The Many Costs of Kafala

     In September of 2010, NYU Abu Dhabi opened its doors to its first batch of students. Then on May 18, 2014, an article exposing the conditions of workers who were responsible for building NYU's newest global site was published in the New York Times. The brutalities laid out by the article shocked many on the New York campus and sparked contentious debate. Many claimed that the conditions were not as harsh as those described by the article. Some argued that the administration did not actually employ such unethical labor practices.

NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: Silvia Razgova.

NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: Silvia Razgova.

     Frankly, the only way it for people to make those claims is if they ignore the ongoing controversies over human labor in not only the United Arab Emirates, but in all Gulf countries. For years, international human rights organizations have been examining the labor system in the Gulf, better known as the kafala system, that makes the exploitation of migrant labor so easy and pervasive. But only in the last few years has the topic entered mainstream news.

     In 2010, the announcement that the 2022 FIFA World Cup would be taking place in Qatar brought international attention to the otherwise neglected country. This story was one of the ones that made it to more popular news sources, and it has been revisited a few times since, especially after the FIFA scandal in 2015. The construction of the stadium has been an internationally discussed issue since the initial announcement. It increased after a special report by the International Trade Union Commission in March of 2014 estimated that 4,000 workers would die building the stadium for the 2022 Cup.

     The ITUC report begins, "Qatar is a country without a conscience (ITUC 1)." From the start, the language frames the issue as one of morality and the state. It is a common way of framing the issue of the kafala system and labor in the Gulf. Blame, not unfairly, is assigned to governments when groups try to figure out who has the authority to fix these particular injustices that are taking place within certain borders. But should blame only be assigned to the host countries? Considering the international nature of the cases presented above and the rise of globalization, probably not. Breaking down the kafala system as it operates today can bring some of the other actors in this system to light, as well as help us gain a better understanding of the hierarchy that legitimizes the abuse of power.

The Kafala System

     The kafala system can be most neutrally defined as the sponsorship system that regulates foreign/non-national labor in the Gulf. In this system an individual has a sponsor, a kafeel, who has legal and financial responsibility over the migrant they are sponsoring. The kafeel is responsible for providing their migrant employment for the duration of time that the migrant is in the country. As of 2010, the percentage of the UAE population was 88.52% migrant workers (Roper and Baria 36), mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This percentage has continued to grow.

     Nationals are the ones who have the right to be a kafeel and sponsor a migrant worker. Besides the right to sponsor a migrant, citizens are provided with certain benefits like education, health care, housing and income regardless of employment status due to the fact that the UAE is a welfare state (Hamza 97). Additionally, all public sector jobs are reserved for nationals (Hamza 85). But nationals are also the ones who are at the receiving end of the occasional protests that take place by migrant workers. It is their treatment of their employees that has induced international outcry. This includes the confiscation of passports. Although this is technically illegal, it happens constantly. The confiscation of passports serves as a form of collateral that stops migrants from pursuing legal recourse.. Once a passport is taken, employers often stop paying wages. In fact, withheld wages is the largest reason for strikes, even though striking, along with unionizing, is illegal (Hamza 88-89).

     Lack of a passport means lack of mobility and independence from one's employer. Because access to legal solutions is not available, many attempt to quit. However, quitting or seeking a new job is often seen as absconding, and employers may charge their employees. It often results in arrest, and migrants find themselves in jail. The catch-22 is that the bail is to just show the police their passport (Watkins and Grim 1), which wouldn’t be a problem if it hadn’t been confiscated by the kafeel that they wanted to get away from. Besides the confiscation of passports and denied payments, migrant workers are often subject to extremely unhygienic and dangerous living conditions (Muscati 1). Construction workers are also made to work in dangerous conditions, which are made worse in the summer when it reaches over 120°F outside. The government institutions meant to inspect and regulate the treatment of workers fail because they are deeply understaffed. While the UAE has laws to protect migrant workers from recruitment fees, confiscation of passports and inhumane living conditions, the Ministry of Labor only has 140 inspectors for over 240,000 companies (Hamza 97).

Citizenship and the Trucial States

     Much of the hierarchy of the Gulf is shaped by an individual’s citizenship, and it is not as simple as national versus foreign worker. Access to citizenship is dependent on whether your family was present in the UAE before 1925. This proof of lineage and "authentic" Emirati identity is so important that it even creates a hierarchy among the nationals of UAE and results in three different degrees of citizenship (Jamal 602). Even among foreign workers, individuals are usually classified as expatriates and or as migrant workers. This is mostly an indicator of class and whether a non-national has a white-collar or blue-collar job. But when we look at the fact that most expatriates are European and most migrant workers are Asian, it becomes an issue of nationality and race as well. Both groups are allowed to work in the UAE through the kafala system. Meaning, whether you are a banker from England or a domestic worker from the Philippines you are in the UAE through a sponsor and are subject to the Labor Laws. Yet the abuse that is discussed only seems to occur to migrant workers.  

