From Lar to Kuwait

Men from the southern Iranian town of Lar (approximately 26,000) have a long history as merchants engaged in Indian Ocean sea trade and in local overland trading between the Persian Gulf and inland Iran. Laris assumed a new role in the trade of the Persian Gulf region with the beginning of oil production in Kuwait and other small states after World War II. At that time, Lari men began migrating to Kuwait to open small shops that catered to the huge influx of migrants working in the oil industry and in construction. Typically, Lari men left their families and worked in Kuwait for periods of 18 months to several years before returning home for six month visits.

In contrast to the educated migrants from Egypt and Palestine who staffed the Kuwaiti bureaucracy, and the uneducated migrants from Arab countries, Pakistan and Asia who worked as unskilled laborers, almost all Laris were engaged in retail trade. Typically a man would start out in business with a small shop in partnership with another man, often a relative. The stores ranged from green groceries to import shops.

Beginning in the 1940s, remittances from Kuwait and other states such as Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar increasingly supplied families in Lar with cash income. By the 1960s this money had become the mainstay of the town's economy. During this period, Lar's economy was transformed into a cash economy and the standard of living was raised significantly. With the linking of family fortunes to cash remittances rather than land, agriculture or local trade, wealth no longer reflected traditional class and status rankings. Thus, new wealth permitted upward mobility in the status system.

By the 1970s most families had at least one close male relative migrating to Kuwait. While high wages or profits in Kuwait were important incentives to migrate, conditions in Larestan also fostered migration. First, agriculture, because of the hot climate, lack of fresh water for irrigation, low technological development, and the fragmentation of holdings after land reform in 1961, did not provide a reliable base for either subsistence goods or cash income.

Second, Larestan was isolated from the political, economic and geographic centers of Iran until very recently. Not until the early 1960s did the central government allocate significant funds to Larestan, increase the size and number of government agencies in Lar, and expand public education. Even then no attempts were made to develop the region economically, and employment opportunities did not increase significantly.

Third, there has been a significant population increase in the Lar region. From about 6,000 inhabitants in the late nineteenth century, the population of Lar grew from 14,128 in 1956 to approximately 26,000 in 1975. Temporary migration to Kuwait has allowed economic stability in the face of such rapid population increases. Rather than join the flow of migrants to the larger Iranian cities, Lar families remained based in Lar while their menfolk travelled between Lar and Kuwait.

Investment of Surplus Cash

Most Lari men who had shops in Kuwait made profits in excess of their family needs. These traders invested their surplus cash in three ways. Some men expanded their operations in Kuwait. Kuwaiti restrictions governing property ownership by non-citizens, however, limited these investments. Therefore, enterprising Laris would lease shops or entire buildings from Arab owners, and then sublet rooms to other immigrants. Such investments were often more profitable than running a shop.

Other traders invested profits in houses and stores in Lar, with an eye to returning to Lar to set up business. Investment opportunities in Lar were limited, however. With few houses on the market in Lar, one had to buy property on the fringes of the town and then build a house. Furthermore the clientele for shops of all types was limited so competition was keen.

The best investments were made in the larger, rapidly expanding cities of Iran in the 1960s and early 1970s. A number of Laris with profits from Kuwait invested in shops and real estate in the provincial capital of Shiraz. Prior to the revolution, one group of families from a village near Lar owned all of the imported food shops, restaurants and hotels in Shiraz which catered to Europeans and Americans.

Wholesale businesses in Iran were also good investments. Several Lari families had acquired considerable wealth from wholesale grain and tea businesses they established in the growing port city of Bandar Abbas. If families did well in another Iranian city, however, they generally settled there permanently.

Effects of Migration on Lar

The most important economic effect of the money obtained in Kuwait was that it brought Lar into a cash economy. Small-scale farming on the outskirts of Lar virtually disappeared as did many local crafts and the making of items for local consumption. Remittances also raised the standard of living for most Lar families allowing them to buy a variety of consumer goods. In fact, the smuggling of such articles as Japanese TV sets, wrist watches and tape recorders was a lucrative side business for many migrants.

The most noticeable social change brought about by migration has been greater social mobility. Limited by the traditional system of social ranking, ordinary Lar families found different ways to raise their social status. The principal methods were either to invest in Western material goods and in secular education for the children, or to sponsor traditional religious works, wakes and ceremonies and to donate money for the construction of public buildings. The first which benefited individuals, coincided with an erosion of the extended family, while the latter strategy maintained and built upon traditional family ties. Those families opting for the individual strategy generally have not continued to migrate to Kuwait since the educated sons have sought white collar, bureaucratic jobs in Iran. Those who continued to invest in a more traditional lifestyle generally did not educate their sons beyond primary school; these sons continued the pattern of temporary migration to Kuwait.

Overall, migration has maintained traditional family organization. Because the men leave their wives and children in Lar, migration has tended to reinforce the traditional extended household. In a Muslim town such as Lar where a man is required to attend to most family business in the public sphere (including the daily shopping for food, banking, and registering children for school) migration of adult males led many of their families to join the households of relatives.

When a woman's husband is in Kuwait she often moves in with either her own or her husband's family. Whether a woman continues to live alone or with relatives depends on a combination of personal and social factors: the woman's education, whether or not she or her husband are from more religiously conservative families, whether the husband or wife is more dominant in household decisions, whether the husband's family has established control over the wife. (In one case a strong-willed young woman moved back in with her parents the first two times her husband went to Kuwait. The third time she rented out two rooms in her house to three female teachers from another town. After the birth of her second child, she invited her parents and younger brothers and sister to move into her house where she was clearly mistress. (Her mother did all the cooking while her younger sister and sister-in-law cleaned and washed the dishes.)

Migration, a Positive or Negative Force?

Lar in many ways appears to be a case apart from the portrait of other, "typical" labor exporting villages. Laris who migrate to the Arab countries of the Gulf generally do not go as unskilled laborers but as small merchants and shopkeepers. Their income is much higher than that of a manual laborer. In addition their businesses are usually successful and stable. Return migrants have invested not only in consumer goods and small businesses in their own town, but also in successful business enterprises in the larger cities of Iran.

Despite the wealth many Laris acquire from migration, they often express a desire to abandon it in favor of obtaining jobs in Iran. Most men complain about being separated from their families. In the 1970s people looked to education as an alternative route to employment. In fact, the former Shah's policies after the early 1960s, encouraging public education, inhibited migration as more and more families began sending their sons to school instead of to Kuwait.

In spite of these differences, the Lar region bears some resemblances to other labor exporting areas. Larestan has become increasingly less productive in the agricultural and craft sectors of the economy, and more dependent on cash remittances. Goods for household consumption are no longer produced locally. Between 1956 and 1966 the percentage of men engaged in agriculture in Larestan declined from 57% to 38%.

The decline in traditional agriculture and industries is not necessarily negative, but it does reflect declining employment opportunities in Lar. However much Laris may want to stay home, there is little work. Yet, what some might call "development" in the region is also viewed with skepticism by the Laris. In 1975 a French firm conducted explorations for natural gas in the area. Laris had mixed feelings about the project and its possible effects on Lar if natural gas were found. As one man put it, "What good would it do Lar? The ones to benefit will be foreigners and engineers from Tehran. The only thing it will do for Laris is push up prices."

Iran's rapidly expanding economy provided good investment opportunities for Laris in the early 1970s. However, given the present economic situation in Iran, internal investment opportunities have undoubtedly shrunk. From past trends one can speculate that migration to Kuwait has, if anything, increased. Barring further employment restrictions by Kuwait, this trend will probably continue in the near future.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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