The Arab World’s Forgotten Rebellions: Foreign Workers and Biopolitics in the Gulf

The Arab world is undergoing a potentially world-historical transformation. The Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi’s self-imolation, following mistreatment by state authorities in late 2010, sparked a deluge of populist anger and activism that has toppled the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, soon to be followed by street demonstrations and battles across the region.  At the time of this writing, Libyan rebels in alliance with a NATO coalition are battling Qaddafi and his loyalists.  Bahrainis, Omanis, and Yemenis, and most recently Syrians, have taken to the streets en masse, and have been met by the bullets and security thugs–and in Bahrain’s case, Saudi troops–pressed into service by regimes desperately trying to maintain the grip on power of entrenched one-family states.  The analogy has been made between these events and the Prague Spring of 1968, both with its hopes for popular challenges of illegitimate state power, and its warnings about the cunning and brutality of such power arranged against popular movements.  Yet before these rebellions came others, arguably more modest in their aims and undeniably less noticed by the world media.  For years, workers, predominantly South Asians, have been taking to the streets in the United Arab Emirates.  What have these protests been about and why have they been ignored?  How might they inform future scholarship on the Gulf?

The states in the Arab Gulf region have been remarkably enveloped in the mists of myth and ideology, even in relation to other states in the region.  To casual observers, they are the “popular” states of the Arab world.  Their ruling families, it is believed by many, have had a relatively easy time winning over their peoples with welfare gifts funded by petrodollars and successful, hegemony-building campaigns of cultural persuasion (as can be seen, for example, in staged displays of their authentic Arabness).  And in any case, (so the myth goes) these ruling families were the only ones capable of bringing modernity to their “tribal” and “backward” peoples.

In fact, as examples from across the region show, the rise of the family-state in the Gulf was never uncontested.  The story of Britain’s great power game, with the Hashemites of the Hejaz and the Al Saud of the Najd as pawns, is well-known.  The broad outlines of the alliance between U.S. oil corporations and the Al Saud soon after the founding of Saudi Arabia is as well.  But stories about indigenous revolts against the Al Saud, and comparable ones against dynasties such as the Al Sabah of Kuwait, the Al Maktoum of Dubai, and the Al Bu Said of Oman are nearly not known at all.

It is important to point out that these revolts, while often led by merchants, technocrats, or students, also often involved, instrumentally, the participation of workers. Saudi workers, for example, rebelled against ARAMCO’s Jim Crow style policies in the 1940s and 1950s. In recent months, as Pepe Escobar reports, Omani workers in Salalah, Sohar, and Sur agitated en masse against stagnant wages, runaway inflation, and exclusion from jobs, which they accused the Qabus bin Sultan regime of handing out to favored Muscatis and foreigners.  The regime, it should be mentioned (because it was somewhat ignored by observers inclined to believe myths about the Omani state’s alleged respect for human rights) met these protests with live ammunition and tear gas, killing a fifteen year-old boy.  The recent events in Bahrain need hardly be mentioned, as the Al Khalifa was given enough room by force of Saudi arms to pursue a sinister campaign of eliminating any perceived threats to its hegemony.


The recent Omani and Bahraini demonstrations, however, shed light on how rare agitation by indigenous Gulf people has become in recent decades.  The years 1930 to 1970 were ones of frequent and active opposition movements in the Gulf: from the merchant-led, reformist majlis movements in Kuwait and Dubai in the 1930s, to the anti-oil corporation movements in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the Dubai National Front, in the 1940s and 1950s, to the Arab Nationalist and Marxist liberation fronts of Bahrain and Oman in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since the 1970s, by contrast, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE as well as to some extent Saudi Arabia, have been able to avoid mass uprisings and to utterly crush populist formations, largely because of demographics and oil (the exception here is relatively oil-poor Bahrain, where uprisings have been frequent during this time period).  Once oil was discovered, the Gulf states could create new dependent classes of citizens who were bought off with relatively generous handouts.  In some parts of the Gulf, the hegemony of the oil-fueled family/security state was not entirely complete, such as in Bahrain with its institutionalized sectarianism and marginalized Shi‘a majority, and Oman, with its particularly fraught history of Arab Nationalist and Marxist resistance to royal autocracy.  In general, however, with oil, the more unappealing kinds of labor on which any society depends–from construction to police work to the maintenance of urban infrastructures–was increasingly done by foreigners.

