North Africa, West Asia

The fate of Gulf migrant workers is deeply connected to the fate of the Arab uprisings

The more the Gulf states pay a reputational cost in the west for maintaining this system of exploitation, the harder it will be for them to resist demands for serious reform. 

David Wearing
6 May 2014
Construction upgrade for Qatar ahead of FIFA World Cup 2022

Construction upgrade for Qatar ahead of FIFA World Cup 2022. Demotix/Armstrong Vaz. All rights reserved.International pressure is now mounting on the Gulf states to abolish the 'kafala' system for migrant workers. The system, which places migrants at the mercy of abusive employers in conditions that often amount to forced labour, has come under heavy scrutiny following revelations of horrific mistreatment of domestic servants and the large number of deaths of construction workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Late last month, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants called for the ‘kafala’ system to be abolished and for full labour rights to be introduced, including the right to organise, following similar calls from Amnesty International and the International Trade Union Confederation.

What has yet to be remarked upon in the media coverage of this issue in recent months is the way in which the fate of Gulf migrants is connected to the fate of the post-2010 Arab uprisings over the wider region. This omission is symptomatic of the fact that discussion of Middle East politics in general, and the uprisings more specifically, tends to be framed purely in terms of individual authoritarian states and their denial of human and political rights within their own territory.

Whilst these factors are of undeniable importance, what is missing from the picture - as Gulf specialist Adam Hanieh persuasively argues in his recent book ‘Lineages of Revolt’ - is the shaping influence of the region’s political economy and associated class divisions, which connect and reinforce relations of oppression that are both national and transnational.  

Struggles for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ in one part of the region, therefore, may have a tangible bearing on similar confrontations in another. Once the migrant workers issue is analysed in this context, the true significance of the campaign against the ‘kafala’ system becomes both clear and difficult to overstate. If successful, its implications could be far-reaching and dramatic.

The Gulf regimes now find themselves in a real quandary. On the one hand, their international image and prestige matters a great deal to them, as evidenced, for example, by the purchase of major football clubs in Europe, the hosting of world-renowned art galleries and museums, and the hiring of expensive western PR firms to launder their tarnished reputations. The abuse of migrant labourers impacts on this directly.

Qatar did not go to great lengths to secure the World Cup so that football fans around the globe would associate the country with a tournament where 4,000 construction workers may die before a ball is even kicked. However, on the other hand, the exploitation of armies of insecure migrant workers is a key component of the Gulf monarchies’ domestic strategy for survival. These regimes may now have to choose between their image abroad and the security of their class privileges at home.

The story begins back at the high tide of Arab socialist nationalism during the 1950s and 60s. Spooked by extensive domestic worker militancy, which they generally put down by force, the Gulf elites decided to re-engineer their class systems in order to insulate themselves from challenges from below. Instead of relying on a restive domestic proletariat, they would simply import a new one, made up of migrants whose precarious situation would force them into subservience.

Initially, these workers mostly came from other Arab states, but over the last twenty years the main source has been flows of temporary labourers from the South Asian subcontinent. The migrant worker population has now grown to an extraordinary 50-70 per cent of the labour force in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, and 80-90 per cent in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. Lacking union rights, citizenship or permanent residency, this painfully subdued underclass sits below a comparatively more secure layer of nationals, with the ruling elite luxuriating at the top of the pyramid, wielding substantial control over the lower orders.

In dynamics reminiscent of the nineteenth century system of indenture that followed Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, migrant workers tend to be recruited in their home countries for large fees which are often paid through borrowing. The key feature of the arrangement is that the migrant’s visa is tied to a particular sponsor, placing the former at the latter’s mercy. Workers are frequently paid less than they were originally promised, in many cases having to surrender their passport to the sponsor whose permission they need to change jobs or even to leave the country. The system is effectively one of bonded labour where, as the UN Special Rapporteur comments in his report on Qatar, “migrants are often seen as their employer’s ‘property’ rather than human beings”.

A large proportion of male migrant workers appear particularly in the private construction sector, lacking minimum wage protection, labouring in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and living in squalid, overloaded dormitories. Women tend to be found in domestic service where they are acutely vulnerable to employers whose disregard for their welfare can shade into the sadistic, including physical and sexual abuse, with pay sometimes withheld for months on end. Such is the trauma of working in these conditions that, according to estimates cited by Hanieh, migrant workers in Kuwait were attempting or committing suicide every 2.5 days in 2010, while in the first half of 2012, suicide rates among migrant workers in Bahrain reached one per week.

