Between Dreams and Ghosts
Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil
Andrea Wright




DURING A THIRTY-HOUR TRAIN RIDE FROM MUMBAI, A COSMOPOLitan city on the Arabian Sea, to Uttar Pradesh, in northeastern India, Deepak and I played card games and gambled small amounts of money on these games.1 In a break between our games, Deepak turned to me and, switching from joking to a more serious tone, described the significance of this trip to him. We were traveling to his home state—not far from where his parents, before their deaths, had owned a small farm. Deepak himself first left Uttar Pradesh when he found a job in the Gulf through a recruiting agent who visited the area over a decade ago. He had worked for six years in the Gulf and then four years at recruiting agencies in Mumbai. With this experience, Deepak found a job that now allowed him to bring, he said, “a chance” for other young men to sapna saakaar karo (live the dream).

When I met him, Deepak worked as an employee at a recruiting agency I call Mancom. Mancom is based in Mumbai, and it operates as an intermediary between oil and gas corporations outside India that want to hire Indian workers and Indian workers who want to work abroad. Deepak was one of three individuals who worked full time at Mancom recruiting manual laborers for oil projects in the Arabian/Persian Gulf.2 Many migrant laborers to the Gulf come from Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, where the per capita income is half the national average. Based on experience, Deepak expected that in Uttar Pradesh, he would be able to hire, at a pay rate lower than many Indians will accept, the hundreds of workers the energy contractor required.3

The following day, I met Deepak at the interview site and found hundreds of men waiting to be interviewed. At first, my appearance sparked murmurs. I heard some men near me begin to speculate that I must work for an oil company. Why else, they asked aloud, would a gori, or White woman, be in the area?4 Quickly trying to quell this story, I explained that I was only a researcher who wanted to learn about migration and write a book. As I repeated to prospective migrants that I had no ties to companies in the Gulf, most returned their attention to the area where Deepak gathered applicants’ information, sorted applicants into categories, and watched applicants demonstrate their strength by carrying heavy loads across the yard.

One young Muslim man, Ahmed, continued to stand with me and ask questions about my life and my research. Ahmed lived on a farm with his parents, his brothers, his brothers’ wives, his nieces and nephews, and his sister. As we spoke, he explained that there were few jobs in the area and that the farm did not produce enough food to meet his family’s needs. They were heavily in debt to a local moneylender who charged high interest rates. In addition, Ahmed’s eldest sister, Naheed, needed to get married, but the family did not have enough resources to provide the funds for her to do so. Ahmed’s parents wanted him to go to the Gulf to earn money, help support the family, and contribute to his sister’s marriage. Many of Ahmed’s friends already worked in the Gulf, and he saw it as his duty, as a son and brother, to work abroad. He reflected, “My friends have gone. I also must go.” After his interview, he and I walked through his village. He pointed to his neighbor’s new pucca house, a house made of bricks,5 and a tractor parked in front. The neighbors bought their house and tractor after two sons began working in the Gulf, and Ahmed did not want to be “left behind” as those from his village who migrated improved their living situations. As we continued our conversation, Ahmed told me, “My dream is to fly on an airplane.”

Today, there are approximately 8.5 million Indians living in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).6 These countries have large nonnational populations, and noncitizens make up the majority of their workforces.7 Indians work at all levels of the Gulf economy, from CEOs to laborers, but the majority of them hold unskilled or semiskilled positions. Unskilled and semiskilled are two categories that the Indian government used historically and still uses today to classify workers. The term unskilled workers most often refers to manual laborers. Semiskilled workers have some technical training or experience and their positions include pipe fitters, steel binders, electricians, plumbers, bar benders, pressmen, masons, welders, and drivers.8

Many young Indian men like Ahmed dream of migrating to the Gulf, but once there, they find the work physically and emotionally difficult. Working on oil projects or in factories that manufacture parts used on oil projects often requires physically exhausting work and long hours. Most men work outside, and the summer temperatures regularly exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, labor laws favor employers, and workers are legally forbidden to unionize or strike for better working conditions. Some workers in the Gulf face even greater challenges, including not being paid for their labor, not being able to return home when they choose, physical abuse, and injury or death while on the job.

Aware of the challenges that Indian migrants to the Gulf experience, the Indian government regulates emigration for those who have not completed the first two years of secondary school (i.e., completed ten years of schooling). Building on colonial laws and in response to contemporary instances of worker abuse in the Gulf, Indians who have not completed the first two years of secondary school, commonly referred to as 10th pass, must receive permission from the Indian government in order to emigrate to the Gulf for work. As prospective migrants seek government permission, they work with recruiting agencies that act as intermediaries between workers and oil companies. Once a worker finds a job in the Gulf, he goes alone for an allotted time, usually one to two years. After their work contract ends, migrants return to their homes, where they often rest for a few months before attempting to find another job in the Gulf.


