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Back to Asia? South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula

Political entanglements between Pakistan and Kuwait: the transnational figuration of migration, development and charity

Enchevêtrements politiques entre le Pakistan et le Koweït : la figuration transnationale des migrations, du développement et de la charité
Antía Mato Bouzas


Cet article examine les interactions entre le Pakistan et la région du Golfe avec un accent mis sur une étude de cas des mobilités entre la partie sud du Gilgit-Baltistan (Baltistan), dans le nord-est du Pakistan, et l’État du Koweït. S’éloignant des approches étatiques, cette étude examine une situation transnationale formée par des migrants et des chefs religieux du Baltistan et des membres de la classe marchande koweïtienne comme moyen de mieux comprendre cet engagement transnational et son caractère transformateur, principalement pour le Baltistan mais aussi pour le Koweït. Gilgit-Baltistan est un territoire contesté et la présence de l’État est marginale. L’absence relative de l’État crée une situation dans laquelle les gens ressentent le besoin de se débrouiller seuls. Dans ce contexte, le développement étranger et le travail caritatif peuvent devenir une source d’autonomisation. Le Golfe, et concrètement, le Koweït exerce une influence au Baltistan à travers la migration, le développement et le travail caritatif.

L’étude de cette situation transnationale montre comment les normes sociales (en termes de culture politique), le statut, le pouvoir et le capital social aident à façonner la politique dans cette région du nord-est du Pakistan. Indirectement, cette situation révèle le rôle relativement influent exercé par le Golfe et, dans ce cas, le Koweït, dans d’autres régions par une diplomatie d’influence basée sur le développement et le travail caritatif, mais qui a des résultats au niveau de l’autonomisation politique de cette zone frontalière du Pakistan. Il montre également que cette activité « étrangère » des acteurs koweïtiens répond à des formes de recherche d’autonomisation politique au pays.

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  • 1 This is an estimate by taking into account the gaps in data collection from different sources. For (...)

1Interactions between Pakistan and the Gulf Arab states are strongly shaped by migration processes which have contributed to nation building in the two territories. Pakistan’s labour mobility to the Gulf began with the development of the oil industry in the Arab Peninsula in the first decades of the twentieth century, but the large scale of migration occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (Gardezi 1995; Addleton 1992). These decades coincided with the period of post-independence and the consolidation of the state in most of the Gulf countries, with a significant focus on economic development through the establishment of a welfare system. For Pakistan, however, this was a period of relative economic crisis due to the failure of the industrialisation process initiated by Ayub Khan, the war that led to the secession of Pakistan’s eastern wing (today’s Bangladesh), and the mixed results of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policies of nationalisation that ultimately ousted him from power in a coup that marked the return of the country to a dictatorship through the figure of Zia ul Haq. Pakistanis are among the largest South Asian groups, around four million at present in 2022,1 that form a stable foreign population in the Gulf.

2Migration alone, however, cannot appropriately explain the transnational activity which takes place between the two countries, because migration occurs within a broader context of continuous historical, economic and cultural exchanges that also need to be considered. In other words, the transnational activity is not as much defined by the result of interactions between states as a continuation of mobilities that precede nation-state formation. Moreover, the main actors who move back and forth between the Gulf and Pakistan are mainly the large numbers of Pakistani unskilled and semiskilled male workers, and their activities cannot be understood without the involvement of other actors who have economic and social capital.

3This article addresses interactions between Pakistan and the Gulf by focusing on a transnational figuration formed by, among others, migrants and religious leaders from Baltistan, a disputed territory in north-eastern Pakistan administratively known as part of Gilgit-Baltistan, and members of the Kuwaiti merchant class who support development in Baltistan. This case study may not be representative in terms of the number of actors or the volume of interactions involved, but it certainly reveals a dimension of interstate politics that cannot be addressed by classical state approaches. Migration is approached as a phenomenon that takes place as part of large structures that shape relations between Pakistan and the Gulf. The notion of transnational figuration is employed because on the one hand, it grasps a spatial dimension across states, as transnational spaces, which is the result of a density of long-term interactions, similar to the sociological concept of transnational space (Faist 2004). On the other hand, the concept of figuration, as defined by Norbert Elias, stresses the importance of the structures formed by mutually dependent actors that allow to examine issues of power and informal established norms (Elias 1978). Through the study of this transnational figuration, it is possible to understand Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf region that cannot be grasped by mainstream interstate analyses. Hence, the main question addressed in this article is about the political significance of such transnational engagement, specifically in relation to the political context of Gilgit-Baltistan and the influence that Kuwait, and more generally the Gulf, exercises in other regions.

