The Gulf’s Kafala System and Middle East Exceptionalism

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Enshirah Barakat

Enshirah Barakat received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East from the University of Florida in December 2022. 

“6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar as it gears up for World Cup.” 

In February 2021, these words notoriously headlined a since-amended article in The Guardian. It viciously cycled through social media sites, receiving approximately 2,000 likes on Twitter. The Guardian’s exposé came as a shock to some and, for others, a confirmation of deep-seated biases, hastily noting the headline as a telltale token of the Persian Gulf’s irrefutable barbarism. However, the headline fails to clarify that the 6,500 lives account for all Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan migrant workers who died since Qatar secured the right to host the World Cup in 2010, nearly a decade prior, irrespective of their involvement in the preparations for the soccer tournament. Beyond deceptively-used statistics and language, The Guardian article unveils the Orientalism and racism that often permeate discourse on the Gulf’s migrant sponsorship system: the kafala system. It promotes the notion of Middle East exceptionalism, as it fails to critically examine the Gulf’s systemic exploitation of its migrant laborers. 

The 1950s oil boom gifted Gulf countries with an unprecedented opportunity for wealth. As they sought to expedite economic development, the region welcomed an influx of foreign labor to aid in infrastructure projects. As of 2022, migrant workers comprise an average of 70 percent of those employed in the Persian Gulf. The kafala system defines most migrants’ legal status, outlining the laborer’s relationship with their local sponsor, typically their employer. Workers’ employment is tethered to their residency visas, granting private citizens ultimate discretion over the migrants’ legal status and thus enabling a power imbalance prone to creating oppressive work conditions. According to a policy brief by the Migrant Forum in Asia, employers threaten migrant workers with “unpaid wages, arrest, detention, and ultimately deportation should they complain or leave.” The options for legal redress are next to none if the migrant worker does not possess the appropriate funding or if their sponsor refuses to attend the court hearing, which legal authorities cannot force them to do. 

Reputable sources, like The Guardian, Washington Post, and the BBC, have documented the kafala system’s human rights abuses in exposés and interviews, and regional scholars have not shied away from exposing the Gulf’s exploitation of its migrant laborers.  However, the rhetoric often suggests the region is an “exception to theories of the requisites and causes of democracy.” The theory of Middle East exceptionalism argues that the alleged prevalence of Islamic laws, gender subjugation, and reservations against “Western modernization” prevent the Middle East from welcoming Western institutions. According to such scholars, the Gulf’s cultural characteristics are antithetical to democracy and rationalism, brushing aside its oppressive practices as “inherent in Middle Eastern societies or cultures.” 

Media sites broadcast sensationalized statistics legitimizing Orientalist arguments of a cruel, “barbaric” Middle East stubborn against efforts to democratize and modernize. However, the Gulf’s exploitation of foreign workers is an extension of global capitalist trends to boost monetary benefits through cheap labor. Headlines like The Guardian’s set forth simplistic explanations that dismiss the structural roots of the kafala system, a remnant of British colonial rule in the Gulf. The kafala system sustains the racial hierarchy British colonizers instilled in the region, allowing Western expatriates to relish in the Gulf’s resorts and private clubs built by underpaid and overworked Asian and African migrant workers. 

In 2015, BBC interviewed Zaha Hadid, a British-Iraqi architect who famously designed Al Janoub Stadium for the 2022 World Cup. The interview featured a series of ignorant remarks, driving Hadid to cut the session short. The interviewer alleged Hadid’s stadium site had “considerable problems” that allowed for the deaths of “more than 1,200 migrant workers.” Shortly after the interview, Hadid’s office stated that no accidents had occurred since construction began, although the Qatari World Cup organizing body reported one work-related fatality at Al Janoub a year later. 

As, a GCC-based advocacy organization, argues, a more appropriate stream of questioning would involve the “recruitment, employment, and housing of those working on Hadid’s stadium.” According to Human Rights Watch, migrant workers paid fees of approximately $3,651 during the recruitment process, mortgaging family property and obtaining high-interest loans to afford the journey. Once the job was secured, workers received lower wages—sometimes as little as $6.75 per day—than promised and resided in “cramped, unsanitary, and inhumane” communal accommodations. 

Rather than detailing the human rights abuses migrant workers actively confront, Western media centers embellished facts that reduced the laborers to a statistic and evidence of a narrow-minded Middle East. In 2015, the Washington Post declared that more than 1,000 laborers had died during World Cup preparations in a lengthy article and accompanying graphic. However, Qatar’s failure to investigate migrant workers’ deaths makes it difficult, if not impossible, to certify the number of casualties directly correlated to on-site construction. Beyond baseless information, the article neglects how “international players–including unions, rights organizations,” and the media’s reactive approach to the abuses enable Qatar’s systemic exploitation of its workers. 

Global actors must hold Gulf states accountable to guarantee a future with fair and just labor laws. The media carries the power to place the necessary pressure on the involved parties to drive change. However, sensationalized media merely delivers transient attention rather than systemic developments. Journalists specializing in the region must approach the Gulf’s labor conditions with the same due diligence as their Western counterparts, remaining mindful not to fall into Orientalist narratives or stereotypes. They must recognize the kafala system for its structural roots. It is not exceptional, and to view it as such diverts attention away from the ongoing human rights abuses. 


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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