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“They can’t stop us from going to Allah’s house!”: Pakistanis circumventing Saudi border regimes

By Ismail Khan | OMC 2024

Gulf remittances sustain households and the local economy (courtesy of the author).

In the middle of the valley, a small general store stood. Its walls echoed the rhythmic thud-thud of the shopkeeper pounding tobacco leaves with a sturdy wooden pestle in a granite mortar to prepare dipping tobacco (naswar). Amir Zada, a man in his mid-forties, his jaw bulging with a lump of naswar, urged his friend, Inam, to join him in going to Saudi Arabia for work through Umra, a Muslim pilgrimage to the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia. But Inam hesitated due to an immigration ban on him because of his previous migration history to the country. Amir reassured him that a trusted visa “agent”, a migration broker, had promised successful passage through Jeddah airport’s immigration control. Still, doubts lingered in Inam’s eyes. Sensing his friend’s fear, Amir again offered reassurance. “We will wear a big ihram,” Amir suggested, and “they [immigration authorities] can’t stop us from going to Allah’s house! ‘Let’s have faith in Allah (tawakkal) and go.” 


In this piece, I argue that Umra is a creative strategy for labour mobility that sustains poor households in Pakistan. Deported migrants like Amir, who are banned from re-entry into Saudi Arabia, use Umra as a way of avoiding legal restrictions on their entry, posing as pilgrims to the holy land. Amir was among many deported workers I encountered during my eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork among Pukhtuns in Lower Dir, Pakistan, one of the top ten migrant-sending countries. In Dir, which is a mountainous district historically impoverished and undeveloped due to the autocratic rule of Nawabs, men were compelled (majbori) to seek livelihood opportunities elsewhere, mainly in Saudi Arabia, following the 1970s Gulf oil boom. This migration (musafari) was circular (zam-razam) and exclusive to men. It was shaped by societal constructs of masculinity, which linked it with breadwinning and the provider roles in a gender order characterised by a strong division of labour. 

Amir had worked as an unskilled labourer in Saudi Arabia’s construction industry for thirteen years before being repatriated to Pakistan. He was employed under the sponsorship (kafala) system, which governs and regulates foreign workers in Gulf states. What sets the kafala apart from other contemporary migrant governance systems is the “diminished role of the state” under this system. It binds a migrant to a citizen-sponsor (kafeel), which constitutes a vital aspect of the systematic and structural violence levied against migrant workers in the Gulf. Amir became a victim of this violence when his kafeel falsely reported him as a runaway (hurof). Upon discovering this, he contacted the kafeel, who claimed it was a “mistake” (galtan). Helpless, Amir lamented, “what can you do with him [kafeel]?” This illustrates how the relations between individual sponsors and the guest workers produce illegality, deportation and removal in the Gulf. The kafala system empowers the citizens to manage and control workers, with the ability to revoke their migration status at their whims. Furthermore, the Pakistani workers’ status as azad (free) visa holders – an unofficial category of work visa, which is a legal grey area between documented and undocumented migration status – further exposes them to arrest and deportation. Since the launching of the “Saudization”, a workforce nationalisation programme in 2011, Saudi Arabia has intensified its crackdown on such visa holders.

After losing his migration status, Amir worked in Saudi Arabia as an irregular worker for four years. Lacking support from the Pakistani embassy and unable to afford the exorbitant twenty-five thousand Saudi Riyal brokerage fee, he could not regularise his status. He took advantage of the 2017 amnesty and returned to Pakistan but faced a five-year immigration ban as he was fingerprinted. As his savings were exhausted, he moved to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, for work where his meagre daily wage made providing for his six-member family challenging. Necessities such as a can of ghee were hard to afford, let alone expenses for medical care or sorrow and joy events (gham-khadi). Desperate to leave, he borrowed money to pay the visa agent, which was three times the amount of the normal Umra fee, to try and enter Saudi Arabia as a pilgrim. He managed to evade the entry ban through this channel. He found informal work in the construction sector with the help of friends and relatives as well as used his own initiative based on his past experiences of working in Saudi Arabia. 

The holiest sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia draw millions of Muslims annually for the Hajj and  Umra pilgrimage, contributing to the country’s tourism industry. These shared “Muslim sacred geographies”, I argue, create a space for poor Pakistani deported workers to circumvent Saudi restrictive border regimes. As the ethnographic material presented above illustrates, faced with deportation, a five-year ban on re-entry, and very little prospect of earning a decent living back home, many Pakistani workers turn to Umra as an irregular route for labour migration. This practice is facilitated by migration brokers who charge hefty fees and assistance from networks of relatives and friends. Adopting the state of ihram or ritual consecration, these pilgrims perform their Umra and then overstay their legal visit duration for years by working in the informal sector as labour migrants. Thus, for them, Umra becomes a creative strategy for labour mobility. Through this religious yet economically motivated journey, the workers challenge both the Saudi immigration control and the kafala system, which ties foreign labourers to a local sponsor. Significantly, this irregular migration blurs the boundaries between religious and economic motives for migration. Through this strategy, the deported migrants find a way to migrate again. However, they remain marginalised subjects, living in precarious circumstances. They hinge on luck and fate for survival as the threat of arrest and deportation by Saudi police and immigration authorities looms large. 

I am an ethnographer and social anthropologist. I observe people and things, talk to people and write some notes about them. Then, I sort out those (messy) notes. It takes me a while to get my head around them and write about something. Presently, I am a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, UK. My PhD thesis tells a story of Pukhtun men living in Dir, Pakistan. However, they seldom stay in one place. They frequently travel between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for work. I am focusing on this migration (locally called musafari) by looking at it through the lens of masculinities, specifically how it (re)shapes their understanding of themselves as men. This research is mainly inspired by my experiences of moving to Karachi for work at one point and watching my loved ones migrate to Saudi Arabia.

1 Comment

Maria Khalid
Maria Khalid
5 days ago

A much needed write-up on the plight of labor migrants who are coerced into exploitative situations under the guise of religious pilgrimage. What resonates deeply is the researcher's focus on how this exploitation profoundly impacts the labor migrants' sense of masculinity and shapes their identity.

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