Exploitation and Migration in the Middle East

The other side of Qatar | Nov 2015


Upon the discovery of natural resources in its opulent desert land, Qatar transformed. Enormous amounts of wealth were injected into the state as Qatar prudently invested the gains from its resources into its economy and infrastructure, avoiding the “resource curse” that trapped many nations. However, growth requires implementation which ultimately requires labor. Certainly, the small population of Qatar is not sufficient for the ever-growing demand, and with the new rising wealth and standards of living, few natives would want to work low-skilled jobs such as construction and cleaning.


This issue plagues many oil-rich nations such as Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The high demand for labor to support their vast development plans begins a series of recruiting at developing countries such as India, Nepal, Malaysia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, where desperate workers, many who suffer from malnutrition, sick family members, or exorbitant loans, flock there. They trade in their souls in hopes of making a few dollars to send back home, and their labor, unsurprisingly, is exploited at the lowest cost.


As Qatar prepares for construction for hosting the 2022 FIFA World cup, the demand for foreign labor in low-level jobs such as construction is on the rise, and there is no shortage in supply for these positions. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Arabian Studies states that over a fifth of migrant workers in Qatar are paid “on time only sometimes, rarely, or never”. Furthermore, those who do get paid earn 1.2% of an average citizen’s annual income. However, the article “A Radical Solution to Global Income Inequality: Make the U.S. More Like Qatar” by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl proclaims Qatar is actually reducing “global inequality” since it pays workers up to five times the amount they normally make back in their home countries. The claim is true on a purely salary-based standpoint; however, it fails to consider that the minimal pay comes at the cost of freedom, individual rights, and safety.


Aside from the poor pay, migrant workers also suffer from decrepit housing conditions. The migrant camps, located in the outskirts of the city, where low qualified workers live in are regarded as a form of ‘dormitory labor regime’ (Ngai & Smith 2007). Tristan Brulee, who spent nearly 2 months living inside a labor camp to study daily interactions, described them as “places where no one would ever choose to live given the desolate environment of the industrial areas where camps are located and the often overcrowded and filthy condition in the camps themselves”. In these areas, the roads are neglected and unpaved, with abandoned cars and rubbish lying around. Furthermore, these migrants are clearly separated from the rest of the city and are devoid of political rights. It is impossible to obtain Qatari citizenship, due to the tribal nature of the closed political system. The value of these migrants’ lives are so low, as they are deprived of space, freedom, control, and right to live a decent life. As Tristan puts it, “The camp itself is a device that deprives men of choices”.


Migrant workers take on a variety of different jobs depending on their skill level and gender. Some, like a man I met from Cameroon who holds a degree from a Western university, is the manager of a coffee shop. Another, from Ethiopia, quit his job as an accountant to become an Uber driver, since it has “more money”. But many unskilled workers are exploited, trapped under contract in Qatar, and face shams and corruption in their home countries. As if the hardships they face in their native country isn’t bad enough, these workers are constantly overcharged and deceived by greedy recruiters.


Their pay in Doha may exceed the amount they would have earned back in their home countries, but their struggle to stay alive, find jobs, and send money back to their families certainly should not be neglected. Recently, there have been increasing media attention from other countries regarding the treatment and conditions of its migrant labor population. News sources, from BBC, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have been monitoring the labor issues in Qatar, pushing the government in Doha to take more action on the problem. Although some advancements have been made, a large portion still remains to be addressed.


It is an unfortunate fact that countries operate in a manner that fulfills their own selfish needs without considering the implications of their own actions. Qatar, a nation with such an optimistic economic standing, easily turns a blind eye to human rights issues like labor exploitation. The US is no exception, and its history in Venezuela, Ecuador, Iran, Panama, etc. is solid proof.


Until wealthy countries are able to put aside their own self-interests and actively work towards solving issues that plague the poorer lands on this planet, our true growth potential will forever be stinted.



Personal aside on Doha


Although my research in Doha only lasted two weeks, I was able to appreciate the greatness of the nation that retains its rank as the country with the highest GDP per capita.


The city I see if I set foot in Doha 30 years ago, and the city I see today are so incredibly different that I would probably not even recognize the pictures from 1977 as Qatar. This country has transformed from a fishing industry into a stunning, modern magnet, attracting foreigners from all around the world. Unlike other resource and oil rich countries that failed to invest in infrastructure or create a sustainable goal, Qatar successfully developed its hydrocarbon resources into a vision for the country.


In 1971, the Forth Field, which is the world’s largest non-associated gas reservoir, was discovered. It took 20 years to unlock the potential of this reserve, and during this time, Qatar focused on developing domestically and channeling its exports. Starting off with exporting liquefied natural gas to Japan in 1997, Qatar relentlessly scaled upwards, establishing itself as a trustworthy and flexible partner and supplier. In 2003, it constructed the Oryx GTL, the world’s first commercial-scale gas-to-liquid fuels, and throughout the 1990s, the state uncovered vast amounts of reserves. Qatar has 25 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and the world’s 3rd largest natural gas reserves, and output at current levels are projected to sustain for 56 years. Oil and gas account for about 85% of export revenues and more than 50% of GDP. Today, Qatar is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and gas-to-liquid fuels in the world. Its ability to monetize its natural resources allowed for its economy to boom and attain the world’s highest GDP per capita.


According to the 2015 Country Report, Qatar’s real GDP growth should average 6-7% between 2012 and 2015, increasing each year. The International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Outlook database in 2014 projects its GDP to be $227 billion in 2015, with the GDP per capita to be $94,744. Beyond oil and gas, Qatar is continuously diversifying its portfolio, investing in financial institutions, scientific research and development, airlines, and education. Qatar University, Qatar Airways, the Qatar Financial Centre Authority, and Qatar Science Technology are just a few examples of the vastness of Qatar’s recent development.

A high demand for labor accompanies this incredible growth and development, drawing thousands of expatriates, especially from lesser developed countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Even with the immigration flood, a labor shortage persists in Qatar and the unemployment rate remains only .3%. As of November 2014, Qatar’s total population is 2,269,672 and growing. Qatari nationals number about 278,000, with the other 88% of the population non-Qataris. Indian workers represent the largest foreign nationality, with a population of about 545,000, and Nepal follows close behind at 400,000. Foreign workers constitute 94% of public-sector employees and 100% of private-sector jobs. A population pyramid according to GSDP in 2011 shows that Qatar is approximately three quarters male and one quarter female.


The awe-inspiring photos of Doha displayed in magazines are no comparison to the naked beauty of the city. The buildings, meticulously designed by expert architects, is a magnificent work of art by itself. From the Museum of Islamic art, the entire industrial center of Doha is within view, and as my friend from Qatar University puts it: “the best view oil can buy”. The Villagio, the largest mall in Qatar, is crowded with rich foreigners, designer labels, an amusement part, a skating rink, and a man-made canal that extends from the center, where visitors can tour in a boat.


On the northern side of Doha lies The Pearl, a four million square meter artificial island built to house foreign nationals. One two bedroom apartment in this area can amount to 16,000 riyals a month. The day starts early for the working population – usually around 7am, but the majority of people get off around 4/5pm. The night is filled with a wide range of activities, from cultural shows at Katara, family activities at the multitude of malls, and excellent food at the Souq Waqif.


Life is seemingly slow-paced and relaxing. The average salary is 17,144 riyals/month, and some professions such as a construction project manager earn as much as 350,073 riyals/month. However, a large portion of the population do not enjoy the same luxurious amenities as the others, as you have learned from above. A city's exterior may be magnificent, but until it is able to correct its toxic internal systems, it will not shine.