4The involvement of the Gulf region, broadly speaking, in Baltistan can be traced in two main domains: migration (remittances and the Gulf experience for migrants and their families) and charity work (religious trusts that run several institutions for the needy and welfare programmes, and NGOs). There is significant migration from the border areas near the Line of Control (known as LoC, the disputed border that divides India and Pakistan-administered territories part of the Kashmir dispute) in Baltistan to the Gulf, mainly to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and there are Kuwaiti donors—whose names have not always been disclosed to the researcher— in several charity and development projects in Baltistan. Field research discussed in this article was carried out in Baltistan between 2009 and 2021, and consisted of five visits lasting between three weeks to one and half months each. In addition, fieldwork was carried out in Kuwait (including visits to other Gulf states) in 2018 and 2019 for a total of two months in order to collect data on migration from Baltistan and explore the relationship between migration and charity and development. The aim was to understand the potential political dimension of this relationship and its impact on Baltistan. A meso-level approach was followed to gather empirical evidence emerging from the study of this transnational space which is at the same informed by broad political developments in Pakistan and in the Gulf.

  • 2 Interviews in Kuwait, in 2018 and 2019, with migrants from Baltistan included 17 individual intervi (...)

5Fieldwork in Baltistan and in Kuwait consisted in interviews and conversations with migrants, whom I initially approached through my networks and acquaintances, and later through their own migrant community.2 Sometimes migrants in Kuwait were reluctant that I took notes and therefore I simply asked questions and listened to their answers, which later I would recall in a diary. Interviews often involved general questions about the migrants’ backgrounds, why and how they migrated to Kuwait, the years spent in the country, their activities during the free time there, and their future plans, among others. I also participated in activities of Baltistan’s migrant community in Kuwait, apart from meeting a few Kuwaitis involved in development activities in Baltistan. There are around 1,300-1,500 migrants from Baltistan in Kuwait, mostly non-skilled and semi-skilled workers. My interviewees and conversation partners were all men and the majority were in their mid-ages. The majority had basic education with no specific training in Pakistan, although the younger migrants (men under mid-thirties) had generally acquired some specific skills (in plumbing, in accounting, etc.) that made possible access to relatively better jobs. Three responders had university education, BA level, and unlike the others, they were planning, on their return to Pakistan, not to go back to Baltistan but instead to settle in Karachi. Other people, except for migrants, with whom I spoke to in Baltistan and in Kuwait such as NGO workers, members of charity organisations and bureaucrats in the regional administration had generally higher education.

6For purposes of analysis, the article is structured as follows. The first section discusses the political context of Baltistan, part of the autonomous territory of Gilgit-Baltistan to contextualise the transnational engagement. Then, the second section moves to examine the origins of this transnational figuration and unfolds Baltistan’s various connections to the Gulf in the field of labour, religion and development. The third section addresses the Kuwaiti dimension of this transnational engagement that has a focus on humanitarianism. Finally, the fourth session enlarges the discussion to grasp the role of Kuwait as a meeting place for the divided communities of Baltistan and Kargil, on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

The importance of the political context of Gilgit-Baltistan

7Gilgit-Baltistan is a peripheral territory in northern Pakistan, although it is at the epicentre of important world security issues such as the Kashmir dispute and China’s economic expansionism. The disputed character of the area is expressed in the possibility of confrontation between the Indian and Pakistani armies. Moreover, China’s agreement with the Government of Pakistan under the CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor), which is part of the broader China’s Belt and Road Initiative, implies an infrastructural cooperation that affects this territory (on China’s megaprojects in Pakistan see Jamali 2013, also Kreutzmann 2020). Interestingly, the Gulf is marginally mentioned in the geopolitics of Gilgit-Baltistan, except for when it is linked to religious issues of Shia-Sunni sectarianism affecting this territory (Nars 2007; Shaikh 2009; Brandt 2021; Mato Bouzas 2021).

8Gilgit-Baltistan is a high-mountain region, scarcely populated, and culturally and socially diverse in a way that challenges Pakistan’s homogenising nation-building processes. Politics of Gilgit-Baltistan have tied since the independence of Pakistan to the Kashmir dispute and, until this conflict is not solved, the government of Pakistan addresses the needs of the population by running a minimal administration. Although the Pakistani state has tried over the years to gradually bring the region within a similar administrative system in line with the rest of the Pakistani provinces, the region is still at present in early 2023 defined as a self-autonomous territory. The study of politics of Gilgit-Baltistan normally centres around issues of peripheralisation and marginalisation, and yet also as a centre of many activities (e.g., sectarianism, Chinese modernising projects, etc.), including geopolitical conspiracies such as the hypothetical Chinese occupation of the territory (Hussain 2015; Hong, 2012; Kreutzmann 2008; Ramesh 2010).

