriation as a reaction to a perceived rampant French islamophobia, compounded by ethnic discrimination in the workplace. For Nabil, islamophobia dates back from the 2005 urban riot, when “television only spoke of Islam in the ‘banlieues’”. Perception of islamophobia has most likely grown since [all interviews were conducted before the 2015 terrorist attacks in France]. Additionally, ethnic discrimination has been shown to decrease by 40% the chances of being recruited in the French labour market. Despite the professional achievements of numerous French immigrants of the second generation, studies continue to underline their ‘Maghreb stigma’. A recent report adds insult to injury by highlighting religious discrimination in the workplace against Muslims and Jews. Thus, many leave for the Gulf hoping to find the principle of equality of opportunity applied there. Latifa, a charity worker in Doha, describes her attempt to pursue an academic career in France:

During my PhD, I was refused the possibility of obtaining a lectureship without even me asking, given that I was wearing a veil. (…) When my supervisor mentioned the lectureship, she was told that it wasn’t even worth trying”.

For those who had a secured a suitable position, everyday religiosity also created discomfort. Lofti recalls fasting in France:

In France when you’re following the Ramadan, all of your colleagues ask you questions. (…) Every year you have to explain it all over again, the principle, that it’s a pillar of Islam, and all of this is tiring over the longer term”

Conversely, such religious prescriptions tie in with Muslim-majoritarian societies of the Gulf. Inès explains:

Here in Qatar we live to the pace of Muslim countries and so everything is simpler professionally-speaking. We follow Ramadan, and companies adapt their working hours. We go out of work earlier for example. There are prayer rooms in every professional sector”

Thus, faced with limited professional opportunities, whether because of professional or societal reasons, French Muslims hear the call of greener pastures in the Gulf sands. If many traditionally went to other European cities or North America, new opportunities are also now available in the Global South – in Dubai, but also Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Astana, etc. Is then the Gulf really the place to fulfil these citizens’ cosmopolitan aspirations?

 

Asked about her life wishes, a Dubai-born Indian woman answered that she wanted to stay in the United Arab Emirates: “if you asked me whether I wanted to move to the states, to Canada, I wouldn’t”. Among our interviewees, such an instance never occurred. Unlike Gulf-born or Gulf-raised people that can be so commonly found in the Indian, Pakistani, Sudanese, Yemeni communities of Dubai, French Muslims do not hold the Gulf close to their hearts. Generally the Gulf option was not at the top of their list: Anne was looking for opportunities in Singapore, Hisham in Miami. But opportunities are running out: the financial crisis hit the global economy, and legislation has increasingly closed doors in the USA, and possibly in the ‘Brexiting’ United Kingdom.

For most interviewees, corporate life in the Gulf is reminiscent of past experiences in the Anglo-Saxon world. Religious tolerance at work enables them to strike disconcerting parallels between the Western multicultural democracies and the autocratic Muslim-majoritarian Gulf petro-monarchies. Mourad recalls with delight his British experience:

I stayed for two years and a half near London. There I enjoyed people’s mentality in the workplace. People don’t look at how you live or how you’re dressed. (…) My manager was a Sikh who wore a turban. At the canteen you could see veiled Muslims and Jews eating at the same table. Nobody cared”

Outside of work, the comparison still holds. While French Muslims do not identify with the Gulf’s dominantly conservative Islamic practice, their religiosity is tolerated there. They are not motivated by religious recognition, but yearn to blend into the ‘melting pot’. The open society that they crave for – and find in Dubai rather than in Riyadh - echoes their positive experience as trainees or young professionals in London or Amsterdam.

There is however something special to the Gulf. Our interlocutors are well aware of their cultural singularity. In the Gulf, they hoped to fully exploit their potential, not only thanks to less discriminating recruitment processes; but also by virtue of their rich cultural background. Idris explains:

In Dubai, the whole world is working. You meet Indians, Chinese, Arabs. It’s globalization in an Arab country (…). We all have our chance and as a Muslim we even have an advantage because we know Islam, its values, the Ramadan, etc.”

Idris’ wish to exploit a ‘stigma’ is paradoxical. A foreigners’ ticket to wealth and social elevation in the Gulf is not religion, it is nationality – and the diploma that goes with it. And while Gulf nationals distinguish the moqeemen (high-skilled) from the ommal (low-skilled) migrant workers, French Muslims fall into the top-tier of the labour pyramid thanks to their passport. This determines how much they earn - in 2015 in Kuwait, a French lawyer earned 25% more than an Asian counterpart, where they live and how long they stay in the country. In other words, French Muslims are considered first and foremost by their recruiters as white-collar Westerners contributing to building the national economy.

 

Unsurprisingly, disillusion is quite commonplace for French Muslims who went to the Gulf with professional ambitions. Their comparative advantage – cultural savviness and international experience – has limits. They face ruthless competition in an increasingly diversified high-skilled labour market of Indian engineers, Sudanese managers, and of course, trilingual Lebanese advisors. Therefore, concludes Fouad, “it would be prejudiced to consider that a Maghreb descent would be an asset in the tough labour market that characterizes the Gulf today”.

Disillusion is also usual for those leaving with claims to cultural re-connection. English is the working language in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, not Arabic. Expatriates are also frustrated by the ethnic segregation and communitarianism at play in the Gulf. For those who come with high religious expectations, the coexistence of mosques and clubs is awkward. “They often pursue their religious journey to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait”, notes Fouad Kemache.

At the end of the day, the Gulf offers little long-term prospects for French Muslims. How could they expect more than a temporary professional station, when Gulf countries are not willing to integrate foreigners into local society? How could they consider a long-term professional project there when job contracts, even for highly-qualified professionals like them, can terminate from one day to the next, following oil prices or the side-effects of successive waves of nationalization of the workforce?

Gulf countries offer little more than economic status to French Muslims. Attractive professional springboards, they might endow expatriates with the feeling of “contribut[ing] to the region’s development” and therefore “claiming to be in and of the Gulf”. But French expatriates’ dreams are increasingly toned down upon hearing from friends and colleagues returning from the region; or when experiencing the Gulf themselves. Going to the Gulf equals professional advancement and religious relaxation in the face of strengthened religious intolerance in France and Europe. French Muslims are able to negotiate cultural differences in societies that are not their own. In no way, however, can their loyalties or political aspirations be conflated with Gulf societies, in which they are not integrated. In other words, they are flexible professionals, not flexible citizens.

This should not be left unheard. While the French climate is currently hostile to Muslims, these expatriates represent potential success stories France could boast of, stories of upward social mobility and of the emergence of a professional white-collar second- or third-generation of migrants. It is worthwhile remembering, when rightist and leftists presidential candidates wish to forbid the veil in French universities, that these success stories started there in the first place.

 

About the author: Martin Lestra is a PhD candidate at the European University Institute and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. His dissertation explores the rentier state cooperation with international organizations, based on a comparative study of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the realm of foreign aid.

Photos by Brice Krummenacker: www.bricekrum.com/METROPOLIS