The size of the global oil and gas industry is enormous.9 The first time I attended the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, I wandered through the vendors set up in the conference halls only to be literally stopped in my tracks because I needed to walk around giant machine parts that were ten feet in diameter or chains that were made of links where each link was wider in diameter than I am and almost as long as my arm.10 Oil consumption is also incredibly large: the world consumes, on average, 99.67 million barrels per day of oil.11 The labor used to produce this oil is counted annually in the thousands of millions of hours worked.12

In contrast to the overwhelming size of the industry, oil is often approached on the premise of its scarcity—a self-evident fact that is reinforced every time a newspaper headline speculates on the end of oil.13 It is measured in light of depletion, that is, by how much oil each country is estimated to have remaining and accessible.14 In news reports, crises in large oil-producing states such as Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela are viewed as lessening the supply of oil on the market and driving up prices.15 Given the dominance of this approach to oil, it makes sense, then, that labor, a key part in transforming oil from nature to resource, or something lying underground to a commodity, would also get caught up in the discourse of scarcity and surplus.16

Surplus and scarcity carry such discursive strength that it seems self-evident that they are the reasons for Indians migrating to work on the Gulf’s oil projects. Notably, popular media and government officials argue that the Gulf has a surplus of oil wealth but a scarcity of labor. In contrast, India is described as having a surplus of labor but a scarcity of wealth. Indeed, many recruiting agents described their work in such terms. In conversation, Mr. Shah, a recruiting agent based in Mumbai, said, “India is the world capital of world labor resources. Ten lakh [people] go, but never shorted of labor manpower here.”17 A close friend of Mr. Shah and fellow recruiting agent agreed with Mr. Shah’s characterization of Indian migration. Adding that he “sends 80 percent [of the Indian workers he facilitates jobs for] to Saudi Arabia, because it is the biggest producer of oil, so naturally requirement [of numbers of workers] is high.” These short descriptions of Indian migration to the Gulf emphasize financial reasons for migration.

The narrative power of scarcity and surplus to engage with and explain Indian labor migration is not limited to use in the present: bureaucrats working in the Indian government after the country’s independence from the British in 1947 also saw labor migration as a consequence of these forces. One bureaucrat argued that given concerns over the increase in India’s population, a program that encouraged or subsidized emigration would be an ideal solution.18 In the 1950s, Indian bureaucrats also argued that Indians migrated in response to internal pressures in India, such as lack of jobs. Unemployment was strongly felt in the Indian oil industry, and there were no positions within India for those with oil worker skills.19 Others pointed out that jobs in the Gulf were lucrative for Indians, and emigrants saved more during one contract period in the Gulf than they could hope to save “in a lifetime of work” in India.20 In articulating scarcity and surplus as the underlying force of labor migration to the Gulf, the Indian government, recruiting agents, and oil company managers often conceptualize migrants as entrepreneurs—rational actors who are making calculated decisions.

If we view the oil industry from a global or state-centered perspective, these scales distort labor to make the process appear frictionless.21 But if we attend to the process of Indian migration to the Gulf, we find that this process destabilizes and questions the normalization of neoliberal imaginings. Neoliberalism, here, refers to the increasing privatization and liberalization of markets.22 Such economic shifts have an impact on labor. As people migrate in response to changing economic circumstances, temporary labor becomes increasingly the norm, and workers are not represented by unions or political parties.23 In this book, neoliberalism is not an abstract concept that shapes migration; it emerges in the signing of contracts, cultivating entrepreneurial citizens, managing labor, envisioning the future, and fighting for one’s rights. Thus, an ethnographic perspective on labor in the oil industry questions the frictionless role of labor and demonstrates how precarious labor complicates the commodity chain.24

In addition, if we consider migration with an ethnographic lens and focus on the everyday lives of migrants and their families, then we find much is lost in using supply and demand, surplus and scarcity to explain labor in the Gulf’s oil industry. Indeed, as anthropologists of migration have shown in a diversity of contexts, such frameworks ignore many structural inequalities and lived realities.25

A couple of years later, I met Ahmed again—this time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where he was working. He described his arc from India to the Gulf: “The problem with India is [I] cannot save much, [it is] not raining well, I do farming, so [no rain] is a big effect. [Also] in India, it is like you go here and there and you spend [money]; here [in the UAE] you just go back to your room, so you can save.” For many poor Indians, the oil fields of the Gulf are one of the few international destinations where men who do not have formal education are able to find lucrative employment. But Ahmed’s choice to migrate was also informed by his dreams, familial obligations, and friends’ activities. In addition, multiple parties, including recruiting agency employees, government bureaucrats, and oil company managers, also participated in his migration.26