9Baltistan is the southern Division of this region, and compared to the northern part of Gilgit, it has been greatly affected by partition in 1947. This event has had lasting consequences for this society. Baltistan is a relatively cultural homogeneous division because the majority of the population speak Balti language, a dialect of eastern Tibetan, and belong to the Twelver sect of Shia Islam, even though in the eastern part there is a significant Noorbakshi minority and also a Sunni population. Cultural ties are shared across the LoC with the neighbouring district of Kargil, in India’s Ladakh, and other villages and valleys scattered along this Line. Many families on both sides of the LoC became divided in 1949 (when conflict ended in the area) but also later, particularly in 1971, when India gained control over a group of villages in the Chorbat La valley. Baltistan is a relatively landlocked territory, with very limited communications to Gilgit (one road that also connects with the Karakoram Highway) and ‘down’ Pakistan (a daily flight subject to weather conditions and a road that closes in winter). Geographical and communication issues have posed constrains to the potential development of this division, but this has been exacerbated by the political uncertainty due to the irresolution of the Kashmir dispute.

10Political uncertainty in Gilgit-Baltistan is determined by this territory’s disputed status under international law that prevents its integration in Pakistan (for a discussion on the legal context see Mato Bouzas 2017, 206–211). This non-integration has consequences for its residents. Civil and political rights are restricted, and, for example, locals, as non-proper Pakistani citizens, are banned from participating in Pakistan’s general elections. Political uncertainty permeates lives in many ways. While carrying out fieldwork between 2009–2013 in Gilgit-Baltistan, I noticed that most of the topics I discussed with residents, and the answers they provided, were connected to a profound sense of insecurity about the future (Mato Bouzas 2019: 126–131). Research among migrants in Kuwait years later, addressed this sense of insecurity in more explicit terms. In a meeting at the garden of a shopping complex in Kuwait, a middle-aged man from a village of Kharmang, doing clerical work in an importing-exporting company commented on his reasons to migrate to Kuwait:

- … you know how it’s there [Baltistan]. There are no jobs, no expectations. The government doesn’t care about us. No education. No investment, no businesses. Nobody helps us. We come here [Kuwait], we earn money.

- Well, you said earlier you studied at the government college in Mehdiabad. Why do you think the government doesn’t help your region?

  • 3 Interview with A.A., Kuwait, 22 February 2018.

- I couldn’t study more. If you want education you need to go to big cities like Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad…Everything is because… you know…the conflict. The government doesn’t invest in our region because of the fighting [the periodic border skirmishes as well as episodes of open military confrontation]. They [the Pakistani government] think our area [border areas near the LoC] … that India may take over. They [the government of Pakistan] don’t trust us. That is why we are here. We work, take our money and go back.3

11This excerpt of the conversation illustrates a recurrent topic among migrants’ reasons to migrate which is the existence of a conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and the likelihood that things can change in unexpected ways in their home area. The dialogue also shows a perceived sense of marginalisation from the state, due to ambivalent the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Pakistan, and migrants’ needs (and people in Baltistan in general) to fend for themselves. The individual experience of migration is motivated, as often is the case, by socio-economic reasons but is strongly informed by the political circumstances, such as uncertainty of the region’s political future, and the state’s absence in the migrants’ home area.

Understanding this transnational figuration

12Migration from Baltistan to the Gulf states—particularly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain—dates back to the 1980s, although there were migrants earlier. The opening of the Karakoram highway linked China and Pakistan via northern Pakistan in the mid-1980s represented a major breakthrough for the opening and modernisation in north-eastern Pakistan. Men from Baltistan moved to other major cities in Pakistan for work—a few of them also for education—and some of them ended in the Gulf via recruitment agencies in Islamabad or Karachi. The impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 could have also had an empowering role––Baltistan is a Shia majority area—in Gulf migration as I gathered in a conversation with two people who migrated around that time. They referred to ‘what happened in Iran’ in relation to a period that offered many opportunities for them. Agents from the Gulf also visited the area for purposes of recruitment (Farman 2000).

13The study of migration from Baltistan to the Gulf unfolds a number of connections that exceed the migration sphere, and that precede nation state formation in South Asia and the Arab Peninsula. Local accounts trace the origins of this migration to the activities of a former religious leader, sheikh Hasan, who studied in Iran in the mid-twentieth century and then lived for many years in Iraq. He played an important role in the district development of Kharmang by running several charity activities, in the form of religious trusts, with donations from the Gulf. Moreover, this sheikh had a facilitating role in the establishment of the Marafie Foundation, a Kuwaiti development organisation of the Marafie family, in Baltistan. The study of these relations through interviews and conversations in Baltistan, unfolded and provided an understanding of these Gulf-related activities in Baltistan, and probably, in geopolitical terms, for the whole of Gilgit-Baltistan.

