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Adam Hanieh: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states created a super exploited migrant work force after facing a radicalized Arab working class in the ’60s

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries–Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and a few others–there has been a dirty secret that doesn’t get talked about very much, certainly not in the news. All the discussion about bin Laden and some of the more higher-profile protests, particularly in Bahrain–the thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the thousands or tens of thousands of migrant workers that are really the engines driving these economies other than oil. Now joining us to talk about the state and importance of the migrant workers in these countries is Adam Hanieh. Adam teaches development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He’s also the author of the book Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States. Thanks for joining us, Adam.


JAY: So talk about the history of this. If I understand it correctly, back in the ’60s perhaps 90 percent of the workers in Saudi Arabia were nationals, Saudi Citizens, and now the number of Saudi citizens actually in the workforce is probably less than 20 percent. So what happened and why?

HANIEH: Well, if you go back to the beginning of the oil industries in the GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia but also the UAE and Kuwait and other states, you would have found a much greater proportion of the citizen population working in the oil industries. And if you look back at the conditions that–for example, in Saudi Arabia, where you had Saudi citizens working in the oil fields of Aramco (the US oil company that controlled the oil supply in Saudi Arabia at the time), they lived in quite shocking conditions that have been described by Robert Vitalis>, for example, American academic, as a situation resembling that of apartheid. But what happened as these states gained their independence, as they moved and industrialized through the ’60s and ’70s, they came to rely much more heavily on temporary migrant workers, bringing workers from, initially, the Middle East during the ’70s. You would have found 75 percent or so of the migrant workers in the Gulf region from the Middle East at that time. And these migrant workers came in on temporary contracts, filling jobs not just in the oil industries but other jobs–construction, teaching, taxi drivers, all sorts of work.

JAY: Before you get into that, let’s just back up a step, ’cause I don’t think many people know this history, that this national, Saudi national working class in the late ’50s and the 1960s was fairly radical. And part of the reasons for the move towards bringing in, first of all, other Arabs–Palestinians and Yemenites–to work was that the Saudi working class actually was progressive. What is that story?

HANIEH: Well, there was certainly a range of strikes through the Saudi oil fields through the ’50s and ’60s, and radical and left-wing organizations formed that were opposed to Aramco, opposed to the Saudi monarchy, calling for greater control over the oil, instead of it being controlled by an American firm. And there were strikes, there were demonstrations, and very heavy repression directed against these workers, both in collaboration with American and British advice on how to repress it. So these workers were protesting not just their conditions, but also the broader intervention of American and British and French presence in the Middle East. They were very much influenced by Nasserism and more radical forms of Arab nationalism and leftist thought during the time.

JAY: So this decision to move to migrant workers, as opposed–and kind of diminish the role of the Saudi working class had a political character to it. But how do they achieve that? What, do they partly buy off the Saudi working class as they bring in migrant workers? Is that’s what happened?

HANIEH: Well, certainly what happened as these states moved through independence, particularly during the 1970s. In the case of the other GCC states, they brought in temporary migrant workers, and the national population, those who had citizenship in the country, came to constitute a small minority of the overall population in these states. And these citizens were given jobs mostly in the public sector and in government sectors. In some cases they were given jobs little more than receiving a paycheck. They didn’t actually–there were large levels of illiteracy and these kinds of things. They also got other benefits from the state–housing, marriage dowries, free education, free health, all of these types of things; whereas the bulk of the work done in these societies was performed by these migrant workers who had very little rights and were very severely exploited and continue to be today.

JAY: Now, in the next phase, Palestinians formed a big piece of this migrant workforce for a while. What happened there?

HANIEH: Well, this was dressed up in many ways as a show of solidarity with Palestinians, particularly refugees in Lebanon. And there was a decision by the Saudi king to present or prescribe a certain proportion of the workforce that had to be Palestinian. And a recruiting agency from Aramco was sent and established in Lebanon to recruit Palestinian refugees to work in the Saudi oil fields. So what happened were Palestinians, also Yemeni and other Arab workers, came in–again, though, as temporary workers. They lacked any of the citizenship rights that were granted to Saudi nationals that received the types of benefits I spoke about.

JAY: And what happened with the Palestinians? If I understand it, they eventually threw out most of the Palestinians, thinking they were too radical.

HANIEH: Well, what happened during the ’70s, ’80s, and particularly through the ’90s, there was a shift away from mostly Arab migrant labor towards drawing workers from South Asia–from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh–and the Philippines, further afield. So there was actually a shift, as I said, mid- 1970s, 1975. The proportion of Arab workers as a whole was around 75 percent of the migrant working class. By early 2000, this had come down to about 25 percent. And the rest were mostly from South Asia; the other 75 or so was mostly from South Asian countries. You still do see, particularly, Egyptian workers in the Gulf in large numbers, though.

JAY: So just a little bit about the conditions now of the South Asian migrant workers.

HANIEH: You can’t describe them through anything more than a very severe kind of exploitation that resembles, in many cases, forms of slavery. Actually, just yesterday there was an Indian man who committed suicide in Dubai by jumping off the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, which I’m sure many of our viewers today will have seen when it went up with much fanfare. These kinds of construction projects, these fanciful projects, are built on the back of construction workers that face very severe forms of exploitation [in] many cases. For example, in Dubai, workers will be paid 50 to 70 cents an hour. They work ten hours a day, six days a week. They live in labor camps where the conditions are quite atrocious–you have sewage flowing in the streets, no paved roads, people packed into–many people packed into individual–into small rooms. So these kinds of conditions lead to events like the suicide yesterday. But they’re not isolated to the UAE; they occur across the GCC.