Social practices and structural inequalities clearly motivate migration, and migration also influences social practices. Thus, while economic necessity informs Indian migration to the Gulf, ethnographic research demonstrates that migration is not a simple economic calculus. Rather, migration is a process that brings together diverse individuals to form communities. This process is deeply informed by participants’ dreams for the future, as well as the historical context in which they situate their activities. Through examining migration with this ethnographic lens, it becomes apparent that invoking surplus and scarcity to explain Indian labor migration rhetorically produces economies with systems of values that make labor cheap and oil expensive.


Labor in the oil industry is challenging to study ethnographically. In part, this is due to the scale of the industry.27 Labor relations are also hidden from public view through managerial practices and government decisions, and many migrant laborers working in the Gulf live in camps that are a distance from urban centers. These camps are just one of the many contemporary management practices built on earlier management practices developed to limit worker actions. In addition to difficulties meeting workers, researchers often face legal and social barriers as they attempt to gain access to oil companies, recruiting agents, and migrant laborers.28

Ignorant of these challenges, I moved to Mumbai in 2009 to begin fieldwork on Indian migration to the Gulf. When I arrived, I began to call recruiting agencies that were running advertisements in newspapers. After my calls were rejected or I was hung up on, I started to physically show up at agencies, only to have doors literally shut on my face. Trying to find something to do, I contacted an anjuman (association) for Muslims from the state of Bihar who work in Mumbai. This association was formed by wealthy Muslims from the state who hoped to provide religious and financial services to poor Bihari Muslims who came to work in the many home factories in Mumbai’s Dharavi neighborhood. Assistance was seen as an urgent necessity because Bihar is one of India’s poorest states and Muslims face discrimination throughout India.

On my first visit to the association, I climbed a set of stairs where a goat was tied between the landings. The meeting was a few days before Eid al-Fitr, and the goat’s meat was distributed later that week to Bihari laborers for their holiday meals. As I walked into his office, I was greeted by the head of the association, a mullah, or religious leader, who aspired to open an Islamic banking system that would provide loans at no interest. After discussing his (and the goat’s) upcoming Eid plans, I told him about my research. He replied that he himself was not involved in Gulf migration. While he could not help me with that, he said, he could introduce me to members of the anjuman. I eagerly accepted, happy to have something to do.

With the head of the anjuman’s introduction, I spent time in home factories, where men worked stitching clothes or suitcases. My days were occupied drinking tea with factory owners, chatting with employees during their lunch breaks, and meeting community leaders. I continued to mention my interest in Gulf migration, but everyone I met told me they knew nothing about this topic. Finally, over a month later, a member of the anjuman’s board of directors, who knew of my interest in Gulf migration, introduced me to Mr. Shah, a recruiting agent based in Mumbai. A Muslim originally from the state of Bihar, Mr. Shah was a regular donor to education programs run by the association. I called him, and he agreed to meet me the following week. As I exited an elevator and entered Mr. Shah’s office, located in modern office building in a stylish neighborhood of Mumbai, I felt far from the home factories I had just left.

Mr. Shah welcomed me to his office and spent many days telling me about the migration process. He also introduced me to a number of other recruiting agents in the city, and it was through him that I was able to begin my research in the relatively insular world of recruiting agents. Importantly for my research, Mr. Shah introduced me to Mr. Sahil, the owner of Mancom, the company where I conducted the bulk of my ethnographic research with recruiting agents. While watching interviews organized by Mancom employees and at other recruiting agencies, I also met oil company managers working in the Gulf. When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates for research, I contacted the managers I met through Mancom and other recruiting agencies, and a few allowed me to visit their oil project sites. Beginning fieldwork was not easy, and even after Mr. Shah provided an introduction, many recruiting agents, as well as government officials and oil company managers, still met me with skepticism. Later, some of them said they were worried when we first met that I was really a journalist, writing an exposé on Indian migration to the Gulf.