14The study of Baltistan’s connections with the Gulf region reveals how remittances, donations, infrastructure, human resources (i.e., doctors and health personnel), among other goods and services, are delivered to Baltistan. These resources contribute, in various degrees, to the governance of this territory because they are employed to fill a vacuum not covered by the state. Perhaps with the exception of remittances, the way in which resources are employed in Baltistan have a political dimension because they are linked to the disputed context of the region, and therefore it is worth understanding the reasons for this engagement.

15Migrants from the Division of Baltistan have migrated to the Gulf for decades owing in part to the mediating role of local religious Shia scholars. These Shia scholars had a tradition of studying in Iran and Iraq, and then travelled to the Gulf Arab states following religious networks for fundraising activities (Rieck 2002: 388–394; Mato Bouzas 2018). These religious leaders had a facilitating role, that is, either they would make petitions to Gulf business families to take some migrants from their home areas or they would be approached by the Gulf business families to ask for labour they could trust. Although this mode of migration is not representative in terms of numbers, meetings with relatives of migrants from some villages in Baltistan underscored an enduring influence of religious leaders in facilitating migration. Migrants from Baltistan in the Gulf lead lives orientated towards their home areas and they contribute to local development in Baltistan via remittances. Religious actors, however, lead more transnational lives.

16The Gulf can be described as a territorial extension for religious leaders, or a spatial continuity in which they carry out their activities. Religious leaders from Baltistan have access to the affluent Gulf merchant classes, in particular to those Shia merchant classes in Kuwait. Apart from facilitating the migration channel, religious leaders have had a role in driving the attention of this Kuwaiti merchant class, publicly or anonymously, to support charity and development work in Baltistan. Religious leaders, as has been described in conversations, raise funds through activities in the hussainiyas, that is, religious centres, which are especially important for the celebrations of Muharram. These activities normally include preaching about religious topics but also involve more dissemination of information about different parts of the world (in which Shia communities live). Although it is difficult to ascertain the level of involvement by speakers, what is certain is that money collected through donations in these centres is partly shared to support charity activities in places like Baltistan.

  • 4 References to the Gulf´s role in funding religious organisations for boosting extremism are as comm (...)

17Development and charity donation from Kuwait to Baltistan can be traced in the actions of the Kuwaiti Shia merchant class who supports activities in Baltistan. The Marafie family for example, established a family NGO, the Marafie Foundation, which has engaged for over three decades in the development of Baltistan by providing infrastructural support in the fields of education and health (Marafie 2016). Charity work supported by Kuwait in Baltistan goes into the running of orphanages and houses for the needy (orphans, widows, disabled and poor families). A significant number of orphans are the children of parents working as porters for the army in the border villages near the LoC, and this therefore adds a political dimension. Although it is difficult to establish a clear relationship, field research in Baltistan indicated that religious leaders specifically mobilised around the case of victims of the border conflict. In an interview at his home in Kharmang on July 1, 2022, the well-respected religious scholar sheikh Mohsin Ali al Najafi denied this argument (by referring to this own activity) by saying he made no distinctions among the needy, but no further evidence was provided.4 This charity work is praised in Baltistan because the connection of these religious leaders to the Gulf and their ability to receive funding empowers them in a regional context that is strongly dominated by the military.

  • 5 Ghawari, 25 June 2022

18Similar patterns, although more research needs to be carried out, can be found in the lesser studied Sunni minority community of Baltistan, mainly living in a few villages near the town of Khaplu, in Ghawari, even though in this case empowerment mainly occurs through access to religious education. In an interview with the representative of the community and head of Islamic University Jamia Dar-ul Ulom, Maulana Abdul Waheed, he narrated the story of this community, belonging to Ahl-e-Hadith, and told that before 1947 local Sunnis used to go to study to places in India, Lucknow and Delhi for religious education.5 Later, a few male students went to study at al-Azhar (Egypt) and Medina University (Saudi Arabia), the latter a cooperation that has continued until present in 2022. Also, the office of the Emir of Kuwait has facilitated a scholarship programme for a few members of the Sunni community, who study Islamic Studies at Kuwait University. Unlike the case of Shia religious leaders, there is no evidence of the involvement of Sunni religious leaders in migrant networks. Migration from these Sunni majority villages, apart from Kuwait, is mainly to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

  • 6 Land is scarce in Baltistan and due to climate conditions, it is difficult to develop it for agricu (...)

19This Sunni community claims to have received donations from the Gulf for strictly religious and educational purposes such as the building of the university, but all their development activities are funded through donations by the community. Indeed, during the interview with Maulana Abdul Waheed, his nephew, who was also present in the meeting, commented on how he approached the Marafie foundation in Skardu for the funding of a small project, without success. The community’s development activities involve the commercialisation of fruits—after purchasing land and developing it for orchards6— and tourist-related activities, whose benefits, as was explained, revert on the villagers, and seem to have a purely economic character.

