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Thursday, June 17, 2010

South Asian slaves in Dubai


The oil producing states of the Gulf combine tribalism, feudalism and rentier capitalism to produce an egregiously oppressive socio-economic order

A FEW days ago my older son wrote to me from Stockholm to convey his shock over a short documentary he saw by BBC’s Ben Anderson entitled ‘The Slaves of Dubai’. It is about the heart-wrenching plight of South Asian workers who arrive in Dubai in the hope of alleviating the abject poverty they are born in but end up becoming virtually bonded labour. They can also be called slaves. He wrote: “I was really shocked and upset about their situation. If you have not already written about it, can you please do it in your next column?”

So, this essay is largely to disseminate information about the construction industry mafia that ruthlessly and relentlessly exploits South Asian workers, whose labour has created all those skyscrapers, including the tallest in the world, the Burj Dubai, penthouses, luxury apartments, 7-star hotels, golf courses and what not. Now, of course, Dubai has been badly hit by the global financial crisis but it only magnifies the utter disregard that the Arab sheikhs have for all the millions of workers who live in their kingdoms as virtual slaves.

The enslavement process begins in South Asia at the time of recruitment. Impoverished families somehow manage to raise money to send a young man to Dubai — it could be any other country in that region as well. It involves selling whatever land or other possessions they have, borrowing from relatives and so on. The agent charges an exorbitant sum for arranging the passport and visa. Upon arrival in Dubai, the worker’s passport is confiscated and he is sent to a camp where he lives with thousands of other workers. The documentary showed that in a small dirty room some eight to nine people ‘live’; for some 45 people there are one or two latrines, which are filthy and nauseating. Once inside the camp the new arrival becomes practically a slave, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. The wage that is paid is one-half or one-third of what was promised. The construction firms that own the labour camps strictly regulate who comes in and who goes out. In short, the South Asian workers live in camps that are similar to a POW camp where soldiers of a defeated army are kept.

The documentary shows that the Dubai government does not seriously interfere with the way the construction firms run these camps. Occasionally some fines are imposed but these are so light that the firms continue to violate the rules and regulations that should apply to the conditions in the camps. The general line taken by the Dubai authorities and the officials of the construction firms is that the workers earn a better living than if they were living in their own country. That is probably true, but it only captures the utter helplessness of millions of our brethren who are denied their birthright to be treated with respect and dignity, both at home and when they come to the Gulf in search of work. Ben Anderson was able to interview one man from Bangladesh who broke down during the interview as he could not express the level and depth of his suffering in words and the only response left to express the emotions was to start weeping.

There is an amazing historical coincidence involved in the story of the South Asian construction workers and another architectural marvel from another age. I named my son Sahir to honour the memory of the great poet, Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-80), who gained fame by writing his unforgettable poem ‘Taj Mahal’ in which the social issue of workers’ exploitation is the main inspiration. Sahir Ludhianvi contrasted the grandeur and matchless beauty of the Mughals’ greatest architectural wonder — the Taj Mahal was started in 1632 and completed in 1653 — with the fact that those whose labour made it possible remained unsung, unrecognised and most probably unpaid. That my Sahir should now request after nearly 350 years to take up an identical issue without knowing it touched me deeply. So, his heart beats in the right place, as did that of Sahir Ludhianvi. That is ample reason for a father to feel proud.

The problem now is that much of the world has moved away from feudal oppression, and while the ravages of unbridled capitalism wreck the lives of millions on a daily basis, the situation in the oil producing states of the Gulf is much worse. These societies combine tribalism, feudalism and rentier capitalism to produce an egregiously oppressive socio-economic order. At least four compartmentalised social segments are to be found in these countries. The indigenous Arab populations are the most favoured in that they are given many welfare facilities. For that they have to keep out of politics. The second group is that of bankers, financiers and business executives and high society people who provide such services that the local populations are not educated or qualified to perform. In Saudi Arabia, I know Asian and African qualified people are paid far less than their counterparts with the same education from the western world. The situation in Dubai may be somewhat better. The third segment is semi-skilled workers, shopkeepers and others who came to the Gulf region in the early years and were able to establish their relatively independent presence. They earn well and send remittances to their families in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The fourth group comprises the millions of workers who live in camps and work day and night but who are treated as human dregs.

After the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008, I visited Pakistan to collect material for my book on the Pakistani military. That gave me an opportunity to interview some senior officers. To my very great surprise I was told that a substantial portion of al Qaeda and Taliban funding came from the Gulf Emirates and not just Saudi Arabia. That made me really angry that some Gulf Arabs had no qualms of conscience in treating poor and impoverished Muslims who work for them as dirt while some of their countrymen finance terrorist activities, which also exploit mainly individuals from poor families. The greater puzzle is of course how fairly educated Pakistanis also join such jihad instead of working for the overthrow of all rentier states in the Muslim world. #

First published the Daily Times, Pakistan, June 15, 2010

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at

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