JAY: And one of the practices–I understand it correctly–is that employers take people’s passports. So even if they want to go, they’re virtually prisoners in many ways.

HANIEH: This is true, particularly among the lower rungs of the migrant working class in the Gulf. And you see, what this does is it enables this system of control to really develop where the migrant worker has no agency, no control over their situation, and it leads, unfortunately, in many cases, to the kinds of suicides that we saw yesterday. Just to point out, for example, these are not just male workers; these are also female domestic workers, which lack–and are even more isolated than male workers.

JAY: And what happens if the female migrant workers become pregnant?

HANIEH: Well, you–there are a number of cases going on at the moment in the GCC of female domestic workers who have been raped by their employers. There’s a case in Saudi Arabia, I believe, where a domestic worker had her hand–or had nails hammered into her body when she asked for her pay. Just last week there were 2,300 Indonesian workers, mostly domestic workers, some of them who had been raped by their employers, who were deported from Saudi Arabia and have arrived back in Indonesia. So these kinds of conditions are really indicative of the types of exploitation that we see underlying the development in the GCC region.

JAY: Now, the object of all this was to have a docile-like, slave-like workforce that couldn’t fight back. And I guess to some extent they’ve achieved that. But in spite of that, we see big protests in Bahrain, we saw some protests in Saudi Arabia. Who is protesting if in fact the economic conditions, at the very least, seem not bad for most of the nationals?

HANIEH: Well, Bahrain is a bit different from the other GCC states in the sense that you see a Shia majority and you see more of an exploitation against Bahraini workers. They still constitute part of the working class in Bahrain. So you do see poorer Bahrainis. And the same also in Saudi Arabia. So you do see differences within the national population, within the citizen population, that are reflected in these kinds of demonstrations and are overlaid upon the kind of sectarian or ethnic differences that also exist within these societies.

JAY: Meaning that the Shia generally are not as well-off as the Sunnis.

HANIEH: That’s generally the case, although it’s very, very important to emphasize that the opposition groups, in Bahrain in particular, have been working to emphasize that this is not a sectarian conflict, it’s a question of democratic struggle, where Shia and Sunni are together, opposed against the monarchy. But as you pointed out, the bulk of the working classes in these societies still are migrant workers, and this means that it’s difficult for them to engage in any kind of protest action because of their temporary status. If they go on strike, for example, which is illegal, they can be deported at the first sign of any kind of protest action.

JAY: When we interview people from Bahrain that are–been involved in supporting the protest, I asked: is there any attempt to link up with the migrant workers there? And it seemed to me that they have, somewhat, disdain themselves for the migrant workers. The democracy movement in Bahrain doesn’t take account for any rights for migrant workers. Is there any movement on that?

HANIEH: Well, one of the strategies of the ruling monarchy, Al Khalifa monarchy, in Bahrain has been to nationalize particularly Pakistani and other workers, often in–who work within the police forces or the security forces, in order to strengthen, if you like, the Sunni component of the society. So this is one of the reasons why you do see tensions between the citizen population and the migrant worker population within these countries. But we have to always remember that migrant workers are very–living in a very precarious situation. It’s very difficult for them to join any kind of protest action, because they lack any right to residency in the country as soon as they lose their jobs. This is a very, very important point to understand. You lose your job, you’re out of the country.

JAY: Now, the current situation amongst the Bahrain resistance is mostly been greatly suppressed. People are still being arrested. They’re doing house-to-house searches. We understand they’ve gone to hospitals and arrested protesters in the hospitals. What do you think are the prospects for what may come next in Bahrain?

HANIEH: Well, I think the legacy of these demonstrations is still to be seen. They certainly have not succeeded in quashing the desire of the people for some kind of democratic transformation. And I know across the whole region, not just Bahrain, but across the rest of the GCC states, there are meetings, they’re talking, there’s op-eds, there are people speaking about the need for a fundamental transformation. And particularly if the revolutionary processes move forward in places such as Egypt and Tunisia in particular, it will have further roll-on effects, further impacts on these GCC states.

JAY: And can you imagine a role for migrant workers in these movements? Or is it simply–it’s just too impossible for them?

HANIEH: Well, I think there’s two sides. I wouldn’t at all want to give the impression that migrant workers are unable to be part of these kinds of struggles. But I think in order for that to happen, there has to be also–we have to see campaigns and movements that are transnational in effect. For example, in some of the sending countries, we do see attempts by migrant workers to organize. For example, in the Philippines there’s a very impressive organization, Migrante, that works around the rights of Filipino workers, particularly domestic workers in the GCC. And this does have an effect. So these kinds of trends, national forms of organizing, I think, will continue to unfold and develop. The other side to this question, though, is what does the–or to Arab unions, what do the Arab working classes in other states do around these migrant workers. I think it’s very important that the trade union movements, the worker movements that we see across the region in the Middle East, need to link up and work very actively to defend the rights of these migrant workers. And, unfortunately, this has not been something that is being given a priority or a high profile by many of the trade unions and left-wing organizations in the region to date.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Adam.

HANIEH: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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