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Structured to Perfection: Racism in the Gulf

When we write of racism in the region, it’s often about individuals who take to various platforms to spew venom on foreigners. What is rarely acknowledged is that the discourse finds deep roots in the very way in which these Governments build and run the countries. This Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that even if the virus doesn’t discriminate, the system will.

On April 11, 2020

The Gulf states will win the war against Covid-19. When the dust settles, they will take a few knocks and bring in plane-loads of workers from ever more desperate countries to restart the economy. What then of the ones who now live here? They can be dispensed with.

Over the decades, GCC states have used their wealth to master and fine-tune a systemically racist model of immigration that primarily suits their needs without fully taking into consideration the impact it has on the workers and the countries they come from. 

What started as an organic way of managing foreign labour has developed into a structure that refuses to recognise labour beyond its utilitarian value, and when that value ceases to exist, the labour – and with that the worker – does too. 

They will win this war, because the Gulf states have always been good at social distancing. There are services that are earmarked for ‘migrant workers’ – that blanket term for dark-skinned expatriates from the global south who live and work alone, forced into celibacy, earning less than a fair living wage. This segregation is not questioned or at best is accepted as an unideal necessity. The social distance between ‘migrants’ and the rest pre-dates Covid-19, and will outlast it too – it protects the latter from any pang of remorse about their role in this discrimination.

Criticism of abusive practices in the Gulf has only aided and abetted the system, by colouring within the lines of what Gulf states have deemed as the norm. 

Let’s take a moment to look at the sectors that are shutting down. These are the ones where the higher income, affluent class, have to interact with lower-income migrants – anything that is transactional, like retail and hospitality is closed for business. Whereas with everything else, where lower-income workers are only a risk to each other, it is business as usual. They will be locked down and quarantined in their camps and bussed to work sites to keep building the Gulf’s glitzy dreams, which are somehow considered essential and vital, and worth risking workers’ health for. The intention clearly is not to put those with privilege and social capital at risk of infection. 

To be fair to these countries, almost every lockdown and curfew has been unavoidable, because it was the quickest way to get people to toe the line and stay home. What we can and should hold them responsible for is the systemic ghettoising of certain nationalities and certain classes of workers which automatically renders them the most vulnerable in any crisis, be it a health one or an economic one. Here’s the flip side. This kind of model has also helped them to isolate or segregate and to manipulate quarantine directives. So the real fear is, no lesson will be learnt. At least not one that will make Gulf societies more equitable.

It would be comedic if it weren’t so dire – to keep sending workers back into an environment that is hospitable to the virus, not to the individual.

Read the regular Covid-19 bulletins from these countries, and read them once more. One group is advised to stay home. Stay safe. Report if unwell. Get tested if exposure to an infected person is suspected.

With the other group, it’s about containing them en masse in one large area, in crowded rooms, waiting for daily handouts of food and water. Regular testing to see if they are infected, temperature taken daily and swabs when necessary. If there is suspicion of infection, then the worker is removed from that space and isolated. If not, he is sent back to the same dreary labour camps. Rinse. Repeat.

Symptoms appear when the person has already been a carrier for several days, but they can be tested only when there are symptoms. It would be comedic if it weren’t so dire – to keep sending workers back into an environment that is hospitable to the virus, not to the individual.

What happens when a worker tests positive, is treated and then released? Where and what are they going back to? Rinse. Repeat.

Acute discriminatory housing policies and services are actually working in favour of these States. Yes, the large numbers of infected are a problem. But it's a problem they can dispense with quite easily. Meanwhile, the workers will help with ‘business continuity’ – they will be deployed at construction sites and to clean public spaces, until they physically cannot.

Every day you hear of massive jumps in the numbers of infected across these countries.  Bad news first: Yes, stage 3 community transmission is in full swing. Good news: it’s just the migrants, so contain them, because you can’t contain the spread, and then send them back when you can’t contain them any longer.

