Study Guides

The Arab Diaspora

The Arab diaspora is one of the most widespread immigrant populations around the world, as well as one of the trickiest to define. Unlike most diaspora populations, Arabs are not categorised by a single country but rather a collection of 22 culturally similar ones. These are Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

While these countries obviously bear a number of differences, they are bound together by a shared cultural heritage and identity. The total population of these combined countries is over 400 million while the total diaspora population is difficult to estimate due to its prevalence, but is believed to be in excess of 20 million. The diaspora is dispersed throughout the world with major concentrations in Latin America, Western Europe and North America. Brazil has the largest population by some distance with 12 million, followed by France (6 million), Indonesia (5 million), Argentina (4.5 million), the United States (3.5 million), Turkey (2.6 million), Israel (1.7 million), Venezuela (1.6 million), Colombia (1.5 million), Iran (1.5 million), Chad (1.4 million), Mexico (1.1 million) and Chile (1 million).

The Arab diaspora in Latin America is the largest in the world, a fact which often surprises people. The vast majority of Arab immigrants arrived in Latin America at the beginning of the 20th Century. The majority of these settlers were Arab Christians fleeing the slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The vast majority of Arab settlers in Latin America hailed from modern-day Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. The Lebanese and Syrian migrants generally settled in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico whilst the Palestinians settled in Chile as well as Central America.

Brazilian Arabs, the largest diaspora in the world, first began to settle in the country at the end of the 19th Century as the Ottoman Empire became increasingly beset by political instability. This wave of immigration continued up until the mid-20th Century, peaking during the Second World War and virtually dissipating thereafter. The vast majority of these immigrants were Christians, which facilitated assimilation more easily. Indeed, the intermarriage rate was very high between Arab immigrants and other Brazilians.

The population has widely dispersed throughout the country and has not clustered together in a ghettoised fashion. Indeed, few Arab Brazilians today speak Arabic at all. Despite this assimilation, the Arab population (given its size) has had a significant impact on Brazilian culture. This is most evident in the country’s cuisine, which exhibits Arab influences. Furthermore, Arab cuisine is popular and easily accessible throughout the country. A large number of well-known Brazilians have Arabic heritage. Arab immigration to other countries in Latin America follows a similar pattern to that in Brazil. Broadly speaking, Arabs in Latin America have achieved considerable success across a number of different fields.

The Arab diaspora in Europe is a more complicated story, with issues of integration far more pressing than in Latin America. The diaspora hails from a wide variety of regions in the modern-day Arab world, but the majority are from Mahgreb in North Africa. This includes modern-day countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This is especially pertinent in countries such as France and Spain, both of which have large Arab populations. France’s large Arab population stems from a variety of factors. Proximity being one but the most significant is its former colonial influence over the region. Indeed, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were all French colonies. While under French rule, there was considerable displacement and the country’s Arab population skyrocketed following their independence, which facilitated freer movement of people. France, with links in Syria and Lebanon, also boasts a large Mashreq Arab population, although considerably smaller than that from the Mahgreb. France’s Arab community has encountered a unique set of issues due to the specificity of French national identity. Indeed, the French government has taken a hard line against the mainstreaming of Arab cultural customs, specifically those to do with the Muslim religion. The most notable instance of this is the banning of the burkha. France’s emphasis on national identity over cultural heritage has exacerbated tensions with the country’s Arab community, who are beset with something of an identity crisis.

Spain’s Arab population has a far longer history due to the country’s previous status as an Arab subject. In the 8th Century, Spain was conquered by the Umayyad Empire, which saw a large number of Arabs settle in the country. Long after the Arab Empire’s collapse and the rise of the Spanish Empire, much of the population remained intact, albeit significantly assimilated into the Spanish national identity. Modern Arab immigration to Spain is common, particularly from Morocco, Algeria and the partially-recognised Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, due to their close proximity to the country.

The United Kingdom’s Arab community is smaller than those in France and Spain but nonetheless a hugely significant aspect of the country’s multicultural identity. The Arab population is represented by immigrants from a wealth of different countries including Somalia (99,000), Iraq (70,000), Egypt (29,000), Saudi Arabia (29,000) and Morocco (21,000). The population is overwhelmingly Muslim and heavily centred in London and its surrounding suburbs. That being said, there are major Arab hubs in Cardiff and Newcastle as well as other major cities. The community reflects the cultural diversity of the Arab world and is amongst the most prevalent ethnic minorities in the country.

The Arab population of Europe, while its status obviously differs from country to country in terms of specific details, has faced considerable difficulty with assimilation and prejudice in recent years, with the rise of Islamic extremism in the West and the Middle East having a knock-on effect and contributing to misinformed negative opinions of Arab culture. Despite this, a large number of Arab immigrants have achieved considerable success across a number of fields throughout Europe.

The Arab diaspora around the world has been severely impacted in a negative way by the rise of Islamic extremism, which has exacerbated racial tensions throughout the world and instilled an exaggerated and misinformed sense of paranoia amongst local populations. This is in addition to pre-existing difficulties of assimilation. Throughout the world (Latin America being a notable exception due to its overwhelmingly Christian Arab population), the population has struggled to adjust to radically different cultures due to a sense of incompatibility in addition to pre-existing hostilities towards them. Arabs overseas are often scapegoated as an antagonistic and threatening ‘other’, a grossly inaccurate and unfair perception.

In the 21st Century the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein by US and UK military forces and the Syrian Civil War has convulsed the Middle East once more and resulted in millions of Iraqis and more recently Syrians being displaced. Many of these refugees have settled in Europe and beyond constituting the latest wave of the Arab Diaspora.

Main image: Exploring the cuisines of Little Arabia in California ©  Visit California.