As I met with recruiting agents and observed job interviews, I realized that recruiting agency offices were highly gendered spaces: most of the owners and employees of the recruiting agencies were men. At Mancom, a medium-sized recruiting agency, two senior workers, both women, handled the recruitment of skilled workers and professionals. At another recruiting agency, Fauzia, the daughter of the owner of the agency, helped her father manage the business. In general, however, I was almost always the only woman present. Recruiting agents explained to me that the reason their employees are all men is that subagents and unskilled or semiskilled laborers are “rough” or “uneducated” and therefore inappropriate for women to work with. Similarly, at most oil projects in the Gulf, I was almost always the only woman present.29

My research with oil company managers and recruiting agents, along with Indian government officials, recruiting agency employees, and migrants, taught me that migration is a social process.30 Migrants travel to work in the oil industry and are often employed by large, multinational corporations. Their migration is regulated by governments that are explicitly implementing neoliberal reforms. This process highlights that the oil industry in the Gulf was and continues to be structured by a disarticulated process—one that is not determined solely by the needs of an industry and is not centrally coordinated. Indeed, it is an active goal of companies to disarticulate the process. Today, as in the past, many large oil companies do not want to hire their own laborers, thereby absolving themselves of direct responsibility for worker welfare. Instead, these companies work with subcontractors who in turn work with agents based in India to find workers there. This form of disarticulation combines with laborers’ own selective affinities. As I seek to illustrate, given the ways in which labor circulates in the Arabian Sea, workers are central to, but not necessarily bound by, the oil industry and state. My analysis deprioritizes industrial needs. Instead, it focuses on how workers move, noting both the constraints on and possibilities of that movement.

As I conducted archival work and listened to oral histories, I developed an appreciation of the endurance of institutions that move labor and the historic depth of the multiple groups that participate in moving labor from India to the Gulf’s oil projects. 31 Participants build networks as they circulate in the Arabian Sea, and communities are formed through the process of migration.32 These communities at times include laborers and other Indian migrants to the Gulf; small business owners in India; Indian bureaucrats; khalījīs, or Gulf Arabs; and oil company managers.

Through analyzing contemporary labor policies within multiple genealogies, we find that government officials and company managers built on colonial labor mobilities in order to staff oil projects. Workers also informed the process of labor migration. Historically, from the strikes by Indians in the oil fields to the restructuring of emigration laws, Indian laborers and lawmakers have attempted to exert control over labor conditions at Gulf oil projects. Likewise, the strikes and political activities of khalījī workers have also been influential moments in the shaping labor policies in the Gulf. These moments were further affected by the activities of merchants, oil companies, and the British administration in the Gulf. Today, the result of all these combined factors can be seen in the contemporary kafala, or sponsorship, system in which workers have limited means to negotiate their working conditions.33

In exploring oil production as a social process, historical and contemporary affiliations and circulations emerge as central features of contemporary migration. Many migrants stress the importance of local affiliations and build networks that rely on their natal village. These affiliations represent a highly localized aspect of social lives that workers often maintain as they move from their natal villages to the Gulf.34 These relationships inform the specificity of oil production in the Arabian Sea. In turn, migration and oil have and continue to influence regimes of citizenship, politics, and family life in India and the Gulf. In considering the formation of communities by circulation, I attend to migrants’ and their networks’ dynamic capacities to form and reform communities, states, and regions. A focus on the process of migration destabilizes a focus on both the individual and the nation-state in favor of examining transnational networks of diverse actors.35 Thus, the order of oil production in the Arabian Sea is brought into being by the relationships developed by actors.


My interest in Indian migration to the Gulf began in 2006 when I was living in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. In the fall of that year, I took a trip to Beirut, Lebanon, that required a long layover in Dubai, UAE. Unfamiliar with the city, I decided to use the time to visit the Mall of the Emirates, as one of my Urdu teachers in Lucknow had asked for a picture of the ski slope inside the mall. Outside the airport, I followed the signs for local transportation and found a line of waiting taxis. Entering a taxi, I asked the driver, in Arabic, to take me to the mall. In response, he shook his head and indicated that he did not speak Arabic. As I watched the taxi’s meter tick upward, I asked the driver, in English, to take me to the mall. Once again, he shook his head, telling me, this time in English, that he could not understand my English. After repeating my request in English and Arabic again, I was unsure of how to proceed, and I began to feel nervous. At the time, I was on a modest fellowship for language study in India. My stipend was paid in rupees and calculated for Lucknow’s low cost of living. The taxi driver and I stared at each other, the meter continued to climb, and I could see my monthly stipend for food and other necessities rapidly disappearing as each minute increased the cost of the taxi ride. Finally, I repeated my request to the taxi driver, but this time in Hindi, hoping that he would understand.

