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‘The Gulf’: Shedding Light on Dark Doings in the United Arab Emirates

Posted on Aug 14, 2015

OR Books

Below is an excerpt of the introductory essay from “The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor,” edited by Andrew Ross (for Gulf Labor) (OR Books, 2015). Ross explains the genesis and mission of the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers fighting to ensure worker protection in the United Arab Emirates. Their works are collected in “The Gulf,” out this fall and now available for pre-order. Here’s a discount code for 10 percent off at checkout (in addition to the 15 percent off for pre-order, making a net 25 percent off the book): GULF10

The roaring wealth of the Persian Gulf states derives from high-yield petroleum reservoirs far beneath the desert sands. But the lustrous towers and grand villas that support the de luxe lives of the region’s elites are not the direct result of slow organic decomposition underground. The gleaming cityscapes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, and Bahrain are being assembled, at boomtown speed, from the hard-pressed labor of armies of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and, increasingly, North and East Africa. Bound to an employer by the kafala sponsorship system, the laborers arrive, heavily indebted from recruitment and transit fees, only to find that their Gulf Dream has been a mirage1 [see footnotes at end of excerpt]. Typically, the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in substandard labor camps, pays them much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen under the hot desert sun. Most of them find ways to endure the exploitation, but many fall prey to suicide, or die from overwork or the heat. If they voice their complaints or protest publicly, they are arrested, beaten, and deported.

The Gulf states are hardly alone in their dependence on tragically underpaid and ill-treated migrant workers. Every developed and fast developing country has its own record of shame. But these nations are in a league of their own. The opulent lifestyle of a minority—composed of citizens and corporate expats—is maintained by a vast majority (up to 90 percent in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) who function as a servant class, with no rights and very little mobility, and whose compliant labor is secured through the fear of abuse and deportation. Their plight is so acute that, in recent years, the push to reform the cruel kafala system (instituted as a temporary guest program in the early 1970s) has become an international cause.2

By the end of 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was facing down a flood of overseas pressure to dismantle the kafala system. Spearheaded by Human Rights Watch, more than 90 human rights groups, many from the workers’ countries of origin, signed a call for wide-ranging reforms of labor migration policies. Following allegations by the International Trade Union Confederation of “exploitative practices that may amount to forced labour,” the International Labor Organization (ILO) launched an official investigation of the UAE.3 Amnesty International released a report, titled There is No Freedom Here, on the treatment of political dissenters in the Emirates.4 In response to the soaring death toll among the Nepalese working on Doha’s construction spree, FIFA, the global football federation, was hotly petitioned by its European members to insist on labor reforms as a condition of Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup.5 Investigative journalists from leading media organizations routinely filed front-page stories about the human cost of importing a workforce so vulnerable to abuse.6

Though its name did not always appear alongside those of the NGOs and high-profile advocacy groups, the Gulf Labor Coalition has played a key role in raising awareness of labor exploitation, especially in the UAE. An international network of artists and writers, energetically focused on Abu Dhabi’s development of a new cultural zone on Saadiyat Island, Gulf Labor was able to do and say things that the more official organizations could not. Our creative approach to activism was inspired and innovative, and, in some respects, unique in the field of labor advocacy. More decisive was the position of our artist members as coordinators of cultural value, with some leverage over the politics of constructing museum branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre on Saadiyat.

While human and labor rights groups are denied entry into the UAE, and have only limited access in neighboring Qatar, the strenuous project of nation-building in both countries requires a degree of openness to producers of high culture. Art, after all, has become a status component of the amenity environment demanded by the GCC’s affluent residents and visitors. Museums, galleries, and trade fairs are now obligatory landmarks for the global investor class. As the essential brokers of acquisitional prestige, cultural producers have to be courted, but only if they hold their tongues, and turn a blind eye to the daily suppression of basic rights. Because the constituencies it represents are both sought out and feared, Gulf Labor was probably in the right place at the right time. Over time, our members were regularly consulted by the NGOs, our reporting was cited in the media exposés, and the publicity generated by our actions reached a much wider audience than the communities of conscience who typically respond to reports about human and labor rights violations.

As for the impact on the artworld itself, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, in his roundup of 2014’s notable events, singled out Gulf Labor’s campaign and the work of the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (a direct action spinoff). “The groups’ action,” he summarized, “has been carefully organized, effectively executed and persistent, as any protest that’s going to work must be.”7

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