Such misery, abuse and exploitation is virtually intrinsic to the ‘kafala’ system, where the precarious situation of the migrants makes collective action in the workplace all but impossible. Unions are banned outright in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and severely restricted elsewhere in the Gulf . To stop the flow of horrifying stories that have proven so embarrassing to the Gulf regimes internationally, the ‘kafala’ system itself would have to be abolished and fundamental workplace rights introduced. But to do this would be to tug at a loose thread that could unravel the class hierarchies in the region. And as Hanieh argues, “[t]he emergence of a strong and militant labour movement in the Gulf – the likelihood of which would be greatly increased upon the extension of equal rights to all workers regardless of origin – could profoundly challenge the position of the Gulf rulers”.

Such a challenge need not result in outright revolution to have significant effect. Historically, organised labour has played a leading role in changing political and class relations in the states of the global north, even where emasculated constitutional monarchs have remained in place. Powerful unions have also had a major impact on the course of events during the Arab uprisings in both Egypt and Tunisia. If such forces were to enter the scene in the Gulf, and have a real impact, the knock-on effects could be felt right across the Arab world.

The Gulf states now comprise the hub of a regional system of economic exploitation and political oppression. Hanieh documents the ways in which, over recent decades, the economies of the Middle East were opened up to foreign capital through neoliberal programmes of ‘structural adjustment’ presided over by the IMF and the World Bank. Gulf capital has flooded into regional economies over the last ten years in particular, taking advantage of financial deregulation and privatisation of state industries. In the period immediately preceding the uprisings, the Gulf was the leading source of foreign direct investment for Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine and Tunisia, and second in Morocco and Syria.

The neoliberal reforms of which Gulf elites were a principal beneficiary served, in the now familiar manner, to restructure class relations within the affected countries. Economic elites filled their pockets, state decision-making became less accountable and the apparatus of repression was strengthened. On the other side of the coin, the population experienced a frontal assault on its labour rights and living standards.  Cheap labour was deemed to be the ‘competitive advantage’ of the Arab peoples; their attraction for global capital being the ease with which they could be exploited.

Real wages were therefore driven down sharply which, along with deep cuts to social spending, had predictable effects on human welfare. By the eve of the revolution in Tunisia, 23.8 per cent lived below the poverty line, while the figure for Egypt and Morocco was around 40 per cent. In those latter two countries, one in five children demonstrated stunted growth as a result of malnutrition. And all the while, Gulf investors and their national counterparts raked in their winnings. Overall growth was often robust, but the average person saw little or none of it. This was neoliberalism as grand larceny, but more than that, as Hanieh puts it, the period of structural adjustment “needs to be understood as a project of class power that strengthened the position of national elites while simultaneously consolidating the Gulf’s influence over the region”.

So it was no surprise that, when these conditions helped to ignite the Arab world at the turn of 2010 and 2011, the Gulf states would be at the forefront of efforts to co-opt or crush the uprisings in order to protect their political and economic interests. In addition to the assistance given to the Bahraini regime as it put down a peaceful, broad based pro-democracy movement with brute force in the spring of 2011, the Gulf states also inserted themselves into uprisings in Libya and Syria, managed a transition in Yemen that removed the president while protecting the body of the state, and bankrolled a coup regime in Egypt which has killed and imprisoned thousands of its opponents.  Over the last three years, the Gulf monarchies have established themselves as the major regional counter-revolutionary force, which brings us back to the issue of migrant workers and the potential impact their emancipation could have.

In Hanieh’s words, “[t]he weight of the Gulf in the Middle East political economy points to the fact that any reversal of the patterns of neoliberal development in the Middle East requires challenging capitalism in the Gulf itself. For this reason, political struggles in the Gulf…are immensely significant, and form a direct continuity with those elsewhere in the Middle East. …Moreover, a vital element to challenging capital and state in the Gulf must be a defence of the region’s migrant workers. The exploitation of these workers is an integral part of how working classes have formed in the Middle East and is essential to the ways that Gulf capitalism continues to project its power”. Simply put, the end of the ‘kafala’ system and the empowerment of migrant workers would strike directly at the core of autocracy, exploitation and counter-revolution in the Arab world.

The relevance of these observations to western audiences is plain to see. For example, if football fans make clear that they have no intention of turning on their televisions to watch a World Cup built on the backs of forced labour and the corpses of thousands of south Asian migrants, then the ‘kafala’ system in Qatar may start to become untenable.

Similarly, the more the Gulf states pay a reputational cost in the west for maintaining this system of exploitation - negating the millions those same regimes pay on PR firms to polish their image abroad - the harder it will be for them to resist demands for serious reform. The long-standing alliances between the Gulf monarchies and western states (not least the UK) offer a series of pressure points that can be used by campaigners wishing to show solidarity with the Gulf migrant labour force. The west, no less than the Gulf states, is implicated in the structures of oppression in the Middle East. But by understanding the way in which those structures work, what the connections are, and where we ourselves fit into the system, we can gain a sense of how we can best contribute to the wider effort to dismantle it.

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