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Leave or Die

Migrant rights and the Arabian Dream

Waiting for the school bus in Abu Dhabi one morning, age eleven, I sleepily registered the final moments of a man falling off an eight-story rooftop. His body splattered against the pavement a few dozen feet from where I was standing. The bus was behind schedule, and by the time it arrived some ten minutes later, a sheet had been draped over the man’s corpse, which was then loaded into an ambulance, and the purple puddle he left behind had been hosed into the drains. He had landed mere steps from the entrance to our greengrocer’s, run by Mr. Kareem, a Keralan migrant in his fifties. Mr. Kareem would later tell me that the suicide was a South Asian construction worker, one of many occupying the apartments above his shop that had been converted into overcrowded dormitories. South Asian guest workers make up over half the population in the United Arab Emirates, more than five million out of nine million residents in 2015.

The wretch had apparently taken the dive after downing a bottle of cheap liquor, and the police ruled his death a drunken accident. “It happens all the time,” Mr. Kareem reflected, though the event didn’t seem fit for public mention. The UAE’s leading English-language newspapers at the time, the Gulf News and Khaleej Times, were heavily censored. They carried thick obituary sections, but the announcements all bore photographs of Emirati citizens and middle-class expats, never migrant workers who died falling from buildings. These obituaries made clear that only some kinds of death were permitted: aneurysms, say, or heart disease, or cancer. Never suicide, murder, or a workplace accident. For all intents and purposes, death was a luxury few could afford in the UAE.

I grew up in the Abu Dhabi of the 1990s and 2000s, having narrowly missed being born there. My parents weren’t married at first, which barred my mother, an unwed woman, from the city’s lone maternity hospital. My father, an Iranian architect exiled shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1980 and lived there for the next thirty-six years, working for a succession of Emirati employers, among them Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, the eldest son of the UAE’s current president. He was a dark-skinned man who had a hard time in the workplace; a decades-long standoff between the Islamic republic and the UAE, over a few strategic islands near the Strait of Hormuz, meant that Emiratis tended to be suspicious of Iranians. Yet my father was fortunate enough to bring his family to the UAE, a hallmark privilege of middle-class expatriates. Poorer migrants, like South Asian manual laborers, have to spend the near entirety of their lives apart from loved ones.

Foreign guest workers constituted a supermajority in the UAE, outnumbering native Emiratis nearly nine to one. Yet it was we who lived in fear of them: an untouchable elite who presided over an exploitative visa system, informally referred to as kafala, or “guardianship.” Foreign workers coming to the UAE have their residency permits directly sponsored by individual employers, with scant legal protections. Although some companies are eligible to sponsor, every foreigner, no matter their social standing, is beholden somewhere along the visa chain to an Emirati citizen. Kafala is designed to render workers forever vulnerable, tethering their visa status to job performance, making any indiscretions, including taking sick days, punishable via fines, imprisonment, or even deportation. There is no process for foreign workers to earn citizenship, even though they may spend decades or even their whole lives in the UAE. Used for their labor and dispatched when no longer needed, they are a kind of “temporary people,” in the words of Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan.

There is perhaps no harsher example of kafala than Abu Dhabi’s taxi service, until recently the city’s only meaningful form of public transportation. During the 1990s, UAE laws allowed every Emirati woman to sponsor up to three foreigners; nearly all of the Afghans and Pakistanis who drove yellow cabs had immigrated through this arrangement. These men were obliged to drive a set number of hours a day and were only allowed a month’s vacation every three to four years. Their guardians charged them obscene fees for residency permits and also took a steep cut of their earnings. Having swapped one feudal lord for another, they struggled to pay off their debts, toiling all day in southern Arabian humidity, often succumbing to stress-related afflictions such as heart disease. Once their cadavers were wrapped up, they were instantly flown home, leaving hardly a trace behind.

Like many guest workers, my parents had long since severed all ties to their countries of origin. Abu Dhabi was their only home, albeit one they lived in permanent fear of losing. No matter their relative privilege, they were aware that a single mistake or unlucky turn would bring life there to an abrupt and unceremonious end.