Foreign workers in the Gulf, while certainly marginalized and exploited, are far from the silent, passive wage slaves of popular imagination. During my own research on Dubai, at least nine worker protests broke out in just one month, September to October 2005.  These protests ranged in size from about ten workers to about 1,000 workers.  The Dubai protest by 1,500 “low-paid Asian workers,” reported in March 2008 by Agence France Presse, was far from atypical in scale.  In the same year, the online Epoch Times reported a 3,000 worker strike in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, directly east of Dubai.  Occasionally, however, strikes are much larger.  For example, in late 2007 (reported the UAE daily, The National), approximately 30,000 workers struck for 10 days against the large Dubai construction firm Arabtec.

The UAE is in fact a useful case study, because of all the Gulf states, it is seen as the most stable, a stereotype that only seems to have been buttressed by the relative lack of recent drama within its borders.  In reality, however, worker unrest in the UAE is routine, and it paints a more complicated picture of so-called UAE stability.  Let us look at only one month (again, not atypical for the UAE): this past December and January, the same time period of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.  In December, writes journalist Stephen Smith, reporting for the Epoch Times, almost a thousand workers blocked a busy roundabout in an industrial area of Dubai (Smith does not report against whom the strike was organized or in which specific neighborhood of Dubai it occurred).  The Risk and Forecast website (a far from politically-radical consultancy firm which analyzes political risks for global investment) reported another strike against Arabtec in the middle of January: approximately 5,000 mostly South Asian workers, struck for nearly two weeks to demand a pay raise from about $200 to about $250 per month.  The website describes the UAE government’s response–the deportation of 50 workers–as “alarming” and adds that “it undermines efforts that the country was moving towards modernizing its labour laws.  Those have been described by international human rights groups as forms of modern slavery.”  These strikes were no mere fleeting occurrence either.  They were a common response by workers fed up with systematic, tacitly authorized expropriations of material welfare and dignity.  As detailed by Human Rights Watch in a scathing 2006 report on the UAE construction sector, foreign worker grievances do not only have to do with wages, but result from the intersection of workers’ structural vulnerability in the global political economy and local, on-the-ground practices by actors both in the UAE and in the workers’ home countries.  This is a situation which adds to non-payment of wages and such practices as deceptive recruitment by labor agents, contract switching by employers, uninhabitable, remote labor camps, and passport confiscation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media, whether in the UAE or outside it, has ignored workers, both South Asian and Arab (the latter also constituting a major part of the labor force in the UAE). While UAE English-language journalism tends to give migrant workers more coverage than does Arabic-language journalism, in both cases, the perspectives of workers are at most provided general and very brief outlet.  Most of the copious newspaper and online journalism that I read from 2003 to 2007 (the period of my research on Dubai) in fact never bothered to talk to the workers involved in strikes.  These journalists inevitably chose, instead, state or municipality officials–for example, the head of the police department’s “human rights” division, an academic “expert,” or a labor ministry official–who were somehow appointed to speak for the workers. Aside from the work of Human Rights Watch and a few scattered bloggers, workers are always represented as a homogeneous mass, and nearly always as a threat or a public nuisance. 

Why this apparent consensus that workers cannot or should not speak for themselves?  Why the seemingly inevitable recourse to homogenizing them in journalistic representations?  In my concluding thoughts, I suggest both an explanation and an avenue for a future scholarship that takes Gulf workers–wherever they may come from–and their perspectives seriously.