As I finished my sentence, the driver looked taken aback. “Madame,” he asked, “how do you know Hindi?” I replied that I lived in Lucknow and studied Urdu and Hindi at a school there. My answer further surprised him, and he exclaimed that he was from a village near Lucknow. He then began to call his friends who worked in Dubai but were also from Uttar Pradesh. He told them that he had a White woman in his taxi—an American White woman who was now living in India and could speak Hindi. During the calls, I spoke Hindi when asked so as to prove to the driver’s friends the validity of his claims. Eventually we decided that I would not go to the mall, and instead, I went to a tea stall where I met a group of men, all from villages in Uttar Pradesh who worked in Dubai as taxi drivers. Thus, my long layover shifted from looking at a ski slope in the desert to a day spent talking with Indian taxi drivers, learning about their lives, and hearing their reasons for working in the Gulf. It also shifted my focus from how communities are formed within India to how communities are formed as people move from India to the Gulf and back again.

Before that day, I was not aware of the large number of Indians working in the Gulf, but I quickly became interested in the approximately 1 million Indian men who travel annually to work as laborers in the Gulf. When I returned to Lucknow after my trip, I visited with some of the families of the taxi drivers I met that day and listened to the experiences of individuals whose children, husband, and/or fathers work in the Gulf. Often families reflected on the physical absence of their sons or husbands. Many also pointed to gifts brought home by migrants and items purchased with money sent by migrants, indicating ways in which the person, despite living far away, remained a presence in their daily lives. These gifts were sent because of affection and duty, and prospective migrants are warned, often through ghost stories, that forgetting one’s familial obligations could lead to death or disaster.36

As I conducted research, I learned that dreams and ghosts are terms that migrants themselves invoke to explain and situate their migration. Throughout this book, I examine the poetics of ghosts and dreams and how they are used by migrants, as well as by other participants in labor migration to the Gulf.37 I find that future visions often emerge in dreams: dreams of modernity, material comfort, and expanding capitalist frontiers. These dreams build on past narratives, which my interlocutors most often discuss as traditions, obligations, or histories. Ghosts appear as reminders of the past; they shape contemporary practices and disrupt the present.38

Ghosts and dreams thus work as entry points for understanding contemporary capitalism, states, and labor. Often migrants invoke poetics to describe situations such as losing one’s small farm (dispossession) or working on oil projects far from their homes (alienation). These poetics emerge at times in unexpected metaphors, such as describing a rig as a Hindu temple or describing gold as a substance, like blood, that shapes kinship relations. Migrants use poetics to resist, critique, or refuse state and corporate power, and in doing so, they provide alternative perspectives on social relations and the future.39 Other poetics are also invoked by my interlocutors, including recruiting agents’ reference to mangoes and migrants and oil company managers’ describing oil as the devil. An ethnographic view of Indian labor migration and the poetics invoked provide insight into migration’s temporal contexts—ways people make sense of their everyday lives and temporally locate themselves between the past and the future.

My analysis of the poetics that my interlocuters use builds on anthro/historical work that critically interrogates both disciplinary boundaries and the politics of knowledge production. The insights provided by this perspective contribute in many ways to this book; I examine the formation of categories, ideas, and processes in order to understand how the practices of those involved in labor migration changed over time and consider the weight of previous practices, categories, and ideas in the present.40 In order to do this, I put ethnographic research into dialogue with archival research, oral histories, and social media. These sources lend perspectives on the history of Indian labor migration to the Gulf and emphasize the multiplicity of ways in which migrants, agents, and oil company managers engaged with and shaped migration in the past. What emerges are the enduring power of institutions and ideologies, even as the words used to describe them change. In addition, anthro/history helps move laborers to the center of my research and decenters state narratives.41 This approach illuminates how laws and practices that are often defined as precapitalist are actually formed in conjunction with contemporary state and corporate policies. It also demonstrates how capitalism incorporates noncapitalist social relations and values into its reproduction and how diverse actors expand and develop capitalism.42


This book follows the process of migration—from villages to oil projects and back again—and all parties involved in this process—from migrants to corporations. In Part I, I look at how individuals migrate. I consider how the process of migration allow us to see how corporate practices, government policies, and international discourses have an impact on specific localities and communities. In turn, an ethnographic approach to migration highlights how migrants shape the institutionalization of these policies and practices. Chapter 1 examines how colonial laws and colonial capitalism shaped Indian migration historically. It then considers the Indian government’s contemporary attempts to liberalize emigration and the ways in which liberalization reinforces colonial assumptions concerning rights and liberties. The result is that Indian citizens are unevenly affected by emigration regulations. In Chapter 2, I explore how recruiting agents and Indian government officials understand emigration regulations to not only protect vulnerable workers but to also protect India’s brand image abroad. In Indian business and government engagement with India’s brand, migrant labor is differentiated from other export commodities because migrants are seen as uniquely able to transform themselves into higher-quality commodities through training in Indian entrepreneurship. Chapter 3 then looks at how migrants, low-level government bureaucrats, recruiting agency employees (most of whom, like Deepak, previously worked in the Gulf), and oil company managers create networks. As they do so, prospective migrants often work in the spaces between government and business policies, mining moments of disjuncture for opportunities to elude or expedite formal channels. In these spaces, migrants both inform and negotiate the processes that are meant to structure their movement.

