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One Person’s Expatriate is Another Person’s Economic Migrant

April 5, 2014

I’m currently in Bahrain on business. This weekend we have the Formula 1 Grand Prix. My hotel is overrun by British engineers, technicians and racing fans. Despite the unseasonably cool weather, they congregate at breakfast in their shorts and sleek tee-shirts emblazoned with logos. They spend the meal discussing stuff like torque, power units, fuel consumption and other subjects beloved of petrolheads.

At a table nearby, a couple of bearded guests  in short white thobes – most likely weekend visitors from Saudi Arabia – survey the scene with expressions varying between bemusement and stern disapproval – perhaps exacerbated by the aroma of bacon emanating from one of the hot-plates.

F1 is a travelling circus, brought to Bahrain at considerable cost. It brings with it a flurry of economic activity. Whether the economic boost is worth the price is not for me to say. But my hotel benefits like all the others on the island. When the circus moves on, the 600,000-odd foreign workers will resume their normal daily lives alongside a roughly equal number of locals, and occupancy at my hotel will drop down to normal levels.

Watching the throng of Brits strutting around the buffet caused me to reflect on the polyglot multitudes that have settled in my own country, and our attitude towards them.

For four years Bahrain was my temporary home, as it is for thousands of other Brits, Irish, Americans, Canadians, continental Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and a smattering of people from just about everywhere else in the world. These days I come back and forth from my permanent home in the UK.

Non-Bahrainis frequently refer to themselves as expatriates. Among the British “community” in Bahrain, you will find that the majority of people would describe themselves a conservative with a small C. If you pushed them to say who they would vote for in the next general election I suspect that the majority would go for the Conservatives or the UK Independence Party. The reasons will be primarily economic. Nobody who goes abroad for the money is likely to opt for a party that will tax them until the pips squeak when they finally get home.

I lived in Saudi Arabia in the Eighties, a time when the country boasted a much larger British population than it does today. In those days expatriate was a term reserved for to Westerners, or more specifically people with white skins. The guys who came from poor countries to sweep the streets, climb up buildings and stack the supermarket shelves were bracketed under the rather disparaging term “third country nationals” or TCNs for short. A tinge of racism in a country where just about every ethnic group found a reason to look down on the next group for one reason or another.

While a century ago we British came to the Middle East to run the empire, today we do so for less exalted reasons. We are attracted by the tax-free salaries. Some would say that another reason for fleeing UK is because it is “not what it was”. By that they usually mean that the essential nature of the country is being changed by unfettered immigration. Britain is, they might argue, overrun by Poles, Lithuanians, Albanians, Kurds, Asians of various origins, and currently by a wave of Romanians and Bulgarians.

If they’ve had a few drinks they might describe these people as foreigners, maybe with a few salty qualifying adjectives. On the other hand, if the BBC interviewed them, they might more politely describe them as economic migrants.

So we are expatriates, and they are economic migrants. The first term sounds distinctly grander than the second, doesn’t it? Which is a sublime irony. Because ever since we set about acquiring an empire, we British have been the ultimate economic migrants. Hundreds of thousands of left Britain to “seek our fortunes” abroad. We went to the Americas, the Middle East, the Far East and the Antipodes. In other words, we engaged in wholesale economic migration.

We still go to the Middle East in large numbers. We expect countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to welcome us with open arms because we are Westerners, and by implication more knowledgeable, educated and skilled than the locals. Even when we know that this is not the case, we make no effort to deny our implied superiority. Why would we? It’s hardly in our financial interest to do so.

Right now there are over a million Brits working abroad. And yet we complain when a million foreigners come to our country to work. Have we ever considered the effect that we have had on the countries where we work? Many of our favourite Middle East destinations have been under our political or commercial influence for decades, not to say longer. We would probably say that we are contributing to the development of those countries – making them better places. Really?

Some would argue that thanks to us there are many countries that live under rulers who siphon off for their personal use large proportions of the oil wealth we and the Americans helped them to discover. Their young people are hopelessly conflicted between the seductive freedoms of the West and the socio-religious values that underpin their culture. Like our society, theirs have become venal. Observance passes off as spirituality. Their language is diluted with English words and phrases. Their literary heritage is drying up because less and less people have the patience to read books. Western media determine the vast majority of what they see on TV or in the cinema – assuming they’re allowed to go to the cinema.

While we can’t be held responsible for all the ills of the countries where our footprint landed in the past couple of centuries, it seems to me that Britain has changed many parts of the world far more – and not necessarily for the better – than the current crop of migrants is ever likely to change us.

So aren’t we being just a wee bit hypocritical in railing against the economic migrants who arrive on our shores, the vast majority of whom, contrary to popular belief, wish to find better-paid work rather than gorge themselves on benefits, when thousands of us head for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Australia and the United States for exactly the same reason?

Just a thought…..

For a related post see: To Be or Not to Be….. British

  1. You write in such an easy readable style ….with so much insight. Happy to have subscribed to your work

    • Thank you Dr Mary – you are very kind! I hope you enjoy the site. Steve

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