Oil Around the Watchtower

The UAE is one of several Gulf states that were rapidly ushered into the capitalist world order due to massive oil wealth. The early Emirati sheikhdom’s wealth had traditionally rested on its pearling industry, which around the 1900s made up about 95 percent of Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan’s income. But the rise of commercial pearl production in Japan in the 1920s rendered older forms of pearl-diving unprofitable, slowly killing the region’s main business. The discovery of oil in 1958 in Abu Dhabi’s Murban Bab oil field seemed to offer an escape, but unlike the neighboring Al Sauds, Sheikh Shakhbut was reluctant to spend oil revenue on social programs and infrastructure, creating an opportunity for his younger brother Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Defying centuries of tradition, whereby members of influential clans would murder one another for the chance to rule, occasionally in hand-to-hand combat, Zayed quietly deposed Shakhbut in a bloodless coup in 1966. Allowing Shakhbut to retire to a royal villa in the interior of the country, Zayed took over the reins of his sheikhdom, embarking on an ambitious modernization plan funded by oil production.

Foreign guest workers constituted a supermajority in the UAE, outnumbering native Emiratis nearly nine to one. Yet it was we who lived in fear of them.

Zayed inherited a sheikhdom mired in poverty and politically outpaced by more outward-looking neighbors, Dubai and Sharjah. Development had stalled in the early 1950s, when Shakhbut placed a moratorium on all new infrastructure, including roads. The capital island Abu Dhabi that would in time host over a million people—and a conglomeration of skyscrapers as thick as Manhattan’s—was then only a small city of thirty thousand people, dominated by the royal palace, the Qasr al-Hosn, a watchtower built around its only freshwater well. Much of the sheikhdom’s population resided in even more backward conditions in the interior, in a Western region by the vast Rub’ al-Khali (“Empty Quarter”) peninsular desert and an Eastern region bordering Oman.

Less than a decade into Zayed’s rule, the British empire withdrew from the Gulf, ending its century-old protectorate. Exploiting the political vacuum, Zayed wove together an alliance of nearby emirates—Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, and Fujairah—into the absolute federal monarchy we now call the United Arab Emirates. Zayed lined Abu Dhabi with wide highways and drip-irrigated gardens, turning the ochre desert green. He also invested in public education, establishing libraries and universities, and even poured some of his country’s formidable resources into humanitarian projects abroad.

As in other Gulf petrocracies, this process of nation-building was only made possible by the mass influx of foreign workers. The strategy had been first established by Saudi Arabia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when native Saudi laborers rebelled against the presence of Western oil companies, who they saw as infidels in Islam’s holiest lands. When this dispute got out of hand, the Saudis chose to bring in migrants from non-Gulf Arab populations, like Palestinians and Egyptians, who proved far more pliant. In time, Gulf countries turned to South and East Asian workers in greater numbers, prompted by fears that non-Gulf Arab populations would pollute their local Bedouin culture.

From the 1960s on, millions of Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Indonesians, among dozens of other nationalities, were brought to the Gulf to construct world-class welfare states, whose benefits they were excluded from as “foreigners.” Originally recruited for oil extraction, they came to fulfill every imaginable function, from intellectual and professional services like teaching and health care, to manual and domestic labor. This labor market gave rise to an international network of headhunters, loansharks, and traffickers, who funneled desperate job-seekers to the Gulf. All for a small fee, of course.

Few books offer a better window into this process than Saudi-Iraqi Abdelrahman Munif’s cycle of novels, Mudun al-Milh, or Cities of Salt, which charts the postwar rise of the modern Gulf petrocracies from the vantage of the fictional Sultanate of Mooran. In the cycle’s second volume, translated by Peter Theroux Munif makes this observation about the permanent psychic divide separating natives and foreigners:

The people of Mooran had seen any number of foreigners arriving or passing through and had, for the most part, shown no fear or unease, for within the cocoon that protected and warmed, and in light of their own profound interrelations, they knew how to protect themselves, how to react to everything that happened around them. They were confident that foreigners had no patience and knew none of the hidden paths into the depths of the desert or of men; they would not stay long. Those who’d come to settle were soon overcome with unease, and fear slew them with the onslaught of the searing, dust-tormented days, as they realized that their choice was either to die or to leave.

