Gulf Dreams for Justice: From Rescue to Solidarity

Gulf Dreams for Justice: From Rescue to Solidarity

The Gulf countries’ migrant labor regime is brutal. But calling it “slavery” obscures what is really a highly modern system of exploitation—and the struggles of workers themselves to change it.

Barbers at Bengali Friday Market, Mafra Workers City, Abu Dhabi, March 2015 (MTL Collective)

Since 2006, migrant workers have launched a spate of labor actions and strikes in the UAE. These actions, combined with mounting evidence of the mistreatment and deaths of workers building the World Cup infrastructure in neighboring Qatar, has attracted global attention to the plight of the workforce on which the economic growth of the Gulf has been built.

Of the roughly 22 million migrants who currently live in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, South Asian work­ers have been the primary contributors to the region’s pell-mell development since the second oil boom of the 1970s. In the UAE, up to 90 percent of its nine million residents are migrants; “low-skilled” workers from India make up the largest popula­tion (between 2.2 and 2.8 million), followed by workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The number of migrant workers notably spiked after the speculative real estate boom began in 2002, when the Gulf’s investors returned to the region following September 11 and a decade-long steep escalation of crude prices. Dubai, which hosted a number of international mega–real estate projects aimed at global elite investors, became an icon for the region’s growth.

The region’s appetite for cheap labor during this period was insatia­ble. But just as the 2008 financial crisis disproportionately hurt African-American and Latino homeowners targeted by risky “subprime” loans in the United States, the pop­ping of the Gulf’s real estate bubble took its worst toll on migrant workers: 5 million lost their jobs overnight and were sent home. Throughout this decade of boom and bust, working conditions and wages for an already precarious and indebted workforce—one that despite its size is not cov­ered by the 1990 International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers because Gulf governments insist that they are “temporary workers”—have significantly deteri­orated. Moreover, following the Arab Uprisings of 2011, GCC states, fearful of internal instability, have ramped up the securitization of immigration policy to further curb labor militancy.

Despite the lack of legal protections and their precarious position in the workforce, migrant workers have been active participants in the evolving political struggles over their future in the region. In our longer article in The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (2015), we examine the conditions that spurred their migration from South Asia—urban­ization, neoliberal reform, decline of paid work, and debt—as well as the broader geopolitical forces that continue to shape their lives in the Gulf. We believe that such an examination offers a better starting point for building transnational solidarity campaigns: instead of assuming that the exploitative system of migrant labor in the Gulf is due to “cultural difference,” we link the conditions of migrant workers today to the history of Gulf capitalism and its racial and gendered division of labor.


The segregation of millions of “bachelor builders”—with no formal rights to association or representation—into isolated labor camps has brought international shame upon the GCC countries. But what differentiates the conditions of these migrant workers from the plight of undocumented workers in the United States and Europe? They, too, face insecurity, racialized violence, and scant protection of their labor rights, especially since national governments in the global North have adopted increasingly restrictive migration policies and enforced detention and deportation for “low-skilled” non-white migrants.

The GCC’s kafala work-permit sponsorship system is often defended by Gulf government representatives and their business partners, whether the Guggenheim or FIFA, as a matter of “cultural difference” and criticisms of the system by “outsiders” (Gulf Labor or its NGO allies) are typically deflected as ethnocentric insensitivity toward Arab cultural norms. By contrast, the Western institutions that employ and exploit the migrant workers hired through the kafala system, like NYU, the Guggenheim, and the Louvre, are warmly welcomed by the same government representatives to the region as proponents of liberal values and norms such as freedom of speech, cross-cultural dialogue, and fair labor standards.

Yet it is also true that in some Western campaigns and media, kafala is depicted as a form of “modern-day slavery” by summoning up stock images of anonymous suffering and calls for Western intervention to shut it down. Such narratives trade on two troubling assumptions: first, that kafala is a premodern patronage system outside of liberal democratic norms, and second, that these migrant workers, driven to desperation by conditions in their home countries, are passive victims in need of rescue by Western activists. Both these assumptions must be challenged if we are to meaningfully support the efforts of migrant workers in the region to change their own living and working conditions.

Researchers and activists from the region have shown that kafala is best understood as a modern and especially lucrative visa-trading system. The political compact that separates migrants from citizens within the GCC is not a product of premodern cultural difference. Rather, they argue, the vast wealth from oil and natural gas is central to how the ruling classes in the GCC maintain their autocratic power, protected in no small part by the United States and Western allies. Their wealth allows the Gulf’s ruling elites to “rent” foreign working classes who have far fewer political and labor rights compared to the citizens who make up 10 to 15 percent of the region’s population. In a recent essay, Adam Hanieh argues that citizenship laws, which vary across specific GCC states, are designed to create a “double exclusion”: migrants are excluded from citizenship, while citizens are excluded from the private labor market. Designing and enforcing a system of “permanent temporary migration” to meet economic demand has resulted in a racialized discrepancy in wages between migrant groups, high rates of exploitation, and an in-built mechanism to distinguish the rights of citizens from those of migrant workers, especially when it comes to quashing potential labor unrest. In practice, as Anjali Kamat and others have documented, kafala has become a for-profit, privatized sponsorship system that allows states to delegate oversight of migrants to either individual nationals or, more commonly, to a chain of South Asian brokers and middlemen who manage recruitment in origin countries and in the Gulf itself.

