Amna Sharif was born and raised in Kuwait and has lived there for all of her life. She excelled in many domestic sports events as a child and during her teenage. She went on to represent Kuwait internationally, and, in her late twenties, has risen to the position of captain of the Kuwait Women’s National Cricket Team, making her a regional sports icon and a role model for thousands of young women across Kuwait and the wider Middle East. Given all of this, it might surprise some that Sharif is not a citizen of Kuwait; her parents emigrated to the small Gulf state from Pakistan. “As an expat, Kuwait has been my home for decades,” she told me. “Serving as the captain of its national team is my way of expressing my gratitude, and I feel a deep responsibility to represent this country.”
In many ways, Sharif’s story is emblematic of the ways in which traditional lines of nationality have become blurred in the interconnected, globalized world of the 21st century. In today’s highly competitive sports, many top-tier athletes from developing countries have represented nations that they do not formally belong to. The increasing interconnectedness and migration across the Gulf region has facilitated an exchange of ideas, cultures, and talents across national borders more quickly than ever before. Today, a majority of Gulf national teams feature players who are not citizens, but foreigners or expats born and raised in those countries. Gulf states have taken advantage of their large expat populations, using their vastly larger talent pool to represent them on the world stage.
Identity Beyond Borders
Across the Gulf, where expats have no right to citizenship or permanent residency, long-term migrant communities have existed for decades, resulting in second- and third-generation migrants residing there. One might assume that these expats would be regarded as second-class citizens and would fail to assimilate into the culture of their host countries. However, research suggests that this assumption is not accurate. Being born in a country, growing up there, making friends, and developing childhood memories can naturally lead to the growth of deep roots; for many expatriates who have spent little time in their country of citizenship, the Gulf country is considered home, and residents develop strong attachments to it, in spite of their temporary visa status. Developing a strong sense of belonging can, in turn, shape their sense of identity.
It helps that expatriates form the vast majority of the population in several of the Gulf states—notably Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. In Kuwait, for instance, temporary expats and their families comprise nearly 70 percent of the population. Sharif’s family moved to Kuwait from Pakistan in the early 1970s, a decade after the oil-rich Gulf nation gained independence, and have remained there since. All of their family and business ties for the past half-century have thus been in Kuwait, leaving them with little, if any, connection to Pakistan. “I have never visited Pakistan in my life,” Sharif told me during our conversation in early October. “I consider Kuwait my home country.”
In the case of Sharif and her team—which, like her, is mostly composed of non-Gulf nationals—the feeling of belonging without any legal status is the driving force behind their attachment to the host country and representation of national teams. “Many asked me why I didn’t leave the Kuwait national team and pursue my career abroad. But my greatest ambition is to develop Kuwait’s national cricket team and women’s cricket in the Gulf, enabling young girls to pursue their dreams without encountering the obstacles I faced,” she said.
The Boom in Women’s Cricket
In recent years, women’s cricket has been on the rise around the world. All the Gulf countries now have national cricket teams that represent them in international tournaments. The most recent addition to this list was the Saudi women’s national cricket team, which made its debut in an official match during the 2022 GCC Women’s Gulf Cup held in Oman. Organized by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the women’s T201 cricket (WT201) tournament featured all the women’s national teams of the GCC states. It marked the first time in the history of women’s cricket that all the Gulf countries played against each other at the same venue. Although some GCC nationals are included on each team, they are primarily composed of expatriates.
With the rapid growth of women’s cricket, Qatar has also embraced the sport to provide opportunities for women to participate as well as to promote the sport. The Qatar Cricket Association (QCA) has responded to the rapidly growing women’s cricket industry by launching a domestic T20 league named, ‘Qatar Professional League (QPL) – QCA’s Women’s T20 League’.
Qatar’s advancement of a cricket league was lauded across the Gulf. “People in the Gulf are increasingly interested in cricket, including women’s cricket. I’m proud to be part of this change that normalizes women’s presence in all sports” emphasizes Sharif, who is also part of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Future Leaders’ Program, which encourages women to become leaders of tomorrow in the field of cricket.
This surge of interest and support for women’s cricket has played a pivotal role in changing perceptions regarding women’s empowerment, gender roles in sports, and state-society relations, particularly concerning the expat community. In light of the growing interest in women’s cricket, three important trends are emerging in the Gulf region.
First, there is a growing emphasis on women’s empowerment, both among nationals and expatriates, in the GCC states. The generational change in the GCC states’ leaderships—for instance, through the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia—has played an important role in the positive transformation of giving wider room for women representation in several fields. Women from outside the Gulf have also benefited from these policies in many ways. Women’s empowerment, including through sports, has been a feature of many of the ‘Vision’ national development plans enacted across the GCC in recent years.
Second, the GCC states’ policies are investing more in sports teams as part of their soft power strategies. National leaders have prioritized sports as a cornerstone of their policies, striving to enable their countries to compete with the world’s best teams. To achieve this, they recruit their future champions from both inside and outside their countries. An interesting development in this regard is the UAE’s decision to allow expats born or residing in the Emirates to represent local clubs—and potentially the national team in all sports, a move that The National described as “ground-breaking.”
Third, success stories such as Sharif’s in sports have highlighted a growing connection between Gulf immigrants and their host countries. Long-term, multigenerational residents, born and raised in the region but lacking local citizenship, have often been overlooked in terms of their visibility and participation in the development of these countries. Unlike transient expatriates, many long-term residents consider the Gulf as their home and have begun to actively contribute to the promotion of these countries. Their sense of belonging and happiness within the migrant community may be important elements that enhance social harmony within society. Personal adjustment is likely to be positively associated with the above feelings and perceptions, which in turn may be beneficial in terms of greater productivity. Sharif and her colleagues are such an example for this trend.
As the Gulf countries work towards realizing their ambitious ‘Vision’ plans and enhancing their global standing, both nationals and non-nationals are integral to this significant transformation. The stories of individuals like Amna Sharif underscore the importance of women’s empowerment, the promotion of sports and culture, and the bond between migrants and host states in the developments of the GCC states.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.