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The fate of Gulf migrant workers is deeply connected to the fate of the Arab uprisings


International pressure is now mounting on the Gulf states to abolish the 'kafala' system for migrant workers. The system, which places migrants at the mercy of abusive employers in conditions that often amount to forced labour, has come under heavy scrutiny following revelations of horrific mistreatment of domestic servants and the large number of deaths of construction workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Late last month, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants called for the ‘kafala’ system to be abolished and for full labour rights to be introduced, including the right to organise, following similar calls from Amnesty International and the International Trade Union Confederation.

What has yet to be remarked upon in the media coverage of this issue in recent months is the way in which the fate of Gulf migrants is connected to the fate of the post-2010 Arab uprisings over the wider region. This omission is symptomatic of the fact that discussion of Middle East politics in general, and the uprisings more specifically, tends to be framed purely in terms of individual authoritarian states and their denial of human and political rights within their own territory.


Whilst these factors are of undeniable importance, what is missing from the picture - as Gulf specialist Adam Hanieh persuasively argues in his recent book ‘Lineages of Revolt’ - is the shaping influence of the region’s political economy and associated class divisions, which connect and reinforce relations of oppression that are both national and transnational.


Struggles for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ in one part of the region, therefore, may have a tangible bearing on similar confrontations in another. Once the migrant workers issue is analysed in this context, the true significance of the campaign against the ‘kafala’ system becomes both clear and difficult to overstate. If successful, its implications could be far-reaching and dramatic.


The Gulf regimes now find themselves in a real quandary. On the one hand, their international image and prestige matters a great deal to them, as evidenced, for example, by the purchase of major football clubs in Europe, the hosting of world-renowned art galleries and museums, and the hiring of expensive western PR firms to launder their tarnished reputations. The abuse of migrant labourers impacts on this directly.

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