As migrants travel, they, like Ahmed, describe their migration as a way to “live the dream” and “be a good son.” Ghost stories circulate among migrants regarding those who fail to fulfill their obligations. In this context of dreams and ghosts, workers are making sense of their migration through situating it as meaningful to their families, their communities, and their country. In Part II, I consider two contexts in which migrants and their families explain the importance of migration. Chapter 4 examines the relationship between kinship and labor migration. In particular, it looks at how migrating to the Gulf offers men the possibility of buying gold for their daughters’ or sisters’ weddings, thereby fulfilling their familial obligations and enacting their masculinity. Chapter 5 looks at migrants’ approaches to modernity and the future. In this analysis, migrants use European and American company practices to critique contemporary Indian development plans—plans that exclude minority communities from membership in the nation and its future. Migrants are critical also of American and European practices, and they argue for a future that values obligations and connections, not only with other people, but also with the environment.

Part III attends to the experiences of migrants and demonstrates the ways in which colonial capitalism, imperialism, and corporate practices structure the contemporary racialized labor hierarchies that are prevalent in the Gulf. It examines how historic and contemporary practices used to manage labor migration produce and reinforce these hierarchies and workers’ limited rights. This analysis argues that the poor working conditions that workers experience in the Gulf cannot be simply attributed to Gulf Arab traditions or the negative impact of oil rents on states. Chapter 6 demonstrates that current labor conditions are shaped by oil company management techniques and international discourses that tie oil to national security, and the chapter focuses on the role of labor camps as a management tool as well as a space of precarity. In Chapter 7, I examine how contracting between companies allows companies to displace corporate risk, usually onto the most vulnerable. Safety protocols, in particular, are used to facilitate both contracting and to displace corporate liability. Safety is also actively engaged with by workers, and they reframe safety as part of their own moral order. The Conclusion examines how returned workers focus on corporate or state obligations as they plan community activism in their attempts to hold state and corporate actors accountable, and it explores stories that workers tell in which ghosts emerge when employers treat employees poorly or when employers do not fulfill their contractual obligations.


1. All names used for companies, corporations, and individuals are pseudonyms. While I try to use pseudonyms that are representative of an individual’s nationality, religion, and caste, my first priority in choosing names is to ensure the anonymity of all participants. The exception is that real names are used for public figures when speaking in their official capacity.

2. Depending on one’s perspective, one prefers to call this area either the Arabian Gulf or the Persian Gulf. While certainly important, the politics of naming this area fall outside the scope of this book, and I use the term the Gulf throughout the book.

3. In the villages to which we were traveling, the majority of people worked on small farms of less than two acres. As in India overall, the majority of farmers in these states were in debt, often to moneylenders who charge high interest rates. See Mamgain and Verick 2017; NSS 2014; PLFS 2019.

4. I capitalize White when it is used to reference race according to the recommendations set forward by the National Association of Black Journalists in June 2020: “NABJ also recommends that whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized, including White and Brown.”

5. In India, a pucca house is contrasted with a katcha house, made of mud, thatch, or other low-quality materials. The preference is for a pucca house. Deepak did not hire Ahmed on behalf of Mancom’s client on the day we met, but Ahmed continued to look for a job in the Gulf. A few months after our first meeting, Ahmed called to tell me he found a job working as a laborer in the United Arab Emirates.

6. MEA 2018.

7. Saudi Arabia has the most noncitizen residents living there, but also the largest overall population. In 2004, foreign residents made up 27 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population and, in 2008, 50 percent of the workforce. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Qatar had the largest percentage of expatriates living and working in the state. In 2006, noncitizens were 81 percent of the population and 92 percent of the workforce. In 2007, they were approximately 80 percent of Dubai’s population, and Indians were the largest expatriate community in the emirate. See Pasha 1999; Leonard 2007; Colton 2010; Winckler 2010; Castles, de Haas, and Miller 2013; McGinley 2013.

8. Other categories used by the Indian government include skilled and professional workers—a category that includes doctors, engineers, and bank managers; service workers; trade and business migrants or migrants who start their own businesses abroad; and nontechnical workers, including schoolteachers, typists, and clerks. See Rahman 2001; Rajan, Varghese, and Jayakumar 2010.

