Part 1: From Centuries Ago to Present and Beyond: Indians’ Contribution to Kuwait’s Journey of Prosperity

By Dev Shah

The Indian expatriate population in Kuwait is one of the largest compared to other countries. While Kuwait’s ‘golden age’ has had multiple editions from the pearls to a modern-day necessity – oil, the Indian migrant workers have played a crucial role in supporting its economy. This one-of-three-part blog looks into the Indian migration to Kuwait before the oil discovery to support the booming pearl industry and foster cultural ties under British colonial rule via trade.

The pre-oil Kuwaiti economy was relatively modest and depended on traditional industries and trade. The economy depended on pearl diving, seafaring, boat building, herding, and trade which lasted till the Second World War. International trading was characterized by close ties with neighbouring countries, especially India, with whom Kuwait maintained substantial economic and cultural connections. From managing modest relations and trading for horses for the Maharajas in then British India to Kuwait being recognized as an independent nation by India among a group of first nations in 1962, the two countries enjoy very close relations. Currently, the Indian labour population makes up 24.1% of the total labour force, with over 476,000 males and females. 

Kuwait is located on the tip of the Persian Gulf, with a coastline of 499 km. With such a long coastline, it is the hotspot for pearl diving. It was a lucrative profession supporting multiple communities’ livelihoods since it was highly valued in the early 20th century. The divers, merchants and sailors who were a part of the Gulf’s pearl banks were some of the richest in the world, had about 700 boats, and employed approximately 15,000 men. The pearl diving season ran from May to September, during which divers went on dangerous expeditions into the depths of the Arabian Gulf to collect pearls. The revenue generated by pearl trading accounted for 95% of the local revenue, and the value of pearls worldwide rose to $4 million by 1905. While the Indian history with Kuwait is mostly known post its independence, thousands of enslaved people from the British Raj and various British African colonies were transported to meet the demand for the pearls. As discussed in blogs by KAN before about the difficulties migrant workers face in Kuwait at present, they were no different a century ago. The pearl divers, that were predominantly Kuwaiti, also included migrant workers from countries such as India. faced extreme physical hardships, and there were no modern-day technologies and equipment to protect them when they dived over 100 feet and remained underwater for up to two minutes. Some of the difficulties include severe challenges to their survival since they dived over 40 times a day under extreme pressures that could cause them blackouts, hallucinations, loss and vision, and many other life-threatening issues. Indian pearl divers were widely recognized for their remarkable diving abilities, strength, and capacity to endure the demanding conditions of pearl diving. Together with divers from neighbouring locations and divers from Kuwait, they were an essential element of the diving crews for pearls. The presence of multiple ethnic backgrounds in Kuwait currently can be drawn to the diverse groups that were brought together via the pearl diving experience, generating a sense of kinship and shared history among the divers. The Indian pearl divers often came from the coastal regions of India, primarily the Southern part which was also due to Arab traders coming to Kerala for trade. There is no data available on the number of Indian divers that engaged in pearl diving, either on the Indian government websites or any academic source. With the extraction of pearls, it wasn’t only the divers who found themselves engaged in economic activity but also opened doors for other professions that Indians had expertise in, such as craft, jewellery, construction, and trade. 

Apart from the pearl industry, the Indian trade with Kuwait was instrumental in fostering ties between the two countries that was more important for trade beyond the Indian Ocean. In order to take advantage of Kuwait’s strategic location along the maritime trade routes, traders from Indian states and cities like Gujarat and Bombay were among the first to forge business ties with Kuwait to capitalize on those trade routes. Vice versa, merchants from Kuwait also arrived at the ports of western India to purchase Indian spices, textiles and other necessary commodities in exchange for dates and pearls. It is important to note that the management of the pearl trade was controlled by the Hindus and Khojas, thus in direct control of the British Indian subjects. The Indian trading community in Kuwait played a large role in Kuwait’s mercantile scene and contributed to the success of the area. With the presence of British control in Kuwait, there were Indian officials working and living in Kuwait in an executive role. 

In conclusion, the early Indian migration to Kuwait has left an indelible mark on the country’s history and development. From the early 20th century, Indian migrants played a pivotal role in supporting Kuwait’s economy through their involvement in trade and the booming pearl diving industry. Their contributions enriched Kuwait’s cultural fabric and fostered strong economic and cultural ties between India and Kuwait that paved the for the Indian community in Kuwait to become one the largest expatriate communities in the country. In the upcoming blogs of the same series, it will cover how the discovery of oil fields in the Arabian peninsula invited more expatriates.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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