The oil-rich countries in the Gulf region as a whole are well-known for employing and abusing huge numbers of foreign workers, who contribute to and sustain the boom in their economic, industrial and building development. Yet the international community (including the UN), press and broadcast media have ignored the plight of these workers even though in many cases they outnumber the indigenous populations. Even human-rights organisations seldom pay enough attention to what amounts to serious denials of basic human rights – and indeed torture– of so many "guest workers". But now there is even greater need to not ignore the issue, as the guest-workers in the UAE have directed attention to their conditions themselves by challenging the ruling sheikhs in a conflict that has so far led to a few negligible concessions and very little media coverage.
No other country is as dependent on foreign workers as is the UAE, although many other rich countries rely on them and exploit them. The reason is simple: these workers comprise about 85 percent of the UAE's population and 99 percent of the workforce. According to the ministry of labour, there are 5.3 million foreign workers – whether they are bankers or simple labourers – in the UAE. Almost two thirds of them come from South-East Asia –mostly from Pakistan and India – and constitute the vast majority of the 1.2 million construction-workers who have been responsible for labour unrest for several years. The rest come from Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that most of them are Muslims, and that Muslim emirates ruled by emirs calling themselves ‘sheikhs' exploit them without scruple.
The preponderance of foreign workers arose from the fact that before the discovery of oil in the nineteen-fifties the population of the region was very small and consisted mostly of unskilled Bedouin. Add to this the fact that the region was so undeveloped that the skills and workforce needed to extract the newly-discovered oil did not exist. Moreover, a skilled labour force was also needed to build a modern economy and infrastructure; otherwise the new-found oil-wealth was useless to the Emirates and its people. This explains why the rulers chose to import a huge multinational labour force that soon outnumbered the local population.
The foreign workers were glad to pour in, at first to secure employment that was (and still is) rare in their own countries, and for wages that were higher than those available at home. This enabled them to support their families at home, many members of whom are elderly. The need to support the elderly in particular is growing, as people nowadays live much longer than they used to. But the problem extends to the necessity of providing children with education, as many guest-workers from Pakistan and India send their children to school there.
They rise before dawn in guarded camps, work six days a week at guarded sites, and return by bus with time to do little but eat or sleep. Sonapur, a camp a half-hour drive into the desert from Dubai, houses 50,000 workers and feels like an army camp.
But the price of having these advantages is proving very high. The workers are segregated from the general population, cannot form their own unions, and cannot apply for citizenship regardless of how long they have lived and worked in the Emirates. Even that is mild compared to the conditions under which they work. A rare media report in early August put it thus: "They rise before dawn in guarded camps, work six days a week at guarded sites, and return by bus with time to do little but eat or sleep. Sonapur, a camp a half-hour drive into the desert from Dubai, houses 50,000 workers and feels like an army camp." Add to this the fact that the companies that employ them can (and do) withhold pay in order to pressurise them to continue doing their jobs. At times the companies cut off water and electricity supplies to the labour-camps in order to force the labourers to cooperate.
Some minor improvements have taken place after several years of protest by workers. The protests, largely over unpaid wages, came to a head in March 2006, when hundreds of workers "went on a rampage near the unfinished Burj Dubai, which is being billed as the world's tallest building," as one newspaper report put it. As the report pointed out, it took eight months before any human-rights group commented on the issue. Human Rights Watch eventually accused the Emirates of "cheating workers". The group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: "If the UAE wants to be a first-class global player, it can't just do it with gold faucets [taps] and Rolls-Royces. It needs to bring up its labour standards."
The authorities have responded to the construction-workers' unprecedented agitation by introducing certain improvements. For instance, they have somewhat improved living conditions and health benefits, and have been firm with employers who refuse to pay employees for any reason. The improvement is welcome, but quite insufficient to bring about desperately needed changes – not only in official attitudes but in the conditions and legal rights of these workers. That the Emirates' rulers are not prepared to be thorough is shown by the labour minister's response to criticism over the issue. Kaabi, who took office in 2004, has said about the workers: "We don't force people to come to this country. They are building a whole life for their families."
The cynical and offensive Kaabi ignores the fact that the Emirates need these workers as much as the workers need their jobs. Probably only strong external pressure can force the implementation of legislation to improve the living and working conditions of the so-called guest-workers. Without that, the only alternative is a revolution in people's attitudes and priorities, so that citizens will treat non-citizens as equals and brothers. However, such a revolution is extremely unlikely to take place in isolation, without a political, economic and social revolution of some sort to accompany it.