9. I use the phrase “oil industry” to refer to the extraction of oil and natural gas and all aspects of production, including the upstream search for oil and gas, the building of oil and gas refineries, and the downstream refining of oil and gas. I focus on oil and gas because of the significance of the oil industry, historically and today, for Indian migration to the Gulf; the symbolic power of oil; and the multiplicity of actors among whom oil production requires coordination.

10. I learned later that the particularly large machine components are used in natural gas pipelines. One use of the giant chains is for anchoring offshore oil rigs.

11. OPEC 2020, 7. One could fill 6,337 Olympic-sized swimming pools with 99.67 million barrels of oil and still have some left over.

12. IOGP 2020, 8.

13. Anthropologists point to scarcity as a social construct. See, for example, Sahlins 1972. For a discussion of nature and capitalism, see Fernando Coronil 1997.

14. See OPEC 2020 for current oil numbers, which are given in the discourse of “proven reserves.”

15. As Timothy Mitchell’s (2011, 173–199) analysis of the oil crisis in the 1970s demonstrates, this economic model of scarcity and surplus obscures the political and social factors that shape oil prices.

16. Elizabeth Ferry and Mandana Limbert (2009, 3) highlight the importance of labor (as well as time and nature) in resource production. They write, “Nature, labor, and time converge, as people and states create and contest resources—objects and substances produced from ‘nature’ for human enrichment and use.”

17. Ten lakh is 1 million. A lakh equals 100,000.

18. Indian Emigration Act 1922—Considerations of to extend its provisions to journeys by AIR and LAND—unaccompanied domestic servants, etc. NAI, MEA, Emigration, 1954. F. 17–6/54-Emi.

19. Skilled workers engaged by the Bahrein Petroleum Co., Bahrein and Revision of Form of agreement entered into between Bahrein Petroleum Co. NAI, MEA, Emigration, 1948. F. 22–8/48-Emi; Iraq’s Request for helping them in their Oil Industry—Note from the Ministry of Mines and Fuel. NAI, MEA, WANA section, 1960. 6-C(34)/60WANA.

20. Letter to Ghatge from Sinclair, 14 January 1954. NAI, MEA, Emigration, 1953. F.6–6/53-Emi.

21. Tsing 2005.

22. Hanieh 2011, 2014.

23. For more on the invisibility of oil workers due to corporate structuring, see Ehsani 2018. For the impact of economic policies on labor in the Gulf, see Hanieh 2011, 2014.

24. Tsing 2015, 2016.

25. For examples of anthropological work on migration that critiques these models, see Holmes 2013; Albahari 2015; De León 2015.

26. Like Ahmed, migrants indicate that their work abroad is not fully explicable as a simple economic calculus. Indian labor migration to the Gulf may be motivated by gendered kinship obligations; positive attitudes toward migration that raise the status of those who migrate; religious narratives linking the Middle East with a supposedly purer Islam; discrimination and violence in India against Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities; and recruiting processes that may rely on workers’ personal networks. See also Hansen 2001; Ali 2007; Leonard 2007; Gardner 2012; Wright 2015.

27. Regarding the scale of the oil industry, LeMenager (2014, 94) writes that this scale is “not calibrated to human values—made possible by representational sleights of hand in which racialized bodies, and labor itself, might be occluded through a mediated visibility.”

28. In his book, anthropologist Syed Ali describes his detainment by police and deportation from Dubai due to his research on migrant labor. See Ali 2010, x.

29. My gender, race, and nationality influenced my research. My status as an American White woman allowed me to work in spaces that Indian women are often discouraged from entering. In addition, being a White American conveyed a privilege that allowed me to occupy spaces that Indian migrant laborers are often barred from entering. The recruiting agents and oil company managers with whom I work are also significantly wealthier than I will ever be. For example, in contrast to my crushing student loan debt, many recruiting agents and oil company managers are able to pay for, without taking on debt, their children’s Ivy League educations and own homes in multiple countries.

30. As Laura Nader (1972, 289) famously argued, “Studying ‘up’ as well as ‘down’ would lead [anthropologists] to ask many ‘common sense’ questions in reverse.”

31. Archival work for this project was conducted at the National Archive of India, the Maharashtra State Archives, the Qatar National Archives, the UAE National Archives, the archive at the Petroleum Institute of Abu Dhabi and the British Library.