Admittedly, while the mass actions in Egypt, Tunisia, and the other countries of the Arab Spring are political protests, the actions in the UAE are labor strikes.   We should not conflate the two: the stakes in each kind of demonstration are different.  The foreign workers of the UAE are citizens of another country and they will eventually return to their own countries.  Yet while foreigners–whether workers or middle class–in the UAE do not envision being part of the imagined community, their protests nevertheless resonate in some important ways with those of the Arab Spring (not least, those of the indigenous Gulf Arabs whose own voices and protests have been brutally suppressed by the GCC family-states in response to the Arab uprisings).  Both the Arab Spring and Gulf worker actions are, broadly, about dignity and justice; both challenge the status quo of unaccountable family/security-states; and both are met with ferocious responses by those states.  Yet, the Gulf worker actions are ignored.  Why?

In the world in which we live–one where nation-states are the “natural” creators and guarantors of individual rights–the relationship between citizen and nation-state is the norm.  Claims by non-citizens on nation-states are not: While people certainly do make claims on nation-states of which they are not citizens, such a process continues to be an often complicated, uncertain, fraught proposition.  It is, at least, indubitable that the juridical rights of non-citizens are always more limited than those of citizens in any given state, another sign of the normalization of national citizenship in the modern world.  While certainly taking nothing away from the democratic surge in the Arab countries, one has to admit that this nation-state logic does go a long way to explaining why Arab protests in Arab countries are celebrated while South Asian protests in Arab countries are ignored.

Moreover, the case of UAE foreign workers sheds light on contemporary processes of governmentality, whether in the Gulf or elsewhere.  Along with attributing to immigrants an untrustworthy character and potential threats to society, which can be seen in hegemonic Emirati discourses of illegal immigration that are similar to those in the United States and Europe, there is the assumption that foreigners pose a threat to local culture and purity (both literally and figuratively).  As both I and Anh Nga Longva found for our respective cases of Dubai and Kuwait, foreign domestics, for example, are especially vulnerable to charges of sexual immorality and prostitution.  A connection is made in such a view between the foreigner’s allegedly loose sexual morality and the infiltration of culturally corrosive influences by way of the domestic space of the family.  What struck me during my research, moreover, was the way in which discourses of foreign threat were linked to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben might call (in Hal Foster’s recent adaptation), “the administration of human life as so much vital matter,” or  “the total management of biological life.” For example, descriptions of illegal immigration in the UAE media during my research period evoked a nearly ungovernable mobility, a chaotic frontier against which the state struggled to impose order, and the potential diseases that could invade the country should this governance break down.  Working class foreigners were represented as exposing the UAE to anything from AIDS to tuberculosis to hepatitis B and leprosy.  Successful governance, as one official put it, is about “keeping the country clean of illegal immigrants.”

Thus, the relationship between foreign workers and local Emirati actors is about more than rights.  It exceeds or spills over our usual framing in which the problems arise simply because non-citizens demand rights which citizens see as belonging only to members of the nation-state (or ethnocracy, as Longva has called Gulf states). The foreign worker is situated in a biopolitical relationship to the state and to citizens.

According to Agamben, biopolitical sovereignty is established upon a fundamental exclusion, that of the so-called homo sacer or “sacred man.”  The attribute of being “sacred” is here meant not in its contemporary sense, but in a sense more familiar to the Roman world (the source of Agamben’s genealogy of the homo sacer concept): that of being “accursed.”  According to a recent reading by Hal Foster, homo sacer was “the lowest of the low ... [he] may be killed and yet not sacrificed.”  The Roman social order was defined at its limits by both the sovereign and homo sacer, complementary figures which constituted the state and social order.  The sovereign claimed an exceptional right to make at will any of his subjects a homo sacer, while all subjects of the sovereign could themselves behave as sovereigns in relation to the homines sacri at the lowest rungs of the social order.  Agamben further argues that the condition of homo sacer and his “bare life”–his being qua his “animality”–are becoming the norm in a world of detention camps and states suspending their laws “in the name of preserving the law” (Foster).  Agamben takes the experience of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust as emblematic of bare life, but Foster calls to mind more prosaic examples, such as the “terroristic Muslim” or the hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib.  One might add another, perhaps even more prosaic example, the accursed foreign worker in the contemporary Gulf states.

