“As a little kid, I would have other kids call me ‘abd (slave), or say that I wasn’t a real Kuwaiti,” says AlMoataz. “Kids would make fun of me for my curly hair and call me names like falafel-head or broom-head. As we got older and the kids started to take in more American media, the name-calling changed and the kids started calling me variations of the N-word.”
Born to a Black Sudanese mother and Black Kuwaiti father, AlMoataz’s story is all too familiar for Black and Afro-Arab Gulf nationals. “I’ve also been rejected by people because of my skin tone. One girl told me her parents would not be okay with me because I am a Black man. Being stripped of all your qualities and saying you aren’t worth it or people don’t want you around because of the colour of your skin really hurts.”
Race is a complicated issue the world over, but when it comes to the Arab world, and particularly the Gulf, the multiple socio-political, cultural, tribal, and national layers that make up the notions of identity and belonging add unique dimensions to Black experiences, coloured as it is by muddled notions of indigeneity, ‘nativeness,’ and contested histories. “The Arab world itself is by no means a monolith. To think that Afro-Arabs in the Gulf are in the same position as Black Egyptians, Tunisians, or Moroccans would be juvenile at best, intentionally obtuse at worst,” wrote Scene Arabia's Bahira Amin in this piece on Arab anti-Blackness.
“Baqaya hajjaj” is a phrase that M. hears often. It translates to ‘leftover pilgrims’—a demeaning way to describe Saudi nations that physically appear to have origins from outside of the so-called traditional tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.
The uniqueness of the Black Gulf Arab or Afro-Arab experience is a result of the specific—and rapidly changing—history of what is known as ‘the Gulf.’ Often thought of as a region composed entirely of tribal, Bedouin society, “the history of the Arabian Peninsula is inextricably linked to the African continent and African history,” explains Faisal Abualhassan, a Saudi doctoral candidate at The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he specialises in Afro-Arab transnational histories of the French Empire.
“Be it links to North Africa, the Sahara, the Sahel, the Horn, West Africa, East Africa, or the Congo…populations from the Arabian Peninsula and those from the African continent have crossed, migrated, and mixed both within and outside the institution of slavery for thousands of years. In many places and communities, it would be difficult to even distinguish who is ‘African’ from who is ‘Arabian’.”
However, it is perhaps the all-too-often forgotten (or some might say hidden) history of slavery in the Arabian Peninsula that goes on to define the Afro-Arab experience; where the words for ‘slave’ and ‘Black’ are used interchangeably, yet someone—like AlMoataz and many others like him—can be both a citizen, with all of the political privilege of that status, and a victim of institutional and social racism, where the perpetrators are often blissfully unaware of their act.
African slaves on the Indian Ocean passage, 1868.
As Abualhassan explains in a piece published (in Arabic) by Thmanyah, migration from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula—forced or otherwise—has happened for centuries. However, there is a clear increase in forced migration, kidnapping, and slavery in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century (Matthew S. Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015] & Benjamin S. Reilly, Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula [Athens, Oh.: Ohio University Press, 2015]).
Many of these enslaved Africans were forced to work in the region’s then-prosperous date palm cultivation and pearl diving industries which connected the Arabian Peninsula to the global economy, during a time when the Atlantic slave trade was gradually decreasing, spurring human traffickers to instead look East. It is important to reiterate that not all those with African ancestry in the Arabian Peninsula came there as a result of slavery, but to not ignore the fact that up to 800,000 Africans were trafficked into the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The forces of globalisation that had initially aided the Arabian Peninsula’s booming date palm and natural pearl industries that exported their products across the world would soon become the very same forces that led to the quick collapse of those industries and, in turn, decreasing the demand for slave labour.
Populations from the Arabian Peninsula and the African continent have crossed, migrated, and mixed both within and outside the institution of slavery for thousands of years. In many places and communities, it would be difficult to even distinguish who is ‘African’ from who is ‘Arabian’.
In 1902, the United States Department of Agriculture sent an agent to the Arabian Peninsula to source palm tree offshoots that could be planted in California in an attempt to begin a local, American palm date industry. Travelling between Muscat, the Semail Valley, Basra, and Baghdad, the agriculture explorer was indeed successful, as many of the plants he sourced ended up flourishing in the now-infamous Coachella Valley. Subsequent trips by Americans to the Arabian Gulf would effectively put an end to the date export industry as the States quickly developed the capacity to produce their own (Matthew S. Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015).
Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, the Gulf pearl industry was more valuable than all other pearl sectors across the world combined. Though many pearl divers were non-Black Arabs (of varying geographical and ethnic descent) who had lived in the Arabian Peninsula for generations—many too were slaves, and the drive for more profit in the lucrative industry is said to have increased demand for slaves. However, in another twist of global fate, Japanese scientists began the development of cultured pearls which were created in a lab instead of fished from the depths of the sea, quickly and catastrophically sinking the Gulf industry as the once-valuable stones became easily produced and cheaply sold.
By the Great Depression, both the pearl and palm industries which prospered through export had effectively ground to a halt. “The enslavers and their enslaved, or former enslaved dependents, were all more or less reduced to similar economic status. What was different was that these groups, who were connected in some quasi-kinship, were unequal socially,” explains Abualhassan. “There was also the system of wilayah, under which Islamic scholars and local rulers and judges used to enforce social and deferential clientele-ship or relationship between the descendants of enslaved people and their former enslavers and their descendants: the descendants of the enslaved needed to pray behind the family of their former enslavers, perform at their weddings and work in their homes for wages or favour. And in return, the descendants of the enslaving family needed to provide them with social protection, employment, or lodging.”