20The Shia and Sunni communities are different in size, but similar patterns of mobility and exchange with the Gulf region can be observed. The broad Gulf region, including Iraq and Iran, has exercised an important role in these Muslim communities for spiritual reasons and the need for religious training. This role, however, gained more importance after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, when ties of faith were cut with the subcontinent. In the 1950s and early 1960s locations like Baltistan were remote and peripheral to Gulf religious, economic and political actors. However, unlike before, this new context after Partition created possibilities for local religious scholars and leaders to establish more direct ties with the Gulf region which, over decades, can explain the empowerment of these leaders in the regional political scenario of Gilgit-Baltistan.

21These local religious leaders of Baltistan are empowered indirectly owing to their connections with the Gulf: that is, as belonging to a transnational space via religion. Their legitimacy in Baltistan derives from their ‘social capital’ (Vertovec 2003: 648), which in this case means connections with the Gulf and influence in their home societies in Baltistan through charity work. This social capital, however, is employed for purposes that exceed the religious field and that amount to a form of politics. The political uncertainty described earlier in this article that dominates life in Gilgit-Baltistan makes it difficult for people to express their views. However, when tensions arise between civilians and the army in Baltistan, such as during the infiltration of militants across the LoC during the Kargil war in 1999, in which locals protested against the army activities, religious leaders play a determinant role by appeasing the population. In doing so, they favour, at least indirectly, a certain status quo which aligns with Pakistan’s interests in the region.

22Although this transnational space between north-eastern Pakistan and the Gulf is based on faith solidarity, as a shared identity, it is also a space characterised by social hierarchies. These hierarchies take shape in the form of structures characterised by mutually dependent relations. Relations and resources between the various actors in this transnational space are inequal. Migrants are exploited, face social control within the community while in Kuwait, and their economic contributions via remittances are not always recognised as contributing to the society in Baltistan. By contrast, the activities of religious leaders and Gulf philanthropists are publicly praised by describing them as benefactors and mediators in their respective societies. These activities are a form of empowerment that have consequences for both societies, in the case under study, in Baltistan and Kuwait. The resulting transnational figuration governs a field—labour, development and security— at both ends, in Baltistan and Kuwait, in which the state, for different reasons, is not able to perform or performs marginally. In the case of Baltistan, state presence is marginal for the reasons already discussed above, and it is mainly coercive. In Kuwait, although labour legislation is enforced, the economic power and fierce competition among merchant classes shows the existence of a degree of informality on labour issues, or at least, that these issues escape the control of political power.

The Kuwaiti dimension

23Being part of group connections across states, in which goods and services are exchanged, reinforces the position of those living in a more vulnerable environment. For example, migrants’ attachments to the sending countries via remittances affect development and other broader social changes in their homelands (Portes et al. 2003: 1212). This amounts to a form of territorialisation because it can potentially transform the importance or meaning of specific territories. The transnational figuration between Baltistan and Kuwait, by underscoring the different layers involved in the relationship between the two territories reveals the importance the role of the nation-state in this engagement (Dahinden 2017). In this case, the role of the state and the national frame cannot be detached from the question of state formation and postcolonial nation-building processes in the Global South.

24Migration to Kuwait is normally justified by migrants from Baltistan on the grounds of the lack of economic opportunities in their home area. Baltistan is a border area and a relatively landlocked territory. This also explains why the largest number of migrants in Kuwait, and also in Bahrain, are probably from the villages located near the LoC, which have faced more severe disconnection over decades. The Gulf is essentially a place to work in order to support the family and afford some investments that can improve life conditions. The role of some religious Shia leaders, who have acted as intermediaries in migration, is also determinant in framing this transnational figuration because their fundraising activities in the Gulf states are also means to empower their position in the uncertain political context in Baltistan. Gulf money, in its various forms, is a means of attaining economic and political power in Baltistan. Besides, Gulf money also empowers the donors.

  • 7 The role of religion has been discussed at length in another contribution, Mato Bouzas 2021.

25This transnational figuration, in which different actors position vis-à-vis each other and agree on social norms in relations between them, favours a certain political culture or political tradition (rather than religion) in Baltistan, which is very knowledgeable about the region’s political context. The aid provided by Kuwaiti donors and mediated by local religious leaders is manifested as neutral in political terms, but it is organised and delivered in ways that denote an in-depth knowledge about the political dynamics of Baltistan, and does not depict this territory as simply in need of development. During my interview in March 2018 with two members of the Marafie family at their diwaniyya, they described the political situation of Baltistan in very diplomatic terms, as it was probably explained to them: “the problem there is that people are suffering because Pakistan maintains that the area is part of the Kashmir dispute. This situation hasn’t changed for decades.” However, during our conversation the members of the Marafie family also made references to events in several locations in Baltistan that showed a good knowledge of the area. The latter seems to suggest that while religion and help to the needy plays a role in this engagement, the economic support by Gulf donors in Baltistan contributes, at least indirectly, to reinforcing Baltistan’s position as a Pakistani territory.7

26Through the development activities via infrastructural support in the health and education sector and donations to institutions run by specific religious leaders, the so-called Gulf money functions as a form of empowerment locally that also reinforces the position of those administering these resources and their views about developments that affect Baltistan, including political matters. This transnational figuration shows that, rather than seeing those in Baltistan as powerless in relation to the Pakistani state, they have a margin of negotiation or, at least, the Pakistani state needs to take into consideration the foreign element, the Gulf influence, in decision making processes that affect the political future of this territory.