In some ways, Agamben’s theory applies literally to foreign workers in the UAE.  In Dubai, for example, they live either in a vast system of labor camps on the peripheries of the city or within the domestic sphere of the household, perpetually in informal and temporary status and subject to any of the aforementioned privations of national-citizenship or economic rights, arbitrary acts that deprive them of full humanity and reconstitute them, for the duration of their stay in the Gulf, as bare life.  It is significant that domestic workers are the only category of foreigner to be allowed access to the private spaces of the Gulf home (bedrooms, bathrooms, domestic–rather than public-living quarters): as bare life, they are seen as lacking the moral subjectivity that might threaten the privacy of the domestic sphere.  Whether in the intimate spaces of the household or on the remote edges of the city, such workers become effectively invisible.  Both cognitively and spatially, it seems, the foreign worker in the contemporary Gulf societies constitutes the limit of sovereignty, the figure in relation to whom both citizens and, in some instances, more privileged foreigners take on the role of the sovereign.  It is thus also interesting that there are two ways that foreign workers do become visible: debates about threats to national culture (already mentioned) and incidents which call upon the authorities to reassert state sovereignty.  An example of the latter are the periodic “scandals” revealed in the local press in which a company is discovered to be abusing workers.  State authorities intervene and promise to punish the offending companies.  Seldom, if at all, are workers allowed to speak about their experiences.  The incident quickly recedes from public discussion.  These incidents enable the state authorities to periodically display their legitimacy and fairness, and therefore to assert the state’s right to constitute anyone it pleases as homo sacer.  

A clearer example of this claimed right to arbitrariness, of course, is the way in which all the GCC states have reacted to the Arab Spring events.  From Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to Oman and the UAE, the ruling dynasties of the Gulf have increased their repression of indigenous activists and anyone else suspected of nonconformity to the given family-state’s hegemony.  The Arab Spring has been a cold winter for citizens of the Gulf.  Given the connection between displays of sovereignty and crackdowns on foreign workers–which I have studied in my monograph on Dubai–along with the ongoing world economic crisis, we can also expect a similar and perhaps even more summary treatment of foreign workers in the near future.  

It is important to keep in mind that the biopolitics I am sketching here are not entirely unique to the contemporary Gulf.  Indeed, Gulf societies seem very similar to other ethnocracies, such as Israel, and share much as well with the states of the global north in their biopolitical constructions of citizen and non-citizen.  Biopolitics, after all, is crucially keyed to uncertainty: the sovereign uses uncertainty–the threat of terrorist attacks or the cultural threats allegedly posed by noncomformist or categorically excluded people–as a pretext to make more sweeping claims to exemption from the law, in turn subjectivating an acquiescent population.  This seems to be the common situation in the global north and south.  What is necessary is to bring such insights to the Gulf, so that we might analyze in a more theoretically informed way the processes and vectors of subjectification in which foreign workers are caught up as they negotiate the contemporary intersection between global political economy, the global war on terror, and Gulf ethnocracy.  While the Arab Spring rebellions and the Gulf labor strikes are so different in so many ways, they ultimately both reject the self-exemption of sovereign power from the obligations of the law.  In both the Arab uprisings and the South Asian strikes the assertion that the individual is not the mere subject of the sovereign power, not mere bare life, has been prominent.  Both kinds of mass action should be situated in the development of the family/security state in the modern, postcolonial Arab world, as distinct phenomena that nevertheless each aim, in their own ways, to expand the rights and of the region’s citizens and workers.

I am indebted to Beena Ahmad, Fahad Bishara, and Nelida Fuccaro for critical readings of this essay. My references to Agamben are drawn from Hal Foster’s essay “I am the Decider,” London Review of Books, 17 March 2011.


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