Unrests across Arab nations play havoc in Keralites' lives

Vivek (CA ) (2368 Points)

03 March 2011  

ET Bureau

Unrests across Arab nations play havoc in Keralites' lives

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: In the desert town of Sirte, almost halfway between the Libyan capital Tripoli and Benghazi, Dr Joe Joseph from Kerala is cooped up with some 200 other Indian families - living in a block of a few multi-storied buildings - intensely hoping for an evacuation. A good number of them are doctors, nurses or paramedics who were saving the lives of ordinary Libyan citizens until the other day, and are now praying for their own.

As the public uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi escalates, Joseph and other Indian expatriates in Sirte are hoping for a miracle to take them to the airport. "It has been a gruelling time, and no help is coming from the Indian embassy in Tripoli," says Joseph. With rioters running the affairs, no one can have a safe passage to the airport.

For tens of thousands of Keralites across North Africa and West Asia, the mood is similar to that in Sirte, as fresh uprisings in many Arab countries threaten to play havoc with their lives. Without a doubt, the Jasmine Revolution triggered in Tunisia is spreading panic across Kerala, where almost everyone has a family member or relative based in the Gulf region, and the state is a beneficiary of annual remittances of roughly Rs. 25,000 crore.

Remittances are such a key component of Kerala's finances, earning the state the sobriquet of being a money-order economy.

In 2010, of Kerala's total commercial bank deposits worth Rs. 1,43,404 crore, NRI deposits accounted for Rs. 36,886 crore, or 26%. And in the near future, crores of rupees were expected to flow into Kerala through the Islamic NBFC route, to fund mega infrastructure projects.

The plans may have just hit the pause button, as national capitals as diverse as Manama and Muscat are witnessing uprisings. Says Sharjah-based business consultant Ashok Thampan: "Expatriates are worried about the ramifications the protests may have on their status and livelihoods. The protests in Bahrain have led to a sense of insecurity among Indian expatriates and some are seriously considering to move out, or at least move their families back to India. The specific nature of the protests in Bahrain tends to show expatriates as targets in many cases."

Thampan says UAE and Qatar appear relatively untouched by the developments, though the long-term portends do not seem encouraging as there is concern about how the protests will affect the business climate and local economies.

Vijayan Nair, a professional in the sports sector, feels the chances of any unrest occurring in the UAE, the hotspot for most Keralites in the Gulf, are remote. "For one, the nationals are very well looked after by the government, with free education and stipends thrown in for every child. For another, the locals need the expatriates because it is the expatriates who stay in the apartments owned by the locals," says he.

There are contrarian views, too. Says Maria Ouseph, a Muscat-based communications professional: "The protests in Muscat are not against the ruler or the government. And unlike what many Indian media portray, the demonstrations are not against NRIs and expats holding the majority of jobs. Unemployment is growing, given the increasing number of young educated Omanis, and the protests are specific in nature, demanding changes in administration targeted at issues like eliminating corruption, and replacing a few cabinet ministers, and not a regime change as in other Arab nations. No one wants the ruler ousted."

She says localisation of jobs is a gradual process and is something that NRIs have to gracefully accept. "We are guests in a foreign country that will only entertain us for so long, and many have been here for decades, enjoying the benefits that Oman has to offer," says Maria Ouseph.

Back home, the mood is sombre as families await the safe return of their near and dear ones.

At the glittering new terminal of the Thiruvananthapuram international airport that opened on Tuesday, many who turn up to receive their kith and kin from the Gulf and Africa are not expecting any gifts. Just getting their dear one back will do for now.