27A culture of negotiation and mediation exists in Baltistan in moments of crisis and this can be largely attributed to the trajectories of these religious actors and their networks in the Gulf, but also to the multi-religious character of the society, which is re-enacted, unlike the specific stream of religious connections to Iran, through migration to the Gulf Arab states. Transnational ties operate by reinforcing Baltistan’s allegiance to Pakistan through the avoidance of open social contestation, yet by recognising Baltistan’s links to various cultural traditions.

28Kuwaiti donors, belonging mainly to the traditional Shia merchant class, who support projects in Baltistan can be described as ‘nationalists’ in their own country because, through their wealth, they have played a central role in the development of the state and as traditional allies of Emir (Azoulay 2013: 88). They also have a trajectory of charity work in Kuwait before expanding their activities to other countries. During the interview with two members of the Marafie family in March 2018, they proudly described their charity involvement in Iraq, India (the southern state of Kerala), Pakistan and China.

29“We believe in humanity. We help where it is needed. We have built ten dispensaries in Mongolia [Inner Mongolia], in China. We build infrastructure, and we go wherever is needed, regardless of people’s faith [he mentions some work in Kerala, India]. If there is a need and we can do something, we help.”

30While they linked their obligation to give as part of a religious duty, they insisted that their activities had nothing to do with religion and were orientated to improve life standards of people. However, the interviewees also acknowledged a specific support for religious-related charity work in the form of donations to build mosques abroad, which was given to a Saudi NGO specialised in these activities. The display of humanitarianism is a way to justify their involvement. Whether this altruism is real or not, it is beyond the scope of this article, but the activities of these merchant classes reveal how the Gulf influences other regions for more economic (e.g., the need of labour recruitment, and the expansion of markets) and socio-cultural purposes.

31Members of the influential Kuwaiti Shia traditional merchant class, despite being considered as nationalists, have an ambivalent position in the Kuwaiti state due to their condition as a minority group. Although Kuwaiti Shias are an integral part of the Kuwaiti nation (Kuwait acknowledges a composite national culture), Kuwaiti nationhood is frequently the subject of major contestations (Crystal 1995; Azoulay 2013 and 2020; Beaugrand 2017; Albloshi and Herb 2018). Shias are nonetheless a minority in a state characterised by fierce competition among merchant groups for economic power, and part of a society divided among religious (Shia-Sunni) and non-religious (traditional-liberal forces) cleavages (Nosova, 2016; Azoulay 2020). Foreign aid, as an engagement abroad, functions as a form of capital because it implies recognition that can be used at home. Marafie’s work in north-eastern Pakistan has been recognised by the government of Pakistan, which awarded Abd-ul-Fatah Marafie with the Tamgah-e-Imtiaz, a distinction to civilians for their contributions to the state, in 2010. The transnational engagement redefines the national and is functional to a certain idea of nation-building.

32The government of Kuwait has officially supported development in northern Pakistan. It also, via the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, has provided aid to northern Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake and contributed to the building of several hospitals. More recently, due to the floods that affected Pakistan in 2022, 27 Kuwaiti charities have provided aid to the South Asian state (Kuwaiti Times 2022). State humanitarianism has been an important element of Kuwait’s foreign policy, not only toward Pakistan but to other countries (White, Bladd and Cuthbert 2017; World Bank 2019). Indeed, humanitarianism also contributes to national cohesion and nation-building because it is a non-disputable sphere, soft diplomacy, in the often-confrontational Kuwaiti parliamentary politics. While the transnational dimension highlights the importance of specific actors and organisations, which may be ascribed to a religious identity, it has general economic and political consequences on both sides. In this sense, the study of this transnational space adds a qualitative dimension on the understanding of international politics, read as critical geopolitics, that more traditional political analyses of relations between states fail to provide.

Kuwait as a meeting place to subvert South Asian borders

33The transnational figuration underscores the external dimension, Kuwait (and the Gulf in general), shaping politics in Baltistan, but also reveals how the characteristics of Kuwait’s development policy are strongly shaped by competing interests at home. Migration plays a central role in this transnational activity but the main actors in this figuration are religious leaders from Baltistan and members of the merchant class in Kuwait. The resulting transnational figuration reveals how things are actually happening across certain legal-political jurisdictions, that is, which developments are taking place. The transnational dimension incorporates ‘the external’ as a variable that shapes conditions ‘within a territory,’ such that politics is understood as a continuum in which the internal and the external dimension of the state often overlap. Yet, as shown in this case study, in shaping conditions within, the transnational dimension contributes to nation-building processes because it stresses the enduring importance of the state framework for political struggles (Hesketh, 2018).