Ghettoized, kept hidden by unwritten apartheid-lite rules, restricted to certain neighborhoods and even certain public areas: these are the fear-driven migrants of Munif’s novels, who helped transform the UAE from an open construction site into the poster-boy of Arab success we know today. The kafala system ensures that migrants are segregated along ethnic lines. East Asians, for instance, are almost exclusively domestic servants, or work in retail trade. Indians tend to be construction workers and shopkeepers. In his groundbreaking novel Temporary People (2017), Unnikrishnan offers a wry list of occupations held by Pravasis, or Keralan immigrants: “Hooker. Horse Looker. Maid. Camel Rider. Historian. Nurse. Oil Man. Shopkeeper. Chauffeur. Watchman. Porrota Maker. Secretary. Gardener. Smuggler. Solderer. Tea boy. Mistress.”

Today there are some eight and a half million guest workers in the UAE. Yet the country still lacks a significant code of labor laws, and union activity remains illegal. Financial publications still like to describe it as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

Doctors on the Make

Soon after moving to Abu Dhabi, my family wound up in a four-story apartment block facing one of the city’s few final resting places, the Al Zayani Cemetery. It was home to a handful of white, dusty tombstones, the grounds were overgrown with wild weeds, and the rectangular tract was encinctured by beige, crumbling walls. The cemetery’s anachronistic presence—it was more like an ancient burial ground—was sharpened by the shiny steel skyscrapers that surrounded it. Salty air had bleached the ink off signs, including one above its single entrance, which was barred by a padlocked wooden door. Nobody had ever been spotted entering or leaving its premises, and no fresh graves had been dug in years.

From the 1960s on, millions of Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Indonesians, among dozens of other nationalities, were brought to the Gulf to construct world-class welfare states.

Nearly every other week, or so it seemed, I would hear of someone’s death: one of my father’s colleagues, perhaps, or a classmate’s parent or relative. Yet I never witnessed a single funeral, not even from afar, and while the odd memorial service was held here and there, the bodies of the dead were invariably flown home, wherever that happened to be. Living near the lonely cemetery, I came to feel that death did not exist in the UAE. The long drive to Abu Dhabi’s airport always felt more funerary to me than anything I could see out of my bedroom window.

If death was invisible, so was disease. Nobody I knew in the UAE seemed to have visited a hospital, however briefly. The Ministry of Health provided Emirati citizens with high standards of free care; the UAE is now in fact a destination for medical tourism, with shiny new franchises like Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. But the cost of medical services was and remains inordinately high for most ordinary guest workers—since public hospitals, like schools, or any other form of social services, are restricted to citizens. Although residency visas cannot be issued without proof of health insurance in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (ensuring that all employers are obliged to provide foreign employees with insurance), co-pays tend to be unaffordable and the availability of lower-priced health care extremely limited. This is one reason why so many Gulf migrants either avoid seeing doctors or return home to do so, when they can afford it, which they mostly cannot.

Interrupting his lecture on the Albert Camus novel La Peste, my high-school French teacher one day proclaimed that he’d rather be executed on the spot than be admitted to an Emirati hospital. Pressed to explain himself, he said: “Because you’re more likely to die in those places, that’s why; as there are no real laws in this country, then there are no real medical standards, either.” Mr. Naabi was a Kabyle whose father had been killed in the Algerian War of Independence. That was the only time I can remember him saying anything critical about the UAE. Then again, as he once explained to me, the situation in Algeria was immeasurably worse, especially for a Kabyle.

