Between Divorce and Hardship: Stories of Egyptian Men Working in the Gulf

Between Divorce and Hardship: Stories of Egyptian Men Working in the Gulf

Photo credit: UN Women

El Gorba was an indirect reason that led to my divorce,” says Amr Alaaeldin, a 35-year-old Egyptian engineer from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

El Gorba‘, which loosely translates to ‘alienation’, is a term used to describe life in a country other than one’s own.

More than five million Egyptians work in the Arabian Gulf – with Saudi Arabia making up the majority of Egyptian immigrants. Between the 1960s and 1970s, as Egypt’s population increased and its economic situation deteriorated, many Egyptians began to relocate to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The latter consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Faced with increasing demand for labor in the GCC, Egyptians sought better employment opportunities and improved living standards. Unfortunately, many who migrated without their families faced strained family and romantic ties.

In September, Egyptian anthropologist Farah Hallaba launched Being Borrowed, a creative collaborative project exploring Egyptian migration to the Gulf. Based on their belief that this experience is “underrepresented and underexplored,” the multi-output collective seeks to address temporality, family dynamics, belonging, and more through personal narratives.

Broken relationships and broken families

When Alaaeldin traveled to Saudi Arabia for work for the first time, his wife accompanied him. After just a year, he realized that staying with him would not be financially feasible for her. Between delayed salaries and rising expenses, Alaaeldin decided it was best for his wife and their newborn to return to Egypt. Two years later, the rift between the couple grew and divorce was the final outcome.

Like Alaaeldin, Mohamed Hasan, 48, recalls that when he graduated in 1998, it was a common phenomenon for ambitious people to leave Egypt in search of higher salaries, a better standard of living, a successful career and stability in retirement. According to him, nobody planned to work in Egypt after graduation.

Hasan, who currently resides in Kuwait and works in healthcare administration, has traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for work at two different times during his career. In 2000 he traveled there for the first time, only to return to Egypt in 2006. He decided to travel again in 2009 and returned again in 2011 hoping for better financial opportunities in post-revolution Egypt. He was disappointed to find that Egypt’s economy had just taken a slump, prompting him to return to Saudi Arabia.

As a father of two, Hasan admits his relationship with his son and daughter has definitely been affected by being far away.

“I have a relationship with [my children] to date, but it’s not very strong. Unfortunately, sometimes I have the feeling that it is a bit financial[ly driven]’ Hasan explains.

From his experience, Hasan is adamant that long-distance relationships don’t work.

Through phone calls, video calls, and instant messaging, many fathers attempt to maintain and nurture the bond between them and their children. However, only a few succeed in doing this.

Many struggle to live independently from their families, and despite their attempts to adjust, they often fail. Despite this, a return to Egypt is rarely a viable option.

“Any husband who is separated from his wife or children either ends up with a separation or divorce and a failing relationship with his children, or his entire relationship with the family just goes cold; he becomes like a visitor in his own house,” Alaaeldin tells Egyptian Streets.

Despite the struggles, Alaaeldin would still choose to emigrate in hindsight – but this time, along with his family.

“I originally planned to travel for five years. But I had no idea that my father would die and that my financial responsibilities to my family would increase, health emergencies would arise and so on,” says Alaaeldin.

Photo credit: UNICEF

opportunities and priorities

Adel Botros, who worked in Qatar for several years, initially planned to live there for a maximum of two to three years. Currently retired and based in Egypt, Botros recalls the hardest part about being away was not seeing his daughter grow up.

“Life in the Gulf is very expensive, so it wasn’t practical for my wife and daughter to live with me on my travels,” adds Botros.

“Although I would definitely have wished to live here in Egypt with my daughter, I could not have sacrificed myself if I had stayed [my wife and daughter] the life they lived or giving my daughter the opportunity to do her bachelor’s degree in Canada and her master’s degree in France,” Botros told Egyptian Streets.

Often, many men travel to the Gulf with plans to stay for two to five years, hoping to earn enough money to return to Egypt to buy a home and start a private business.

However, not everyone travels voluntarily – some are forced to do so.

emotional struggles; between fathers and children

Photo Credit: Farah Hallaba, Being on Loan

Maged Atta, a 57-year-old finance executive, never intended to travel; But when the company he worked for opened a new office in the United Arab Emirates, he had to relocate. Despite this, he planned to stay for three years before returning to Egypt. However, with the company still in its infancy, Atta and his wife decided it was too big a risk to move the whole family there.

To compensate for the lack of living together, Atta’s wife and two daughters spent their summer and winter vacations with him, and he traveled to see them as often as he could.

Even if Atta is grateful for his family cohesion, which he describes as strong, there were also many hard days.

“My older daughter once told me that she was emotionally fed up with greetings and goodbyes,” Atta recalls. “As she got older, she told me that she and her sister cried themselves to sleep earlier and kept it from their mother because they knew she was under pressure to raise them alone here in Egypt.”

It is common that when a family member lives abroad, the rest of the family hides any deficiencies or health emergencies from him or her so as not to alarm them.

This was the case in Atta’s family; He was never told of the emotional struggles they faced. On the other hand, there were times when he struggled alone as a father.

Despite the fact that travel comes with its own set of challenges, many Egyptian men continue to choose to work in the Gulf rather than attempt to make a living in Egypt.

With an ailing economy, a steady devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and Egyptians suffering from constant price hikes, migration to the Gulf is likely to continue, if not increase, over the next few years, even if it means breaking family ties and ruining households .

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