34Baltistan’s various connections to Kuwait, and to the Gulf in general, have an impact on the regional and national (here, Pakistan) context. Religious leaders act as intermediaries favouring part of migration from Baltistan. They also receive funding from Gulf families for the support of their charitable activities in their homeland. This funding depends on their personal capabilities, such as public speaking skills, but also on the access they have to potential donors through their religious networks. This migrant and development network unfolds a broader and complex relation between this region in north-eastern Pakistan and Kuwait, and probably to other Gulf countries. Gulf social and political actors involved in development and charity activities gain recognition abroad for their humanitarianism. Through this developmental activity, they are also able to maintain local ties for labour recruitment which is essential for the run of the national economy. For example, while Kuwait formally banned Pakistani migrants (along with other nationalities) in 2011 for security reasons, some have been still able to travel to Kuwait to work through these specific networks. Development aid is therefore a soft diplomacy which is linked to questions of labour—and the need to guarantee this supply, or create networks of trust—that are central to national security of small Gulf states such as Kuwait.

35Migrants from Baltistan in Kuwait, as temporary workers under the kafala system, have a limited engagement with their hosting society and their lives are exclusively orientated toward their home region. However, as mentioned above, the existing political uncertainty in Gilgit-Baltistan and the conflictual character of the border in Baltistan play an important role in their lives’ trajectories in the Gulf. The consequences of the partition of the subcontinent and the erection of the LoC between Baltistan and Ladakh normally arise in interviews as elements to justify migration, the fundraising activity by religious leaders, and the donation by Kuwaiti families. The disputed character of Baltistan unfolds another dimension of Gulf migration: the importance of the Gulf state for the reconfiguration of the disrupted ties between Baltistan (administered by Pakistan) and Kargil (administered by India).

36The transnational activity with the Gulf, and Kuwait specifically, is strongly connected to the border character of Baltistan, and the neighbouring Kargil (and Ladakh in general) across the LoC. Communications between Baltistan and Kargil stopped since 1949 and India and Pakistan have often placed many obstacles for people on both sides wishing to maintain relations. However, religious students from both sides of the border continued to meet, although this occurred mainly in third countries such as in Iran and Iraq, places where they travelled for religious education. Later, with the migration that followed throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s came the possibilities for divided families to meet. Migrants in the Gulf, who had relatives across the Baltistan-Ladakh border would often support the reunion of those who were separated or facilitate communications among them; this happened through the exchange of videos and other material that took place before the spread of the internet. As workers in Kuwait, migrants from Baltistan and Kargil exchange information about their respective places, and this confers upon migrants a knowledge that is potentially different from what they would have received in their home area.

37The border dimension plays an essential role in shaping and enlarging transnational figuration (Nieswand 2018), which is exemplified in this study by the coping with strategies to address the negative effects of the closed character of the LoC. Migrants from Baltistan and Kargil meet in Kuwait, develop close ties, and share information about their respective contexts. They often have a grounded understanding of the situation of both sides of the divided territories, unlike many political analysts and politicians involved in Indo-Pakistani affairs on the issue of Kashmir. In addition, through the developmental engagement in Baltistan, actors from Kuwait, acting also on behalf of the country’s foreign policy, engage in peace diplomacy. Thus, apart from revealing these aspects of the state, the exploration of existing interrelationships through multi-site fieldwork helps to broaden the conceptual understanding of the ‘transnational’ in terms of its strategic dimension and the assumption of a degree of cohesion.

38Bigo has acknowledged that some transnational actors and groups, owing to their activities, have come to be treated as de facto foreigners (Bigo 2011; Bigo 2016: 399). This definition stresses the fact that the act of crossing of state boundaries and being engaged in two or more societies is also related with these actors and groups’ ambivalent position in terms of belonging to one’s own state (Mato Bouzas 2018: 2). This ambivalence is however not manifested in the same terms for an individual in a socially vulnerable position (such as an economic migrant), or for an organisation fighting for social and political rights, as it is for a highly paid expatriate or a multinational company. In other words, the transnational engagement has a qualitative dimension in terms of content, in the sense that it shows the limits of the state system for these actors, and itself constitutes a field, or figuration, for analysis. At the same time, this transnational figuration between Pakistan and the Gulf shows that the role of the state and the national frame cannot be detached from the question of postcolonial nation-building processes in the Global South.

