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Middle East & Africa World

The Gilded Gulf: The Exploitation that Drives the Glamour of the Persian Gulf

In 2010, surgeons at Kamburupitiya Hospital in Sri Lanka received a particularly odd case. A 49-year old woman was paralyzed by her pain, unable to walk. X-ray examination discovered 24 nails wedged inside her arms, legs, and forehead. In a laborious three-hour procedure, hospital surgeons removed 13 two-inch nails and six smaller nails. The remaining five were left inside her body to avoid significant damage to the woman’s nerves.

Further investigation revealed these nails were forcibly inserted into the woman by her employer. Mrs. Ariyawathi, a 49-year old Sri Lankan maid, was regularly tortured by the Saudi Arabian family that hired her. She told local Sinhalaese newspaper Lakbima that “the [wife of the household] heated the nails and gave them to her husband who hammered them in. When I shouted in pain, their [seven] children would show me a knife and threaten to kill me.”

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Ariyawathi’s story is not an isolated case. Since the 2000s, thousands of similar stories of abuse of migrant workers living in the Gulf States have surfaced. These cases range in severity from salary undercompensation to physical torture. 

In 2019, the Indian government released statistics revealing the scope of worker abuse in the Gulf. During the three-year period from 2016 to 2019, Indian embassies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—received 77,155 labor abuse complaints. 

While most of these human rights violations go unnoticed, occasionally, some incidents—like the Saadiyat Island controversy—bring international attention to the issue. Saadiyat Island is a development project—studded with two luxury resorts, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and a private beach—intended to be a playground for the ultra wealthy. Reports of exploitative practices involved in the construction of the Island forced Human Rights Watch to launch an investigation that resulted in the group being banned in 2014 from entering the UAE. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch World Report, Saadiyat construction workers who went on strike to protest labor abuse like “recruiting fees, confiscated worker passports, and…substandard accommodation” were deported. Additionally, many workers were subject to “forced labor, slavery, or trafficking.” 

Inhumane treatment of workers is widespread throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. Fair Action Organization’s investigation of migrant hotel worker conditions in Dubai revealed that “they work days as long as 12 hours with little or no overtime pay.” These horrific conditions also come with a high body count. Official data released by the Embassy of India in Doha shows that 761 Indian workers died in Qatar between January 2014 and September 2016. 

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At the root of this mass exploitation is a rigid legal framework that gives employers disproportionate power over their employees. The Kafala Sponsorship System, which operates in all of the GCC states, ties migrant workers to the individual employers who sponsor their visas and prevents workers from changing employers. Consequently, the system allows employers to subject poor migrant workers to inhuman conditions and leverage financial pressure to ensure compliance. NYU professor and author of The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor Andrew Ross explains in an interview to The Politic that “Under the Kafala system… it is very difficult for workers to move from one place of employment to another.” Workers find themselves “earning a lot less, having a lot less mobility, and essentially in a debt trap.” As a result, “they have to submit to certain conditions [they] would not have otherwise submitted to.”

Since most migrants are uneducated, poor, and desperate for work, jobs in the Gulf offer the hope of building a future for their families. For example, a refuse worker in India would earn about $45 a month, while in Kuwait they could earn up to $560 per month. Predatory recruiters often entrap these people by locking them into contracts and abusing Middle Eastern labor laws. A 2016 Amnesty International investigation into the effects of the Kafala System in Qatar reveals how the recruitment process operates. The report found that the workers are often forced to pay “large fees ($500 to $4,300) to recruiters in their home country to get a job.” Consequently, 74 percent of migrants are forced to take out loans, often turning to informal moneylenders who can charge interest rates of 15-60 percent. 

After migrants are entrapped, the report finds, they are often “deceived as to the pay or type of work on offer (all but six of the men had salaries lower than promised when they arrived, sometimes by half).” As Amnesty International Researcher May Romanos explains to The Politic, this “will have a domino effect on [workers’] financial situation back home. They become unable to pay their loans back and might end up coming back penniless and more indebted than when they migrated.” In a 2006 NPR radio session, Baya Mubarak, employee of the Indian consulate in Dubai, states that “most of these men make about $150 per month and many are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt, which amounts to little more than indentured servitude.” 

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When 55-year-old Kasthuri Munirathinam left her rural South Indian village, she was confident she was making the right decision. Born into intergenerational poverty, she wanted her children to have a better future than she did. To give her daughter the chance to escape the cycle of poverty, she plunged herself into debt to marry her daughter to a wealthier family. 

Like thousands before her, she was discovered by a recruitment agency who promised her a new life in Saudi Arabia, where she could earn about $267 per month as a maid. When she arrived, however, she realized she had made a grave mistake. Weeks into her new job, she found herself working unreasonable hours and being paid less than she was promised. 

