Throughout the Middle East, dictators who looked to be safely ensconced in power have either been overthrown by their people or found themselves in the midst of popular protests that seriously threaten their rule. The countries of the oil-rich Arabian Gulf have hardly been immune to these events. In Bahrain, the country’s majority Shia population is in the midst of protests against the continued rule of Bahrain’s Sunni dictator and U.S. ally Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa. Most recently, Oman has been the site of street protests against the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Even in Saudi Arabia, there appear to be rumblings of nascent political activism amongst the country’s citizenry.
But what of those most exploited and voiceless members of these Gulf states – the migrant workers, many of whom are second, even third generation inhabitants of these countries. In the UAE and Qatar, migrants comprise well over eighty percent of the total population, in Kuwait roughly two-thirds. These expatriates (as migrant workers are often referred to in the Gulf) also account for significant portions of the population in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. In other countries around the world, immigrants, including illegal immigrants, engage in political protest and open defiance of the governments of their adopted homes. With the changes happening in the region, will the Gulf’s expatriate community take this opportunity to openly question these regimes?
Regulating the Expatriate Community: The Kafala System
For the expatriates of the Gulf, life is governed by the kafala, or sponsorship, system (Bahrain is in the process of abandoning this framework). Residence visas are tied to sponsors, usually employers. Under the kafala system, changing jobs is exceedingly difficult; those who leave their place of employment, with some exceptions for professionals, must leave the country for a mandated period (in Dubai it is six months) before they can return to take on new employment.
It goes without saying that the conditions experienced by the various migrant classes, including laborers, the middle class, and professionals, differ greatly. Laborers (construction workers, maids, cab drivers, etc.) constitute the vast majority of expatriates in the Gulf. Employers regularly confiscate the passports of these individuals and regularly withhold their wages to prevent them from seeking employment elsewhere. Most Gulf governments have a zero tolerance policy towards unions and worker strikes, regardless of the grievance. Workers who have participated in strikes or protests have been immediately deported without trial or due process of any kind.
House servants face perhaps the most difficult circumstances. Throughout the Gulf, these live-in maids are often physically and mentally abused. Their workweeks regularly consist of twelve-hour days, which become even longer during the month long Ramadan fast, when these workers tend to have greater responsibilities related to the festivities that typify the holy month. As a regular practice, many employers often delay payment of wages, with some never providing any financial compensation to their live-in maids. Since these workers often remain behind closed doors, interacting to a very limited extent with the outside world, there is often no means of proving allegations of nonpayment. When authorities investigate instances of abuse, which occurs only rarely, they invariably side with the employer. Unsurprisingly, because of these circumstances, live-in maids often attempt to flee their employers, an action that is legally deemed to constitute “absconding” and can amount to a criminal violation of the terms of their visas.
Whereas laborers migrating to the Gulf are likely to experience all manner of on- and off-the-job abuse, members of middle class and professionals are lured to the region with enticements, such as high salaries, professional advancement, and luxury living. These individuals need and, in fact, demand very little support or attention from the Gulf regimes, willingly living in “gilded cages” where they gladly trade political rights for economic possibilities. In turn, the Gulf regimes allow these expatriates wide latitude with regards to social practices, (for example, in Dubai, expatriates are permitted to worship as they like, drink, and openly visit prostitutes), as long as these practices remain devoid of political significance.
Temporary and Exploited Guest Workers – An Unlikely Political Force
Under the kafala system, all expatriates, regardless of class or nationality, are defined as disposable and temporary. In keeping with this approach, Gulf governments categorize their expatriates as “guest workers”, regardless of the length of their stay. In the end, professionals and middle class expats, like migrant laborers, are simply factors of production, present in these countries merely to create wealth for Gulf rulers and their governments. Some of this wealth, in turn, is distributed as government handouts, such as no-cost loans, marriage funds, land grants, and free education, to the nationals of Gulf countries.
For most expatriates in the Gulf, citizenship remains a pipedream, a reality that underscores their transience; additionally, “permanent residency”, as an immigration status, simply does not exist in Gulf countries. In response to criticisms regarding their restrictive citizenship practices, Gulf governments raise concerns about the cultural extinction and demographic imbalance that would result from a more expansive citizenship policy.
In reality, however, there are two primary reasons motivating Gulf nations to withhold citizenship and permanent residency from their expatriate communities. First, for these governments, legitimacy depends to a large degree on the ability to provide a high standard of living to their nationals. Allowing expatriates to become naturalized citizens would require these states to spread their welfare largesse amongst a much larger pool of recipients. Second, the kafala system provides a very simple and effective means of controlling workers. As expatriates are permitted to remain in these countries for employment purposes only, any deviation from this quid pro quo, such as political mobilizing, brings with it the specter of deportation. While such behaviors also bring the possibility of incarceration and physical beatings, the threat of deportation remains the most effective tool for stifling any possible challenge from Gulf migrants to the political-economic order of these countries. The rare instances of migrant worker protests, such as those seen in Dubai in recent years, have been borne of desperation, coming in response to withheld wages, lack of pay increases, and deplorable housing conditions. Enjoying few political, education, and social resources, these protesting workers are unlikely leaders for an effective political and social movement, a reality underscored by the threat of deportation.
In the end, the tacit economic agreement between Gulf countries and their expatriate workers – laborers, the middle class, and professionals – lies at the root of the latter’s political apathy. Throughout the Gulf, expatriates willingly give up rights, such as free speech and due process, living on short-term visas that can be canceled at any time for any reason. In exchange, they earn tax-free wages as “economic mercenaries”, fully aware that their host countries value them merely as members of a faceless sea of workers. For lower-level migrants from developing countries, the trade-off includes the unstated promise that they will live and toil under harsh conditions, in exchange for wages that carry the promise of a better life back in their home countries. The middle class, mainly consisting of South Asians and Arabs from outside the Arabian Gulf, have access to improved occupational possibilities, better schools, and more comfortable living conditions, as compared to their home countries. For upper-class professionals, largely Westerners, but also including individuals from many other parts of the globe, life in the Gulf brings the allure of the “good life”—comprised of cheap household help, luxury accommodations, restaurants, and, particularly in Dubai, spas, nightclubs, bars, outdoor sports, and prostitution. For expatriates of any level, disturbing this arrangement for “mere” political rights remains both unlikely and, given the consequences of political activism, self-defeating of their primary interest in economic betterment.
 The UAE and Qatar provide generous social and financial support to their nationals, with Kuwait allocating a slightly lesser degree of socio-economic support to its citizens. By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Oman are relatively less generous with their handouts, with Bahrain’s social safety net limited almost exclusively to the country’s minority, Sunni population. In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that political discontent has been particularly evident in these three countries, which have relatively lower levels of social spending. For autocratic regimes, denying both political rights and economic benefits is an unwise course, particularly when these governments prominently display their spectacular oil wealth.