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The Gulf: Foreign Workers’ Rights

Despite the spotlight on Qatar, foreign workers' conditions in the UAE are equally harsh.

Gulf states are lining up as targets for criticism by international trade unions and human rights groups for their treatment of foreign workers. Qatar, long in the firing line after its winning bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, was recently joined by Abu Dhabi as a result of projects to build world-class museums, luxury hotels and a campus for New York University.

Dubai is likely to be next in line after its winning bid to host the 2020 World Expo, which is expected to generate $7 billion in construction projects.

A comparison of the media fallout as well as campaigning by trade unions and human rights groups of Qatar and Abu Dhabi highlights the power of the World Cup and soccer. This puts the onus of responsibility on sports associations, including FIFA, for ensuring that hosts meet international standards of human rights.

As a matter of principle, there is little news in the abominable conditions of foreign workers in the Gulf where they often constitute a majority of the population. This writer wrote his first report on the plight of foreign workers in the region in 1976. Vast realms have been written since.

The Independent focused several years ago on the UAE. Yet it took Qatar’s winning of the World Cup to put the issue on the agenda, with any number of groups and government organizations since seeking to get on the bandwagon.

Britain’s The Guardian ensured that it moved even further up the agenda with a series of recent reports on workers in Qatar involved in World Cup-related projects. In contrast to those reports, revelations in The Guardian’s sister publication, The Observer, about workers’ conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat (Happiness) Island have had a more muted fallout than those about Qatar.

Workers’ Rights in the Gulf

Yet Abu Dhabi is not just about the arts and education, of which there are far more restrictions on academic freedom than in Qatar; although this is not to suggest that the Gulf state is a beacon of freedom of expression, research and the press.

Abu Dhabi, too, is about sports. FIFA has organized in recent years several tournaments in Abu Dhabi, while the International Cricket Council (ICC) moved its headquarters in 2005 from London to Dubai. The UAE would like to see others follow suit.

While Gulf states compete for topping the list of where workers’ conditions are worst, Abu Dhabi and the UAE compare unfavorably to Qatar not only when it comes to academic freedoms.

Besides cracking down on research institutions and activists and barring critical researchers from entering the country, the UAE also has the dubious distinction of being the world’s only government to hire an army of at least 800 Africans and Latin Americans, who are parked outside the capital for the eventuality of major labor unrest or a popular revolt – an indication of how far it is willing to go to keep the ruling family in power.

In a bid to avoid joining Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the firing line, Bahrain — already on the defensive for its brutal suppression of a 2011 popular uprising and its ongoing crackdown on majority-Shiite Muslim activists that has led to the continued incarceration of scores of athletes — recently announced that it would adopt Gulf labor standards. These include banning the confiscation of workers’ passports and ensuring timely payment of wages.

Abu Dhabi: A Worker's Paradise?

While Qatar has acknowledged the need for change and problems with implementation and enforcement of existing workers’ rights, Abu Dhabi has sought to project itself as a workers’ paradise.

"The UAE has built the world's greatest labor camp, complete with manicured cricket grounds, a chess center, a multilingual library with works by Ayn Rand and Barack Obama, the UAE's first multi-denominational prayer hall, film screening rooms, tug-of-war competitions, a coffee shop and landscaped grounds. Regular government press releases show groups of smiling dignitaries who have come to admire the Saadiyat Construction Village, while promotional videos show smiling workers playing cricket in spotless whites," The Guardian reported, noting that a majority of workers on Saadiyat lived in what can only be described as appalling conditions.

The message is clear: Gulf states have long gotten away with sub-standard living and working conditions as a result of the international community, including sports associations. They have, at best, paid lip service to globally accepted standards and their own professed values. While Gulf states promise change and reform of their labor laws and regulations, they fail to put their money where their mouth is.

To Qatar’s credit, the Gulf state — unlike the UAE — has engaged with trade unions and human rights groups. That engagement has given it some degree of the benefit of the doubt. The proof, however, will be in the pudding.

Because of the FIFA World Cup, Qatar has taken the heat of the focus on workers’ conditions in the Gulf. That hardly makes the circumstances of foreign workers in the UAE less onerous or lessens the onus on international sports associations to uphold universal values. For the Gulf states, the litmus test will be implementation and enforcement rather than adoption of lofty principles and showcases to keep critics happy.

*[Note: James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

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