After being locked in a room for expressing her concerns to her employer, she was out of options. In an attempt to escape out of the window of her employer’s house, she jumped out of the window of the third-floor of the house. To teach her a lesson, her Saudi employer took her to the Riyadah hospital, where the doctor was instructed to amputate her arm. All of the abuse Kasthuri was subjected to points to a larger problem with the Kafala system. It establishes an unhealthy power dynamic between employers and employees. As Ross puts it, “the problem is not an economic one. There is more than enough money to pay these workers a decent wage. The issue is one of power.” Indeed, the Kafala system creates an unbalanced power dynamic between vulnerable employers and abusive workers. 

Moreover, all of the financial pressure and stress these workers endure takes an enormous toll on their mental health. In fact, many migrant workers commit suicide. The Indian consulate in Dubai revealed that at least two Indian expats commit suicide every week. Over eight months in 2017, 35 Ugandan foreign workers were driven to suicide in UAE. In 2018 alone, the horrific work conditions in Lebanon led 25 foreign foreign workers to commit suicide. 

While many consequences of the Kafala system are unintentional, the system was designed to give the state power over migrant workers. According to Romanos, “countries like UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain have a high number of migrant workers, sometimes exceeding the numbers of their nationals. These countries feel the need to keep tight control over the migrant workers population coming to work in their countries and manage to do so through the Kafala system.”

Historically, the Kafala system, conceptualized in the 1970s, was created out of a need to promote economic growth without compromising the cultural homogeneity of the Gulf states. As Karen E. Young, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor at George Washington University, explains to The Politic, the “system of immigration [was] created to solve a labor shortage… to meet the demands of developing their economies to produce hydrocarbon exports and to build the social services of a modern state.” The GCC oil boom launched the nations into rapid industrialization and increased the demand for foreign labor. While the initial wave of foreign migrants were primarily Arabs in the 70s and 80s, the rise of Pan-Arabism—nationalist unity among Arabs—heightened fears that poor Arab migrants would corrupt the culture of Persion Gulf states. Consequently, the nations turned primarily towards South Asian immigrants. This is why 89 percent of the migrants who come to the Middle East for work are Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans

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“Heaven-defying architecture, 3D-printed buildings, self-driving cars, and pneumatic Hyperloop transports”—all destined to launch over the next decade— represent why Futurism dubs Dubai the “City of the Future.” Dubai’s image as the world’s glamorous technological utopia has been meticulously crafted by its government. 

This image requires consistent, rapid commercial proliferation to thrive. Each year since 1999, Dubai has constructed 17 new hotels on average, which has driven mass-scale temporary immigration into the UAE. This mass immigration is why 90 percent of the United Arab Emirates’s population consists of temporary labor migrants. Essentially, every dazzling new skyscraper in Dubai contributes to the ever-increasing number of migrant workers. 

While the Kafala system is the primary means for mass importation of cheap labor into the Gulf, it is only a subset of a larger neo-liberal push by the government. For the last two decades, the Gulf nations have liberalized ownership laws, opened foreign investment flows, privatized many state-owned industries, restructured food and energy subsidies, and relaxed trade barriers. The liberalization of these nations’ economies have intertwined their public and private sectors, where governments legislate in the best interests of the multinationals that feed their royal families. This is why the UAE, for example, has no minimum wage. Additionally, as the International Trade Union Conference 2018 report explains, laws in the Middle East embolden employers to accuse workers who fall out of line. Specifically, employers can charge employees with crimes like “failing to protect their employer’s secrets, which carries a six month prison sentence or a fine of up to USD 27,225”.

Recently, as more and more human rights violations have come to light, Gulf nations have received increased international pressure for reform. Worker deaths during construction for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar prompted victims groups and the UN to pressure Western corporations like Fifa influence the Gulf to reform. However, most of the seemingly concrete legislative actions taken by the Gulf nations like longer term visas and increased worker job mobility are rarely enforced, and are rather intended to create the illusion of progress.   

Ross, who was banned from the UAE in 2015 for his activism, reveals that instead of focusing on reform, GCC nations have effectively targeted press coverage of the issue. He explains that many GCC countries “move workers away from more accessible labor camps into what are called labor cities, which are much further away from urban centers in the desert. These would hold between forty to fifty thousand workers, they are much more difficult to access for journalists and researchers who might be interested in documenting the conditions.” Conversely, he alleges that the “UAE will reward journalists who will profile aspects of the country in positive ways.” Ross also reveals that the labor monitoring process of these nations is largely corrupt, citing the example of “NYU Abu Dhabi [where] the labor monitor chosen initially had a huge conflict of interest and enjoyed a very large [government] contract.” 

Looking forward, Ross argues that “what is needed is systematic reform of the Kafala system. You need to have an effective coalition of governments [and] NGOs.” Still, Ross asserts, “governments are the least likely to be involved because they have huge contracts also with these states and military contracts,” stifling any chance of reform.