The Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies hosted ‘Making the Gulf: Regulating Movements and Politics’ over Zoom last Wednesday. New York University professors Natasha Iskander and Arang Keshavarzian discussed the politics behind the treatment of foreign workers in the Gulf. 

Iskander presented her research gathered through hundreds of hours spent shadowing the Qatari workforce. She began by describing the dramatic development of the Qatari cityscape, comparing images from the 1960s to today. Qatar is pursuing a top-down strategy for development by defining “an idealized future” through plans like the National Development Vision 2030 and importing foreign workers to fit this future, Iskander said. She showed slides of Pearl Qatar, an artificial island created to resemble a string of pearls.  She noted that there has been a recent burst of construction due to the World Cup later this year. For this event, the entirely foreign workforce created eight stadiums, all “outstanding design achievements,” according to Iskander. 

Despite the achievement of these workers, Iskander said there is an entrenched system of exploitation maintained by the kafala system sponsorship which binds workers to employers. Because Qatari prides itself on cutting edge architectural innovation, construction workers are often required to operate extremely advanced construction technologies and apply very advanced construction skills. Since most construction workers enter the job with no prior construction skill, construction sites heavily invest in on-site training. However, the advanced technique of master scaffolders, welders, and other construction workers contrasts with widespread Qatari perceptions of their workforce as unskilled. 

Iskander discussed the significance and implications of this label. She explained that the exploitation of workers labeled as unskilled has a history stretching back to the pearling industry starting around the turn of the 20th century, and the influence of the British indentured labor system, which set out explicit definitions for skilled and unskilled labor that had more to do with racial and ethnic categorizations rather than actual skill. Iskander noted that these methods of classifying workers on the basis of supposed merit are mirrored in other regions around the world, including immigration to the United States. 

“The politics of skill shape all aspects of social and economic life,” Iskander said, noting that those labeled as unskilled are dehumanized and described as not having the full capacity for freedom. According to Iskander, “skill is the line that Qatar draws to distinguish between its past and its future… in the hopes that the workers who built Qatar would simply disappear.” The particular benefit of skill, Iskander argued, is that it works as a “seemingly apolitical justification for social stratification and technocracy.” 

Iskander noted that prejudice against workers is also reflected in the segregation of residential areas by skill category. Blue collar bachelors were primarily housed in labor camps, with conditions that are well documented by the international press as unsafe. In 2015, Qatar opened a labor city, which provided housing for 100,000 workers. This housing is described as being in better condition, but the area is heavily monitored by CCTV cameras and security guards, phone and internet monitoring, checkpoints and no unsupervised entry. International journalists have not been able to obtain access to these areas. Iskander added that a 250,000 worker housing complex was coming online in 2022. 

COVID-19 brought additional challenges for Qatari workers. On Mar. 11, 2020, with 238 cases in Qatar, there was a full lockdown of the industrial area, known as a “cordon sanitaire.” “Here we see the most dramatic expression of the exclusionary condition of Qatar,” Iskander said. She explained that conditions for contagion were high within the industrial city, while outside the cordon sanitaire, Qatar was a model for healthcare in the world. 

Discussing resistance to this prejudicial regime against workers, Iskander noted that every site she visited had experienced wildcat strikes––strikes without the authorization of union membership––although the strikes were buried by the press. Combinations of international and domestic condemnation have also worked to improve conditions. However, Iskander noted that Qatari reforms have been relatively minimal. Migrant workers received a minimum wage increase from $200 to $275 for a month of full-time work, and workers are now allowed to change jobs. However, they cannot move around very easily due to the heavy surveillance in place. “Compared to other countries, these reforms are not remarkable,” concluded Iskander, contrasting Qatari reforms with that of the United Arab Emirates, which she argues has made a more meaningful attempt at reform due to their lack of emphasis on controlling space for their migrant workers. 

Offering a geographical angle to the discussion, Keshavarzian presented his ongoing research of the Persian Gulf, namely, how and why it was conceived of as a region. Regions are often considered to be static spaces that cluster countries within relatively clear borders and set them apart from other regions, Keshavarzian said. He argued that this assumption is what leads to political battles over nomenclature of the Gulf as Persian or Arab and discussion of the Gulf as a region vital to the global economy. 

Such assumptions obscure the dynamic nature of the land, according to Keshavarzian. He discussed how his early experiences in the Gulf region in 2001 gave him a conception of the region as an active space. In Iran, when waiting for a motorboat to take them to the nearby island of Kish, he saw a group of people waiting in the shade, with clothing that suggested a humble background. By context, he suspected that they were organized by smugglers to transport goods from Kish, a free trade zone, to the mainland. He visited Bastak, Iran and found out that the city was the product of circular migration between Bastak and the Eastern Arabian coast, specifically Dubai. In Dubai, in 2001, he saw another group of men that appeared to be from South Asia waiting in the airport to have their work permits inspected. He explained that this group was part of the beginning of the construction boom in Dubai and Qatar. These workers would clean offices, serve as nurses, and take care of the children of jet-setters. 

Keshavarzian concluded that instead of being a “two-dimensional homogeneous unitary entity…[the Gulf region] involves multiple actors, a splintering of spaces and the proliferation of bordering and bordering practices.” Gulf regionalisms are intertwined with multiple geographic scales and regions are often co-produced along with nations, cities, empires, and individual identities. Keshavarzian concluded that the Gulf’s role as the “umbilical cord of the free world” never completely overwrites 19th century littoral society that brings people in the Gulf together. He argued that these traces “are threads through which we can imagine a remaking of the gulf in the future.”