Recent legal moves by the governments of Ethiopia, Indonesia and the Philippines to protect their nationals working in the Persian Gulf Arab states point to this harrowing fact: the Arab slave trade in foreign workers is alive and well.
Rights groups estimate that there are up to 15 million migrant workers located in the Persian Gulf Arab countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Paid pittance wages and subsisting in dirty, overcrowded dwellings, these workers provide the labour backbone of the Arab oil economies.
While the gas and oil sheikhdoms of Qatar and the UAE boast of gleaming skyscrapers and some of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the dirty secret of their seeming success is the massive immiseration and degradation of millions of human beings from Asia and Africa.
Yet, we are led to believe by Western mainstream media that these same Arab monarchies are at the forefront of supporting Western governments in their calls for democratic and human rights reforms in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Recent New Year celebrations around the world featured a spectacular fireworks display from world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. When the futuristic tower was officially opened last May, its inauguration was marred when an Indian worker leapt to his death. The tragedy was scarcely reported then.
But it represents just one of hundreds of such suicides committed by foreign workers across the Persian Gulf Arab emirates and sheikhdoms. Many other such deaths are caused by willful neglect and brutality at the hands of despotic employers.
Also last year, an Indonesian housemaid was beheaded by the authorities in Saudi Arabia for killing her “madam”. The housemaid claimed she had suffered years of abuse from her employer. The distraught workers couldn’t take it any more and ended up attacking her tormentor with a cleaver. In another under-reported case, an Ethiopian “house servant” was tortured to death by her sponsor in the UAE.
This is just a glimpse of the routine misery that foreign workers are subjected to in these Arab states.
It is hard to verify the numbers, but it is estimated that thousands of other such foreign workers are rotting away in prisons in these Arab countries, accused of crimes and misdemeanors by their employers. Misdemeanors can include workers complaining about harsh conditions or wages with-held, or absconding from their workplaces.
These latter workers are termed “runaways” and it is not uncommon to see posters in public places offering rewards for helping to track down the absentees. This is slavery in all but name.
The unfortunate masses come from India, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Sudan and work as housemaids and waitresses and in construction. All of the gleaming mirrored facades that offer luxury holiday destinations for rich Westerners and Arabs are built by labourers who earn as little as $150 a month.
Many of these toilers die from horrific industrial injuries or heat exhaustion due to minimal safety standards. At the end of their 12-hour working day, they are herded into trucks to be taken back to their squalid compounds.
A global network of recruiting agents and employment sponsors conspire to deliver these workers into barbaric working conditions that are nothing more than indentured slavery. Mostly, the workers are deceived by promises of decent wages and conditions, only to end up living hellish lives of oppression, ill health and poverty at the mercy of unscrupulous “employers” – or more correctly “slave owners”.
Many of the migrant workers find themselves as unwitting victims in a rampant sex industry. Compared with the grinding poverty of the Indian subcontinent or East Africa, many women are lured by the promise of working as a waitress in a glitzy Qatari or Dubai hotel, only to find that they are earmarked to become prostitutes for wealthy Arab and Western customers.
Various euphemisms are used. “Guest workers”, “expatriate labourers”, “migrant workers”, “foreign nationals”. These euphemisms, as with the terms “employer” and “sponsor”, are used to conceal the fact that the system of labour underpinning the Persian Gulf Arab economies is a form of modern slavery.
The workers are denied any legal rights and often deprived of the measly wages owed to them. On arrival in the Gulf states, their passports are confiscated. They have no means of redress and thus become nothing more than human chattel. Too often, their only way out of appalling misery is to take their own lives.
Historically, the Arab slave trade was extant from the 7th to the 19th Century. It was one of world’s biggest and oldest slave trades. It predates the European-American trade by at least 700 years. Where the latter is reckoned to have enslaved between 11 and 15 million Africans, mainly from the continent’s West coast, the Arab traders are estimated to have consigned many more millions to bondage from East Africa.
Marauding Africa’s East coast and centered around Zanzibar, women and young girls were snatched from what is now Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan and sold as servants and sex slaves into the Persian Gulf. The Arab slave trade of antiquity officially ended in the 19th century. And in 1948, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights banished all forms of slavery.
However, what we can tell from the systematic dire conditions of expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf Arab economies today is that the Arab slave trade is still alive and well, affecting millions of individuals.
In these feudalistic monarchies, which Washington and London fawn over as “strategic allies”, so important is slavery to the economies that the foreign workers outnumber the national populations. In Bahrain and the UAE, foreign workers count for more than half the resident population. In Qatar, some three-quarters of the populace are migrant workers.
This points up a deeply problematic contradiction for the rulers. While the wealth of these despots is undoubtedly increased by the super-exploitation of dirt-cheap foreign labour, their own populations are festering with unemployment. In Saudi Arabia, for example, unemployment among young Saudis is between 30 and 50 per cent, yet the kingdom employs an army of some nine million foreign workers.
This huge discrepancy is a major grievance among Saudis fuelling anti-monarchy protests over the past two years. Unemployment and poverty is of course a driving cause of resentment among Bahrainis against the Khalifa regime, which has for decades relied on the import of cheap labour to shore up its crony economy.
Another glaring contradiction is the claim by these same Gulf monarchies that they are supporting a democratic uprising in Syria, as in Libya last year. So there you have it. Modern Arab slave-trading regimes standing up for human rights in other Arab countries. That’s just too absurd for words.
Finian Cunningham, originally from Belfast, Ireland, was born in 1963. He is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism.
This article was originally posted at Press TV