Mr. Naabi’s words would return to me some years later when, at the age of sixteen, following an ill-advised decision to take up rugby at a local youth center, I shattered my right ankle and suffered a number of other fractures. I was admitted to Abu Dhabi’s Central Hospital, then the only medical institution in Abu Dhabi that catered to foreigners. The facility was housed in a moldy, low-hanging series of prefabricated buildings long past their prime. It was understaffed, overcrowded, and under-equipped, but its staff seemed aware that they were dealing with patients who had no other options. My family didn’t have medical insurance. Though legally obliged to purchase private health care, we couldn’t afford it, and like many in this position, we didn’t buy any.

The attending surgeon scheduled me to go under the knife the morning after I was admitted. As the hour drew near, I was administered a heavy dose of morphine, put on a stretcher, and wheeled into a long corridor. I retained enough consciousness to notice I was lined up alongside the left wall, head-to-toe with some five other patients. I was the quietest and the least seriously injured. My corridor mates howled incessantly, in a cacophony of languages, though they shared in common two words, which could be heard over and over: mama, baba. A nurse would occasionally drop in to soothe the loudest howlers, only to disappear as soon as they quieted down. As I was wheeled away, I saw those same nurses stretch white sheets over the faces of those I’d lain closest to, their blood blooming through the cotton.

A seven-inch plate was screwed into my right fibula to replace the bone which had shattered on impact, and my leg was set in a thick cast. I was ordered to bed for the next few months, most of which I spent in the hospital. When this first cast was cut open and removed, clumps of wet, rotten soil fell to the floor below the examination table. The nurses had failed to wash the earth off my leg before the surgeon cut into it. I had developed an infection as a result, which left an inch-wide hole that went from the surface of my skin to the bone. This would later require several corrective operations, which have left me with a permanent limp, not to mention the chronic pain and substance-abuse issues that came with it. It was a clear-cut case of medical malpractice, and we considered pressing charges. But a local lawyer convinced my father that any legal recourse would end badly. Needless to say, I was the lucky one. The lesson learned during those months was simple: migrant workers weren’t just expendable, they were expected to die in silence, too.

One of the most despicable characters in Cities of Salt is Dr. Subhi Mahmilji, an unscrupulous Syrian doctor with a knack for spotting and exploiting business opportunities. Setting himself above the sleepy natives and desperate immigrants, he amasses money and power, in time rising to become chief adviser to the Sultan of Mooran. Dr. Subhi resembles one of the UAE’s few self-made foreign billionaires, Dr. Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty. Born in 1942 in the south Indian state of Karnataka, “BR” originally dabbled in local politics, winning a seat on a local council, before immigrating to the UAE at the age of thirty-one, armed with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences and “eight dollars” in his pocket, as his PR team never tires of repeating. He opened one of the first private consultancies in the UAE—on the first floor of his apartment building with his first employee-turned-wife—predicting, correctly, that it would soon become home to millions of migrant workers. New Medical Centre gradually expanded into a full-scale hospital, offering some semblance of quality, affordable care to unprotected foreigners. Had he been alive during California’s Gold Rush in the late 1840s, Dr. Shetty would have no doubt sold miners boots and pails as they headed into the mountains, and then sold them snake oil for their aches when they came back down.

Steadily amassing a fortune which fluctuated with the rise and dip in oil prices, Shetty soon added trading and pharmaceutical companies to his portfolio, eventually founding the foreign exchange bureau UAE Exchange and acquiring another, Travelex, through which remittances are sent home. His operations eventually grew beyond the Gulf to include outposts in Brazil, Colombia, Spain, Italy, and Denmark. This glittering example of expat success, who enjoyed chummy links with sheikhs and government officials, reached the apex of his power in 2017, when NMC became the first Abu Dhabi-based LLC to be listed on the coveted Financial Times Stock Exchange 100. But earlier this year, as the Covid-19 crisis began, Shetty’s medical empire collapsed. In a report issued by investment firm Muddy Waters Research, he was accused of having overstated NMC’s assets and understated its debt. He found himself charged for fraud and forgery. His assets were seized, forcing him to declare bankruptcy. While criminal charges were filed, Shetty fled to India, where he remains, although his son was later arrested by UAE authorities. The choice was leave or die, even for him.