32. In his work on the Hydrami diaspora in the Indian Ocean, Engseng Ho (2006, 121–122) explores how the Indian Ocean as a region is formed by the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Ho follows the movements of goods and people. These circulating actors may travel on the same ships in the Indian Ocean, but they are imbricated in “social geographies of different shapes.” Different social geographies, and the hierarchies contained within them, allowed for actors to begin from multiple starting points and end in a multitude of destinations.

33. There are relatively few Gulf Arabs in this book. This is not to ignore their contributions to and participation in the Gulf’s oil industry. Rather, my access to research sites directly affected what nationalities and communities are present in this book. Regarding contemporary labor, Danya al-Saleh is conducting fascinating research on Qatari women working as engineers in the Gulf’s oil industry. For my own historic work about strikes by Indian, Persian, and Gulf Arabs working in the oil industry, see Wright 2020a, 2021, n.d.

34. My focus on the highly localized aspects of social lives extends Farina Mir’s (2010) work on qisse, a Punjabi literary genre. Her analysis of this literary genre during the British colonial period provides insights into how communities are imagined and maintained through a poetics of belonging that is not reducible to nationalist or communal politics.

35. Attention to the networks that shape transnational labor migration helps destabilize the central role of the nation-state in studies of labor. A focus on transnational migration illuminates how laborers build solidarities and how laborers working outside national borders inform the policies of the nation-state. Much like studies that highlight the histories of colonialism and new nations through examining the movements of goods and people on the Indian Ocean (Metcalf 2008; Bose 2009), I argue that the migration of Indians to the oil fields of the Gulf shaped the postcolonial history of India. This engagement with networks differs from earlier anthropological engagement with social networks that used networks to get out of the bounded nature of communities. That use of networks, by J. Clyde Mitchell, Jeremy Boissevain, and J. A. Barnes, among others, took Max Gluckman’s attention to situations and importantly tried to attend to both individual agency and structural forces. Unlike the metaphorical use of networks by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1952), the use of networks in this case was analytical. As such, networks are understood to explain relationships within and between groups but are not subsumed to structural forces. Networks, then, allowed researchers to explain the interactions they observed. In addition, the use of networks, Mitchell argued, would help anthropologists overcome the community boundedness of their research. See Mitchell 1969; Boissevain 1974; Kapferer 2006.

36. Some of the taxi drivers I met on that first visit still work in the Gulf—one drives a taxi, a few are now retired, others passed away, and others I lost touch with.

37. Poetics are speech functions that are discursively creative and represent relations; speakers use poetics to create equivalencies. See Peirce 1932; Jakobson 1960; Lempert 2008; Silverstein 2011; Bielo 2019. Poetics, as the work by Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1987) demonstrates, may also be used by individuals to critically interrogate their circumstances. Through the deployment of poetics, communities both represent themselves and present contrasts that shape people’s understandings of their past. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx (1994) explains the need for social revolutionaries to draw their poetry from the future. Fernando Coronil (2019) takes up Marx’s call and argues for anthro/history as a space for imagining new futures. Poetics are not only ways to create new futures; they are also useful as methodological tools. Scholars have examined the poetic tropes that inform work in fields such as history (White 1973), gender studies (Mohanty 1988, 2003), and anthropology (Trouillot 1991a, 1991b). These examinations focus on how the politics of knowledge production is situated into existing power structures through the poetic devices of metaphor, metonym, synecdoche, and irony.

38. Derrida 1994.

39. Audra Simpson’s (2014, 2017) work informs my engagement with refusal as both an object of analysis and as a method. Simpson writes, “Refusal’ rather than recognition is an option for producing and maintaining alternative structures of thought, politics and traditions away from and in critical relationship to states” (2017, 19). As Franz Fanon (2004) demonstrates, this requires abandoning colonial histories, rejecting European models of development, and actively creating new futures. Achille Mbembe (2021, 224) takes up Fanon to explain how decolonization’s “aim was a radical metamorphosis of relations. The ex-colonized would … create their own time, all the while constructing the time of the world. On the loam of their traditions and their imaginaries.” My thinking with and through refusal, poetics, ghosts, and dreams is also informed by Aimé Césaire’s (1996a, 1996b) work on poetry and its possibilities; Édouard Glissant’s (1997) work on the transformative power of “relational poetics”; Robin D. G. Kelley’s (2003) insights on the imagination, dreams, and the future; and Tiana Reed’s (2018) article on poetry as criticism.

40. See, Cohn 1980; Amin 1995; Cohen 1996; Stoler 2002, 2010; Murphy et al. 2011; Coronil 2019.

41. Chakrabarty 2000; Eley 2006; Palmié and Stewart 2016.

42. Mitchell 2002, 53; Tsing 2015.