The involvement of South Asian middlemen in the Gulf’s visa trading system speaks to the sharp racial and class hierarchies even within migrant groups. At the top are white North American and Western European “expats,” followed by non-national Arab and Asian professionals who are considered “migrants,” even though many of them were born in the Gulf or belong to families who have lived there for generations. The “middlemen” who broker the visa-trading system directly with migrant workers come from this group. Next down the ladder are South and East Asian “clerks” (office workers across various sectors), followed by the large majority of South and Southeast Asian manual and service workers, including the mostly female domestic labor force. Where one belongs on the migrant chain, argues Michelle Buckley in a recent essay, affects wages, the ability to sponsor family members, access to housing and services, social status, surveillance of movement, and overall job security. But to understand how the kafala system was itself created, we must look far beyond local occupational structures.

The United States and other Western powers have directly shaped the modern political architecture of the region by using the oil monarchies of the Gulf to subsidize what Timothy Mitchell has referred to as the “carbon democracies” of the West. This should make us question whether the GCC’s exploited migrant workers can be liberated by an influx of “Western values” alone. In his 2009 book America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier Robert Vitalis shows how the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), an amalgamation of Western firms, implemented a Jim Crow–like colorline in the postwar labor camps of Saudi Arabia. Responding to labor unrest in the sector, ARAMCO organized the camps—work, compensation, and housing—along racial lines, in clear parallel to the historic mistreatment of African-American workers in the United States.

The contradiction between Washington’s promotion of Cold War democracy and freedom and ARAMCO’s enforcement of a racial division of labor transplanted from the “original American empire” did not go unnoticed. Vitalis excerpts an oil worker’s compelling testimony from a 1949 issue of a Pakistani newspaper: “Their color distinction and racial discrimination coupled with their haughtiness and high-handedness was at the root of every maneuver and machination devised to degrade and insult us.” For workers like these, the claim that U.S. political and corporate interests promoted social uplift, let alone freedom, clearly rang hollow.

ARAMCO’s segregated labor camps, as documented by Vitalis, were largely made up of Saudi and other Arab workers. But labor unrest and strikes eventually led to the nationalization of Saudi oil, and Saudi workers were incorporated into public-sector employment while migrant workers from Yemen, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa replaced local workers in the oil industry. The large-scale use of a non-national, predominantly South Asian workforce through the kafala system began on a significant scale only after the post-1973 oil boom.

Unlike other Gulf countries like Bahrain and Oman, both of which had deep ties to the subcontinent that predate European colonialism, the Saudi case makes particularly explicit how the racialized division of labor so characteristic of the Gulf today has colonial and neocolonial roots. American and European ideologies of white supremacy and European privilege continue to shape the institutionalization of racial hierarchies in the region, and are further reinforced today by Arab and Asian variations of racial/caste superiority.

The turn to a majority South Asian labor force in the Gulf, beginning in the 1970s and accelerating through the 1990s, is often explained by the lower relative wages and higher numbers of reserve workers from the subcontinent. But this is only part of the story. The GCC states’ initial preference in the 1960s for workers from Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria also shifted because of political concerns. By the 1970s, leaders in the region were wary of leftist pan-Arab political sensibilities, insurgent labor activism, and the growth of pro-Palestinian sentiment.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Palestinian and Yemeni workers were deported en masse from several GCC states because they were suspected of supporting Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the 1990s, governments of sending nations in South and Southeast Asia began to actively promote labor migration as an export strategy, with Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka competing with India over contracts for migrant work in the Gulf. Seeking to diversify its predominantly Indian labor force, the UAE government passed a law in 2005 decreeing that contractors must “source workers from at least three countries.” This prompted economic managers in the sending countries to compete for the most “heat-resistant workers” who could endure the longest work hours. Following in this vein, embassies and consulates from source countries, with the exception of the Philippines, have done very little to protect the well-being of the citizens they help send to the Gulf.


Our investigations found that in both India and the UAE, workers had paid (and in most cases, gone into debt for) between $1,500 to $2,000 to be recruited, but they earned only about $250 a month, which is also the estimated median income in the UAE. According to workers’ own estimates, and taking into account the dramatic increase in the cost of living in their home countries where their remittances were being sent, a fair or “living” wage would fall closer to $550 per month. In March 2015, therefore, Gulf Labor issued a letter to the Guggenheim leadership supporting specific demands made by workers such as a living wage for those employed by the museum, a debt compensation fund, and measures to ensure meaningful worker representation and the right to free association, whether on Saadiyat Island or in Manhattan.

Labor organizers in India and across South Asia have emphasized the need to reform the punishing terms of recruitment debt, especially for migrant workers coming from socially and economically marginalized communities who often earn the lowest monthly income and pay the highest interest rates. They have criticized both their governments’ lack of support for migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf and failure to provide “rehabilitation” (finding paid work) when workers returned home.

Beyond the specific reforms outlined above, today’s “migrant crisis” offers an opportunity to rethink what we mean by solidarity. Holding iconic institutions of high culture like the Guggenheim and the Louvre accountable for their treatment of workers is not enough, nor is it sufficient to recognize that we are complicit in creating the conditions that compel workers to leave their homes in the first instance. True solidarity means forging a coalition of equals—recognizing that migrant workers in the Gulf are far from passive victims—and supporting their struggle for life and dignity.

Paula Chakravartty teaches in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication and the Gallatin School at NYU, and is a member of the Gulf Labor Coalition.

Nitasha Dhillon is part of the MTL collective, Tidal Magazine, and the Gulf Labor Coalition. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Media Study at SUNY Buffalo.

A longer version of this essay appears in The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (OR Books, 2015).