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The Gulf Cooperation Council's Dirty Little Secret: Modern Slavery

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Why don't Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the U.A.E., among others, want the Arab Awakening to spread to their countries. Why has Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to prop up the Bahraini monarch? And why has the U.A.E. hired Eric Prince to create a private army to, among other things, put down internal revolts?

These largely royalist governments are not fighting change because they have been ordained by Allah as His divine representatives on earth. They are resistant to change because change is going to break up their monopoly grips on power and wealth, and their ability to exploit the working class, in particular the vast pool of migrant workers, who are often, if not always, treated little better than modern slaves and dogs. In a word, the Arab Awakening is to the GCC what the Abolitionists were to the CSA (the Confederate States of America). The Arab Spring threatens to flood their oil and other "plantations" with human rights, union organizing and workers rights. And then such seditious ideas might even spread into Africa and Asia, where vast numbers of humans are also being exploited within various states.

To detail what is going on in the GCC's "plantation" system, and how migrant workers by the tens of thousands have been and are being abused now, The Real News Network recently interviewed Adam Hanieh, who teaches development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is the author of the book Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States. Following is that interview and below that is the transcript for your perusal.

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Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. Across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries--Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and a few others--there has been a dirty secret that doesn't get talked about very much, certainly not in the news. All the discussion about bin Laden and some of the more higher-profile protests, particularly in Bahrain--the thing that doesn't get talked about very much is the thousands or tens of thousands of migrant workers that are really the engines driving these economies other than oil. Now joining us to talk about the state and importance of the migrant workers in these countries is Adam Hanieh. Adam teaches development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He's also the author of the book Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States. Thanks for joining us, Adam.

ADAM HANIEH, AUTHOR, CAPITALISM AND CLASS IN THE GULF ARAB STATES: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So talk about the history of this. If I understand it correctly, back in the '60s perhaps 90 percent of the workers in Saudi Arabia were nationals, Saudi Citizens, and now the number of Saudi citizens actually in the workforce is probably less than 20 percent. So what happened and why?

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HANIEH: Well, if you go back to the beginning of the oil industries in the GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia but also the UAE and Kuwait and other states, you would have found a much greater proportion of the citizen population working in the oil industries. And if you look back at the conditions that--for example, in Saudi Arabia, where you had Saudi citizens working in the oil fields of Aramco (the US oil company that controlled the oil supply in Saudi Arabia at the time), they lived in quite shocking conditions that have been described by Robert Vitalis>, for example, American academic, as a situation resembling that of apartheid. But what happened as these states gained their independence, as they moved and industrialized through the '60s and '70s, they came to rely much more heavily on temporary migrant workers, bringing workers from, initially, the Middle East during the '70s. You would have found 75 percent or so of the migrant workers in the Gulf region from the Middle East at that time. And these migrant workers came in on temporary contracts, filling jobs not just in the oil industries but other jobs--construction, teaching, taxi drivers, all sorts of work.

JAY: Before you get into that, let's just back up a step, 'cause I don't think many people know this history, that this national, Saudi national working class in the late '50s and the 1960s was fairly radical. And part of the reasons for the move towards bringing in, first of all, other Arabs--Palestinians and Yemenites--to work was that the Saudi working class actually was progressive. What is that story?

HANIEH: Well, there was certainly a range of strikes through the Saudi oil fields through the '50s and '60s, and radical and left-wing organizations formed that were opposed to Aramco, opposed to the Saudi monarchy, calling for greater control over the oil, instead of it being controlled by an American firm. And there were strikes, there were demonstrations, and very heavy repression directed against these workers, both in collaboration with American and British advice on how to repress it. So these workers were protesting not just their conditions, but also the broader intervention of American and British and French presence in the Middle East. They were very much influenced by Nasserism and more radical forms of Arab nationalism and leftist thought during the time.

JAY: So this decision to move to migrant workers, as opposed--and kind of diminish the role of the Saudi working class had a political character to it. But how do they achieve that? What, do they partly buy off the Saudi working class as they bring in migrant workers? Is that's what happened?

HANIEH: Well, certainly what happened as these states moved through independence, particularly during the 1970s. In the case of the other GCC states, they brought in temporary migrant workers, and the national population, those who had citizenship in the country, came to constitute a small minority of the overall population in these states. And these citizens were given jobs mostly in the public sector and in government sectors. In some cases they were given jobs little more than receiving a paycheck. They didn't actually--there were large levels of illiteracy and these kinds of things. They also got other benefits from the state--housing, marriage dowries, free education, free health, all of these types of things; whereas the bulk of the work done in these societies was performed by these migrant workers who had very little rights and were very severely exploited and continue to be today.

JAY: Now, in the next phase, Palestinians formed a big piece of this migrant workforce for a while. What happened there?

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HANIEH: Well, this was dressed up in many ways as a show of solidarity with Palestinians, particularly refugees in Lebanon. And there was a decision by the Saudi king to present or prescribe a certain proportion of the workforce that had to be Palestinian. And a recruiting agency from Aramco was sent and established in Lebanon to recruit Palestinian refugees to work in the Saudi oil fields. So what happened were Palestinians, also Yemeni and other Arab workers, came in--again, though, as temporary workers. They lacked any of the citizenship rights that were granted to Saudi nationals that received the types of benefits I spoke about.

JAY: And what happened with the Palestinians? If I understand it, they eventually threw out most of the Palestinians, thinking they were too radical.

HANIEH: Well, what happened during the '70s, '80s, and particularly through the '90s, there was a shift away from mostly Arab migrant labor towards drawing workers from South Asia--from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh--and the Philippines, further afield. So there was actually a shift, as I said, mid- 1970s, 1975. The proportion of Arab workers as a whole was around 75 percent of the migrant working class. By early 2000, this had come down to about 25 percent. And the rest were mostly from South Asia; the other 75 or so was mostly from South Asian countries. You still do see, particularly, Egyptian workers in the Gulf in large numbers, though.

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