Return of Nativism

Natives across the Gulf hold migrant workers in contempt, even as they remain reliant on their labor. After all, there are simply not enough citizens to fill the required numbers of construction workers, domestic servants, petroleum engineers, doctors, teachers, security forces, or government employees: in short, most of the critical roles required for a modern nation. Besides, native citizens by this point have learned to look down on most professions, desiring only cushy white-collar jobs. This growing expectation has led to the policies of Emiratization and Saudization, which require all private companies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to employ fixed quotas of native citizens.

I never witnessed a single funeral, not even from afar. The bodies of the dead were invariably flown home.

No one gives voice to Gulf nativism quite like Safa Al Hashem, Kuwait’s infamous lone female assemblywoman. Her claim to fame largely rests on a string of preposterously inhuman proposals, including charging all foreigners for the right to breathe native air. She recently suggested that the nation stop issuing drivers’ licenses to foreigners, but was quickly forced to make an exemption for chauffeurs, as almost all native households employ one.

Covid-19 has exposed further the contradictions of the Gulf’s migration system. Throughout the region, migrants have been blamed, by the media and politicians alike, for spreading the virus. Anti-migrant sentiment reached a fever pitch in Kuwait, where a bill was introduced in the National Assembly in July, proposing to cut the percentage of foreigners in the country from 70 to 30 percent of the population—which, if put into effect, would require the deportation of nearly two million people. The bill has the support of Prime Minister Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah; it is fully expected to pass later this year. Never mind that almost all nurses, doctors, and hospital workers in Kuwait are South Asians, East Africans, and non-Gulf Arabs.

If Kuwait is in the process of attempting to expel its guest workers, the UAE has moved in the opposite direction, reclassifying its gigantic construction industry as essential. The net result: a majority of the country was made to work as a slim minority locked down. More extreme still has been the Saudi response. Like other Gulf countries, the Saudi government has encouraged migrant workers to return home while also requiring them to pay their own way, which many obviously cannot afford to do. Those trapped between poverty and the lockdown have been held in prison-like conditions. In a shocking exposé, journalists Zecharias Zelalem and Will Brown spoke to some of the thousands of East Africans who have been held in unsanitary detention centers in southern Saudi Arabia, close to the Yemeni border. Many of them have been there since the start of the pandemic. A report issued by Amnesty International in early October cited eyewitness accounts of several deaths in these camps where inmates are housed.

The pandemic has shown that countries that export workers are all too happy to abandon their expatriate citizens, despite benefitting from their remittances. Citing an inability to adequately process and test returning migrant workers, Ethiopia and India have both left their citizens at the mercy of host countries, knowing full well the dangers they face there, trapped in cramped dormitories that are hotbeds of viral activity. Leaked documents cited by Zelalem’s exposé reveal that the Ethiopian government attempted to hush all news of the Saudi detention centers to avoid jeopardizing its relationship with Mohammed bin Salman or interrupt the diaspora’s cash flow. Growing up, I would often see bruised, browbeaten domestic workers queue outside their respective embassies to beg for help in dealing with abusive employers. Invariably, they were turned away empty-handed. Many of those women had either been sexually assaulted, denied pay, or had been forced to live in indecent conditions. “If they had any pride in themselves,” an Emirati classmate once remarked, “they wouldn’t be here.”

The Other Side of Hope

As my time in the UAE began to draw to a close in the mid-2000s, it dawned on me that I was living inside an experiment in transient non-citizenship. The work of open-border economists like Branko Milanović tells me I may have been right. According to Milanović, the UAE made the right decision in offering migrants time-limited access to its labor market in exchange for stripping them of their civic rights. He considers this a good means by which so-called migration/adaptation issues faced by the West might be resolved, or rather bypassed entirely. What unhinged free-market optimism of this sort fails to account for is the human cost, both direct and indirect, of redefining our notion of labor in such an inhuman manner. It also elides the increasing levels of political oppression such policies would require. Migrant workers in the UAE—the very people who have built a first-class welfare state from scratch in under five decades—routinely have their contracts renegotiated, their pay cut, their living conditions worsened, their passports confiscated, their property seized, their person injured, and their individual liberties curtailed. Is this the sort of fate Milanović would like to see befall all workers around the world?