Pearl divers in the UAE.
Though slavery would later be formally abolished across the region in the 1960s and 70s, the dynamic between the so-called native Arabs and the now-naturalised Black citizens of African or mixed descent would—by many accounts—remain unfair, discriminatory, and engrained in both the lexicon and social structures that live on today.
“The local, indigenous Black population is mostly looked at as only good for drumming and dancing,” says Al Mansi, a Black Arab born and raised in Kuwait. “These are not necessarily vocal opinions that are stated towards them, but rather jokes directed at them. Yet they carry a connotation and implication.”
This is echoed by M., a Black Saudi man: “There are three main stereotypes: firstly, that Black people are funny, so it’s okay to make fun of them. Secondly, that they are good at dancing, and many still seek Black dancers to perform at weddings—if you are Black and are not a good dancer, they will bully you. Finally, that we are good at sports.”
Not all those with African ancestry in the Arabian Peninsula came there as a result of slavery, but up to 800,000 Africans were trafficked into the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The slave trade has strongly influenced the way the Gulf views Black people today; despite ending slave ownership, the inherently racist system still stands,” says Reem, a 25-year old Black Arab, born to an Emirati father and a Tanzanian mother. “Also, looking at the Arabic language, especially in the Gulf, the vocabulary is inherently racist. Several times at work and in my private life, I encounter people that question my ‘Black and Proud’ motto by saying, ‘You aren’t that Black; don’t say that about yourself.’ Black is automatically synonymous with all things negative in the Gulf.”
To understand the nuanced experience of being both Black and khaleeji, one must also understand the various geopolitical developments that unfolded in the early-to-mid 20th century. As a result of Western interests in the region – both economic and political as the British and French sought to disassemble the Ottoman Empire – as well as the discovery of oil in the early 1900s, local leaders began to think differently about the land they had previously roamed, and the concept of borders and the nation state began to transform the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to this period, allegiance was almost exclusively to one’s tribe, but over the course of just a few decades, these newly formed nation states gave way to the concept of nationality.
While the various ‘new’ countries rolled out nationality to their inhabitants at various times and tempos, they mostly had similar requirements, primarily that nationality can only be granted to those who can prove they’ve lived or were born on that land during a specific time period and have continued to live there for a certain amount of years.
Many Black people in the Peninsula, whether they had arrived forcibly or by choice, were thus eligible: equal to any other shade of skin that held the same national ID card in the eyes of the law, yet—in an all too common phenomenon—still too different to be ‘one of us.’ This conditional inclusion of different identities is not unique to the Gulf, but here takes on the impression of an open secret, where no one wants to dredge up this particular past.
“This all goes back to the quasi-kinship/quasi-clientele situation I described earlier that seems to have emerged after the financial ruin of many, and before emancipation. What makes this difficult to discuss is the intimate and almost familial nature—and family memories—that these discussions evoke,” says Abualhassan.
“Baqaya hajjaj” is a phrase that M. hears often. It translates to ‘leftover pilgrims’—a demeaning way to describe Saudi nationals that physically appear to have origins from outside of the so-called traditional tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. “These phrases become a part of your life,” he says of his own experience. “Sometimes you get yourself in a fight, sometimes you run as fast as you can from the abusers, and sometimes you just ignore it and pretend you didn’t hear anything.”
My father worked in the Air Force. He had to change our last name from Fallatah to an Arabic name in order to get a promotion.
M.’s family originated from West Africa, and made the move to what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia more than 80 years ago. “My father worked in the Air Force; he has hundreds of stories about the racism he has faced throughout his career. He had to change our last name from Fallatah to an Arabic name in order to get a promotion.”
“In general, the number of Black people who are in high profile jobs is quite limited, and they don’t usually speak up, so it’s hard to learn about their experience. There are also fields that are impossible to work in if you are Black. There are no Black judges or Black ministers [in Saudi Arabia], for instance,” he continues.
Reem reiterates this notion, which she sees in play in the UAE: “When you look at the police force, businessmen, and members of official offices, they are all light skin or white Arabs. Despite promoting ‘racial equality,’ there is a very evident lack of representation.”
AlMoataz, a Black Kuwaiti whose experiences opened this article, sees a slightly different—but equally problematic—dynamic appearing in Kuwait. “Dark-skinned and Black people have had prominent roles in politics and business,” he says. “But while that statement is true, those figures would also have really horrible things said about them behind their backs.”
Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Salim Al Sabah, former Emir of Kuwait
The previous Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Salim Al Sabah, who was born to a Black mother, AlMoataz illustrates, “was quite loved by the people. But I would always hear nasty stories about him like how he wasn’t a real member of the ruling family, or how people don’t take him seriously because of the colour of his skin.”
Al Mansi also explains that those with African features suffer systematic racism throughout their lifetimes, always shifting between subtle and overt, but never quite fading away. “In elementary school, it was kids touching my skin and assuming that it would fall off and reveal clean, white skin beneath it. [Later,] it became getting stopped by the police and being forced to have my head shaved because I looked ‘suspicious’ with an afro. I was still a minor at that point,” he recalls.
“Despite sharing the same culture, my skin colour was different, so that automatically ostracised me,” says Reem. “It got to the point where I would be held against the wall by my neck in between classes by these Emirati boys. That was probably why I started hiding the fact that my mother is Tanzanian. Little did I know, my greatest blessing is that I’m from the motherland.”