Sometimes when you visit the Gulf states in the Middle East you don’t see the migrant workers but they’re there, symbols of the Middle East’s endemic racism, class privilege and conditions of cruel and barbaric modern slavery.
They are the road cleaners and maids of countries like Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others. Most of these workers come from poor African and Asian countries, and how they are mistreated and often subjected to a silent suffering speaks volumes about the Gulf states.
It’s come bubbling once more into public awareness after Sondos Alqattan, a Kuwaiti Instagram star with over 2.3 million followers, criticised new laws in her country that granted Filipino workers a day off per week and broke the kafala system, which allowed employers to hold their employees’ passports, effectively trapping them. In a video she criticised the new laws, bitterly complaining “How can you have a servant at home who keeps their own passport with them? What’s worse is they have one day off every week?”
It’s a comment that says everything about the racism and unchecked power of employers in the Middle East. Arab supremacy is often never spoken about but it exists, particularly when pitted against south Asian Muslims (those from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India) and black people. Though it’s important to highlight that many Kuwaitis criticised her for this, while Migrante International, an advocacy group for overseas Filipino workers, compared her comments to those of a “slave owner”, the cold truth for Middle East is that these comments reflect how their societies regard migrant workers.
In Qatar, it was revealed through the Guardian that hundreds of Nepalese workers had died whilst working and living in inhumane conditions to build their stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The Human Rights Watch found that thousands of migrant workers in Qatar were coerced in working in life-threatening heat and humidity in the construction sites. The kafala system meant that many of these workers simply couldn’t escape, though some sought refuge in their embassies. In 2014 it was unearthed that Nepalese workers had died at a rate of one every two days. This figure didn’t take into account workers from other nationalities so overall was arguably higher. In Saudi Arabia, 22 Bangladeshi maids fled after being tortured and sexually abused by their employers. It prompted calls from a coalition of migrant rights NGOs in Bangladesh to demand better rights and protections for overseas Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia. These 22 maids were not isolated cases but as the migrant rights groups warned, part of a larger and wider systematic abuse of Bangladeshi domestic workers.
These are just some of the incidents we have heard about. Once you read through the trove of harrowing stories a grim picture of life in the Middle East is painted. And it becomes easier to understand why people like Alqattan have the mindset that she does. Ironically this followed after Kuwait sought to improve their relations with the Philippines through improving labour conditions for the workers, this following the Philippines issuing a temporary ban on use of overseas workers to Kuwait after Joana Daniela Demafelis, a Filipino worker, was found mutilated in a freezer in an apartment.
Kuwait, like Qatar, is not a big country. It has a population of about four million of which approximately 660,000 are domestic migrant workers. It illustrates the role of migrant workers in building these countries but their rewards for their services has been abuse rooted in endemic racism, misogyny and a sense of class superiority. At the heart of this is the kafala system which empowers abusive employers at the detriment of the migrant workers. But what also isn’t spoken enough is simply the racism of many within the Gulf states towards particularly south Asian Muslims. For all that the West is seen as racist towards brown people, it is nothing compared to how the Middle-East treats south Asians. People from the Indian subcontinent or poor Asian countries are seen as morally inferior and easy to exploit.
During my pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2014, I witnessed the racism there, where every road cleaner, cook, maid, mosque cleaner was a dark-skinned south Asian, they were shunned, with occasional bits of money flung in their way as though they were dogs waiting for scraps of generosity. Workers from poor African countries are routinely exploited too, to the point where Kenya imposed a ban on their citizens working in the Middle-East in 2014. The abuse of the foreign labour market is what has built the lavish hotels and skyscrapers of Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others.
If we are going to talk about racism, we need to look at the harrowing and chilling stories in the Middle-East. It’s where a culture of abuse and exploitation exists, one that explains the mind-set of people like Sondos Alqattan.