Anti-migrant sentiment reached fever pitch in Kuwait, where a bill was introduced in the National Assembly that would require the deportation of nearly two million people.

Next December will mark the UAE’s fiftieth anniversary as a united monarchy. As if to pave the path for the celebrations sure to follow, crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan this year launched the Arab world’s first mission to Mars, before striking the first Arab-Israeli peace accord in nearly thirty years, enshrining a newfound global prominence. Mid-century, few would have predicted such a speedy rise. The Abu Dhabi my father first saw in 1980 was a near-barren island pockmarked with foundation pits and crisscrossed by unpaved roads, a city where business was conducted out of hotel rooms owing to the lack of office space. Today it has become a buzzing conglomeration of skyscrapers that rivals any global city.

At the same time, Zayed’s hopes of forging a nation where the modern world would be harmoniously wed to Bedouin traditions of old have not been fulfilled. Oil wealth has disintegrated the traditional family; Emirati children are raised almost exclusively by foreign nannies; and the UAE’s economy is entirely dependent on an ill-regulated, brutal construction industry and rapidly depreciating oil extraction, both of which have had frightening environmental consequences. The UAE also suffers from a growing water scarcity, a situation barely held in check by its heavy use of desalination plants, without which the country would simply not exist.

Devoid of the instability marring the rest of the Middle East, the UAE has sought to rebrand as a holiday destination, but every aspect of life there is heavily curtailed and censored, none more so than the local press. Praised for its liberal outlook, the UAE’s security forces have all too happily engaged in the incarceration and intimidation of peaceful dissidents, including Emirati citizens. While the UAE’s propaganda outlets constantly praise the country’s famed tolerance, this empty rhetoric belies deep racist divisions, daily reinforced by kafala. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan died in 2004, after which the country was shut down for weeks in prolonged mourning. Since then, I have often wondered what the “Father of the Nation” might have made of his actual legacy, should he have had the misfortune to witness his sons carpet-bomb Yemen, a country where he once helped build schools and hospitals.

Other aspects of Zayed’s legacy are more ambiguous. What, for instance, is to be done with the millions of migrants he and other Gulf leaders shipped in to fulfil their grandiose visions? In recent years Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made headlines for their bloody involvement in Yemen, assisting Islamists in Syria, supplying a warlord in Libya, not to mention establishing military bases in half a dozen countries in the region, including Djibouti and Eritrea. The rule of monarchs like Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is likely to be defined more by foreign wars than how they deal with their migrant populations.

Since the time of Nebuchadnezzar and the Israelites, so-called civilized societies around the world have bought, abducted, coerced, or invited labor forces from wherever they saw fit, temporarily lowering their drawbridges to let these nameless hordes enter and build their cities and monuments, operate the most unsavory parts of their economies, or even bear their children, as when King Romulus and his men abducted the Sabine women to increase Rome’s might with offspring. Once their task was completed, these nameless workers and slaves quickly lost all value, as proven by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the mind behind the Great Wall and the terracotta army, who reportedly executed many of his workers on completion of the job to keep his mausoleum’s location a secret. In fact, we appear utterly incapable of building anything anywhere without either uprooting people or spilling blood, or both. Consider the European folklore traditions that tell of immuring women, typically young brides, within the stonemasonry of bridges or buildings in order to ensure their strength or divine protection, a practice the Japanese called hitobashira, or “human pillar.” Now it is the turn of the Gulf rulers. Should these autocrats continue to heed the clarion call of nativism, their budding plans may yet yield one of history’s largest acts of deportation, and the human cost of that will be infinitely worse than the gross injustices these “temporary people” have already endured.