39The transnational activity between Baltistan and Kuwait helps to understand how people in Baltistan cope with the existing legal context in Gilgit-Baltistan. The resulting transnational activity empowers people locally in the sense that goods—in the form of support to health, education, provision of employment, etc.—are delivered to a territory in which the state (Pakistan) is not able to fulfil its duties. Transnational activity with the Gulf affects the political landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan because it has effects on the power balance between the overwhelming military presence and civilians. Even though the relationship between the army and the civilian population is not hostile, tensions do arise from time to time. Despite the superiority of military power in imposing its own agenda, the army needs to negotiate with a population who is perceived as powerless. The most evident case is that of Shia religious leaders who are able to intercede with the army during episodes of crises.

40The existence of Kuwaiti actors involved in development activities in northern Pakistan is an example of how the Gulf influences other regions, and particularly South Asia, for more economic (e.g., the need of migrants, and the expansion of markets) and social “solidarity” purposes. The study of this transnational figuration shows how, at least indirectly, Kuwait contributes to peace building in South Asia. However, this involvement also shows a humanitarian portrayal of the Kuwaiti state in which the display of generosity—through development cooperation and tolerance—understood as the support of a minority group of a migrant sending country over which there are security concerns, are intrinsic acts of nation building.


41The case study of a transnational figuration between the Gulf and Pakistan provides an understanding of Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf region beyond traditional state approaches because it demonstrates, through empirical grounded research, the existence of deep interconnections between these two territories. Migration plays a central role in these interconnections, but it is the involvement of religious, economic and political actors who, through their activities, ultimately defined the character of this transnational engagement for various purposes. This transnational figuration helps to understand issues of governance in the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, to which Baltistan belongs, and how the developmental activity is linked to the actors’ positioning vis-à-vis their own states, Kuwait and Pakistan. It also reveals how governance is being delivered to a territory, Gilgit-Baltistan, characterised by its undefined sovereign status as part of Pakistan.

42Politics of Gilgit-Baltistan are often examined on the basics of geopolitical assumptions such as: geographical proximity of emerging powers, the existence of the Kashmir dispute and of its religious-cultural diversity that preclude specific political ties. By contrast, this article discusses politics in the region by other means, that is, by showing the potential of transnational figurations, in this case with the Gulf, to explain the region’s interactions. In so doing, the transnational element that characterises interactions across “territorial” states, in this case, is at first rather deterritorialised because of non-territorial character of religion (and the role of religious leaders) and the ambivalent position of those of Gilgit-Baltistan as citizens of the state of Pakistan. However, the transnational engagement functions as reinforcing belonging to the nation state, as this seems to be the case of merchant classes supporting charity and development activities abroad and the role adopted by religious leaders in Baltistan through their social involvement and their role in episodes of political tension.

43Actors involved in a transnational engagement are characterised by a sense of ambivalence in terms of belonging to a state or by experiencing multiple belongings, what Bigo qualifies as being de facto ‘foreigners’. This sense of ambivalence unfolds multiple interests and motivations with an essential transformative character. By exploring multi-site fieldwork, the contexts of Baltistan and Kuwait and paying attention to the multiple sense of belonging of the actors involved in this transnational figuration, as nationals of a state, as a minority, as members of a particular faith, as people separated by a closed international border from their relatives living nearby, this article reveals how the Gulf continues to exert a significant direct and indirect influence in South Asia.

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1 This is an estimate by taking into account the gaps in data collection from different sources. For data on migrants from Pakistan in the Gulf see, Gilani (2008), ILO-GIZ (2015), and IOM (2019). All this data confirms that the great bulk of Pakistani migration in the Gulf is concentrated in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

2 Interviews in Kuwait, in 2018 and 2019, with migrants from Baltistan included 17 individual interviews and additional group meetings in which I asked general questions and more people participated. However, I met some migrants more than one time. I also had a meeting with migrants from Kargil, on the Indian side of the border. Interviews with migrants have been anonymised.

3 Interview with A.A., Kuwait, 22 February 2018.

4 References to the Gulf´s role in funding religious organisations for boosting extremism are as common in Baltistan as in many European countries, and religious leaders are aware of this when meeting foreign researchers. However, migrants´ understandings of the Gulf region are grounded in their own experiences as workers, and they may refer to Gulf support to charity issues in Baltistan in relation to the donors’ wealth and the power position that religious leaders exercise in this society. Their views about the Gulf, that range from discrimination to admiration, suggest more a class analysis.

5 Ghawari, 25 June 2022

6 Land is scarce in Baltistan and due to climate conditions, it is difficult to develop it for agricultural purposes.

7 The role of religion has been discussed at length in another contribution, Mato Bouzas 2021.

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Antía Mato Bouzas, « Political entanglements between Pakistan and Kuwait: the transnational figuration of migration, development and charity », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 17 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Antía Mato Bouzas

London Metropolitan University

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