Several of the GCC states are planning mass repatriation of workers, with only perfunctory temperature-taking before they leave. The rich countries pass the buck to origin countries who are already buckling under the weight of the Covid-19 crisis, and whose healthcare systems are ill-equipped to manage the influx of possible fresh cases and the resultant community spread.


The Gulf is winning with its segregation. This won’t fly in other wealthy countries, where there are more mixed neighbourhoods and mixed-use public facilities and amenities, mass public transport, and where most workers earn a fair living wage and can partake more fully in what the country has to offer.

Here they can set up a temporary hospital just for workers, built by the workers, in the vicinity of sprawling, squalid labour camps, and no one will bat an eyelid at the discrimination. It will be seen as practical, convenient. 

And that has been the problem all along.

In the name of practicality, GCC states have gotten away with gross human rights violations. Their consultants wax eloquent on business continuity and disaster management, in PowerPoint presentations billed at millions of dollars, that provide a sheen for and give a spin on this practicality. They highlight obvious abuses and provide predictable solutions aimed at nothing more than deflecting attention for a while.

The immediate counter-argument to criticism of the Gulf states has always been (and continues to be, even more so now) that it is better here than in their home countries. An argument that is deliberately blind to nuances of social engagement and capital. One does not recognise aspirational migration if you are poor or uneducated, so the assumption is their suffering is for their overall good. 

The temporariness of permanent people

If you’ve lived in the Gulf long enough, you realise that even though every imaginable nationality lives there, there is no real mixing. The segregation is so airtight it is unlikely you’d step out to go shopping or a walk in the park or for a meal and run into people who are very different from you economically. 

So you live in a bubble of people who are like you, and ‘the other’ becomes an abstract. They are statistics in reports and research. Their value is the collective remittances they send back to their countries and families, and the percentage of those GDPs they contribute to. But what is their value within these petrodollar economies of Qatar or Saudi Arabia? How do we quantify their contribution and ownership in terms of the wealth of Kuwait or UAE?

When they are known by a name at all, it’s for the most unfortunate reasons – as a victim of abuse or perpetrator of a crime. Even their deaths are not mourned in an obituary. It’s just another statistic.

You see, this is because they are ‘temporary,’ ‘guest’ workers. There is this assumption that migrant workers have a short term plan – pay a recruitment fee, earn a salary that their country would never be able to offer, spend months paying off the recruitment debt, spend a couple of years saving money, and then go back. This assumption is not a reflection of workers’ dreams. It merely highlights the only scenario Gulf countries are willing to entertain, and hence becomes the baseline of all discourses. 

Here’s a fun fact. This may be true for a few, not for the vast majority. Workers rarely migrate for just two or three years. The investment they make financially and emotionally cannot be realised in such a short time. There are debts to be paid, houses to be built, children to be educated, marriages to be conducted and businesses to be invested in. Migration is a life plan. They may stay for a short period in one job and return home, only to re-migrate again. And again. And again. 

The opportunities back home become less and less attractive and as they grow older their commitments become bigger. It is not about petrodollars alone. There is little scope for increments, growth or development on the job in the Gulf, so after four or five years the value of their skill has not appreciated either. They are stuck in limbo.

Time and again when we interview lower-income workers in distress, we hear that they’ve been at a certain job for 10, 15, even 30 years with hardly any rise in their salaries. So all that they bank on is to put in enough years of service so that their end of service benefits provide them with their only retirement protection. This rhetoric of temporariness is proposed by Gulf states and accepted by international agencies. So the demand for reforms is poorly conceived. Colouring inside the lines, again.

To call them temporary workers is also disingenuous – how are you going to define temporary, when there is no line that you can cross to become permanent?

The worker, if lucky, will accrue social capital back home in their own country, but are conditioned to believe that they never can do the same in the Gulf, where they spend the most productive years of their life. So they will accept that even when their lives are at risk, the most owed to them is crowded accommodation, free testing and food handouts.