Ghastly inequality in the Gulf states

The Gulf states market themselves as glitzy tourist places filled with luxury high rise hotels and shopping malls and recreational areas. But they are also some of the most oppressive places for workers, where migrant workers are brought in and treated almost like slaves, working under extremely harsh conditions and poorly paid, thus resulting in some of the world’s greatest income inequality between the small number of people who are citizens and the huge number of desperately poor imported workers who cannot become citizens nor permanent residents and can be harshly punished if they make the slightest protest.

Bernard Freamon describes the incredibly oppressive conditions of the migrant workers in those countries.

The six city-states on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, each formerly a sleepy, pristine fishing village, are now all glitzy and futuristic wonderlands. In each of these city-states one finds large tracts of ultramodern architecture, gleaming skyscrapers, world-class air-conditioned retail markets and malls, buzzing highways, giant, busy and efficient airports and seaports, luxury tourist attractions, game parks, children’s playgrounds, museums, gorgeous beachfront hotels and vast, opulent villas housing fabulously affluent denizens. The six city-states ­– Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Manama in Bahrain, Dammam in Saudi Arabia, Doha in Qatar, and Kuwait City in Kuwait ­– grew into these luminous metropolises beginning in the 1970s, fuelled by the discovery of oil and gas, an oligarchic accumulation of wealth, and unconditional grants of political independence from the United Kingdom, the former colonial master of the region.

According to a 2007 report in Fortune magazine, Abu Dhabi’s 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one-tenth of the planet’s oil and have almost $1 trillion invested abroad, are worth about $17 million apiece’.

In the region, migrant workers make up a large percentage of the population – for example, in the UAE and Qatar, they constitute around 90 per cent, in Kuwait, this is around 66 per cent, and in Saudi Arabia, around 33 per cent. These labourers have few rights in the legal systems of the city-states, and a great majority work in very dangerous circumstances on huge construction sites, frequently risking death or serious physical injury from hazardous worksite conditions, including long hours without breaks, debilitating heat approaching 50 degrees Celsius or 122 degrees Fahrenheit, a lack of elementary safety precautions and the absence of competent supervision. Reputable labour organisations have reported that one or two workers die on these construction sites every day and, in Qatar, which is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, more than 4,000 migrant workers will die in workplace accidents on FIFA projects before the event takes place. No other construction project in the world even comes close to such rates of death.

A construction worker in Dubai earns about AED106,000 (US$28,000) a year compared with the AED258,000 (US$70,251) per capita yearly prevailing wage in the city. The same is generally true in each of the other city-states. Construction workers are housed in squalid dormitories. In these work camps, 20 to 30 men can end up sharing one bathroom, with eight or more sleeping in the same room. Passports and other travel documents are confiscated upon arrival and workers essentially spend all of their waking hours on the construction site; they are transported to and from the sites each day with little or no chance to see or enjoy the city they are helping to build. Those who don’t work on the construction sites can be found working as domestic servants throughout the region, often completely hidden from view, and others are employed in commercial and industrial enterprises, working as drivers, cleaners, caretakers, security guards, carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters, stone masons, and in a variety of other workplace occupations.

All of these migrant workers are from locales outside the Persian Gulf. None are citizens of any of the Persian Gulf nations, and there is no path to citizenship or even to permanent residency for any of them. Social and legal discrimination against them is openly tolerated and widespread. They often end up in the Persian Gulf after responding to deceptive and misleading advertising in their home countries, causing them to either pay large sums or to borrow such sums from employment agents to secure employment in the Gulf and to pay for their transportation, housing and food. When they arrive, they learn that, based on the value of their wage in real terms, it will be nearly impossible to pay off any debt they have incurred or replenish the sums they have expended. This encourages their employers to withhold, delay or simply not pay wages, coercing the workers to remain on the job, sometimes for a lifetime. In the meantime, migrant workers don’t have the same rights to educate their children, change their employers, pursue education or training, enjoy leisure time, or partake in any of the other pleasant amenities of life that Persian Gulf citizens take for granted. It’s also clearly a race-based system. Almost all of the migrant workers I have described are brown-skinned or even darker. Skin colour is therefore a marker for their low social status and an invitation by local citizens and officials to discriminate against them.

Domestic workers, also usually darker-skinned women from Bangladesh, the Philippines, East Africa and other locales, come to the Gulf under similar circumstances. They’re frequently not paid, subjected to delayed wages or underpaid for their work. They’re required to work long hours with no time off, and can’t get medical or dental care. They’re subject to sexual abuse by employers and other forms of violent exploitation and, like construction workers, they aren’t allowed to venture away from the worksite without permission of the employer. Punishment for misdeeds can be extreme because there is little or no regulation of domestic employment by the authorities. Many women migrants are deceived or coerced into working in brothels and other sexually exploitative circumstances. Dubai has thus become famous worldwide for the availability of young women for sex.

It is high time that the world shone a bright light on these ugly practices. It is a scandal that FIFA selected Qatar as the host country for the 2022 football World Cup and there are all manner of allegations of bribery that went into that decision, no surprise since FIFA has long been a hotbed of corruption.

These nations should be treated as pariahs until they give basic rights to their workers and treat them with decency.


  1. says

    When I was working in Saudi, my point of contact tried to get me to stay for a couple of months for a longer engagement. One of the suggestions was “we can get you a nice apartment and a pretty Pakistani house-cleaner you can do anything you want to.” Uh, nope, gotta go.

  2. larpar says

    I was most of the way thru the first paragraph before I figured out you weren’t talking about the Gulf of Mexico.

  3. mnb0 says

    “It is a scandal that FIFA selected Qatar as the host country”
    Welcome to the party, better late than never.

    I’ve decided several years ago that I won’t watch a second, no matter how well the Dutch team will perform. Even better: next year I can enjoy the European championship for women played in England.

    “These nations should be treated as pariahs.”
    So you have the opportunity to do something positive, no matter how tiny: report about the female tournament and neglect the other, except the terrible abuse.

    @1 MarcusR: so you feel good because you rejected a opportunity to help a poor Pakistani woman who sends part of the little money she makes to support her family back home -- and to treat her well for a change?

  4. John Morales says

    It’s called “having principles”, mnb0.
    (“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”)

    My sister spent several months in Saudi Arabia in the American compound (she’s a teacher) and she could not have a lower opinion of the place and of its population. Obs, she could not leave the compound on her own at any time without a man being present.

  5. says

    sez mnb0 @4: ” so you feel good because you rejected a opportunity to help a poor Pakistani woman who sends part of the little money she makes to support her family back home — and to treat her well for a change?”

    So you think it’s totes legit to use human shields as a defensive tactic?

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