    The hierarchy of nationalities is reflected in the UAE’s visa requirements. A basic entry visa can be difficult to get depending on where a person is from. Certain nationalities are completely exempt from needing a pre-entry visa. This means that they can come to the UAE without prior approval for at least 14 days. Longer visits may require a visa application from within the UAE and sponsorship from a UAE resident, hotel or tourist company, depending on the reason for the stay. There are 39 countries that do not require a pre-entry visa and none of them are from South America, South Asia or Africa. Some of the countries that are exempt from pre-entry visas include USA, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, UK, Germany and many other European countries.

     Citizens who are not exempt from pre-entry visas need to get one by getting sponsored by a hotel or tourist company. This is even the case if they want to spend a few days in the UAE for leisure and have no intention of working there. Such a policy divides non-nationals before they even enter the workforce, and there is de jure evidence of the special status of some passports over others. The way passports are used and classified limit the mobility of certain individuals and deter them from even entering the UAE.

A sixty-day tourist visa for the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Jon Rawlinson

A sixty-day tourist visa for the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Jon Rawlinson

     The general process of gaining citizenship was deeply influenced by the British. The UAE was preceded by the Trucial States, a group of small sheikhdoms under informal British rule, which lasted from the General Peace Treaty of 1820 to independence in 1971. Although the Trucial States were not under full colonial administration, Britain had considerable control over them. Agreements were made with the British that gave them control over the Trucial States’ foreign affairs in exchange for protection (Jamal 615). This allowed the British control over migration in and out of the UAE in ways that have unsurprisingly lingered since the UAE only gained independence about fifty years ago. This provides some explanation for the fact that "[o]f the high-end expatriate professionals in Dubai, British expatriates are perhaps the most privileged and certainly the most visible – white upper- and upper-middle class faces in a sea of Asians, Arabs and Africans – even though they account for a relatively small number of the total population of Dubai (Ali 118).”

     It could be argued that the way certain nationalities are classified here are representative of 20th-century British colonial attitudes towards different peoples. Most of the nationalities that have limited mobility are former colonies of the British Empire. The hierarchy that takes place in the UAE imperfectly mirrors the global hierarchy set in place by and during colonialism. Colonialism was regularly justified through racist rhetoric and action that painted certain people as biologically and morally inferior. In this case the colonizers were British, and their categorizing has become institutionalized in many ways.

     The argument that the laws of the UAE directly reflect the racism of the British Empire is debatable. But the empire’s political goals did have a huge role in the development of citizenship in the UAE. They were the ones who encouraged each emirate to issue passports while discouraging migration. This tactic divided and weakened these territories and helped protect the interest of British shipping fleets that passed through the area (Jamal 514). The Trucial States were aware that they would need more migrant labor in order to build their economy and were initially quite welcoming, but Britain was wary over the effects that other populations could have in terms of destabilizing their control of the area.

     The mid-1900's was the height of the idea of Arab Unity, and it meant that many Arab states were rebelling against colonial rule. Oil had been discovered only a few decades ago, and Britain wanted to curb the spread of these ideas. However, they knew that in order to take advantage of the still relatively new oil wealth and to fulfill labor demands, they needed to address the illegal immigrants that were entering the Trucial States. But they didn't reform the laws and make these populations who were entering legal. Instead, they categorized the specific populations to be kept out and the populations that were allowed to be a part of the labor force, regardless of valid documentation. The most threatening were other Arabs, with the exception of Iraqis. They either needed to be watched carefully or completely prevented from entering. Indians, Pakistanis and Iraqis, however, were "termed as 'coolie labor' by the British" (Jamal 625). They were seen as non-threatening, but it was recommended that a small percentage kept unemployed to keep wages down. As long as that unemployed percentage remained small, they would not be able to turn into a mob and protest.

Social Contract, Home Countries and Countrymen

     We can also turn to the fact that colonialism economically benefited certain nations while setting other nations behind. The fact that India and other nations that provide the Gulf with its migrant population are still developing is part of the reason that so many of their citizens even come to the Gulf and why they are reluctant to leave despite the harsh treatment. While writing about biopower, Foucault wrote, "[w]hen we enter a social contract, what are individuals doing at the level of the social contract, when they come together to constitute a sovereign? They do so because they are because they are forced to by some threat or need. They do so in order to protect their lives (Foucault 241)." Often these men and women are trying to make money for their families and can’t find jobs back home or believe that going abroad will be more lucrative. They are coming from already economically disenfranchised backgrounds and made the commitment to go abroad because of the lack of opportunities at home. If they decide to return to their homes, they have to deal with the middle-men who set up their employment in the Gulf and who demand significant amounts of money in recruitment fees and for helping them get to the Gulf. If these men and women return without the money they owe, they will end up putting their families in a worse situation than before (Gardener 61).

     Governments of home countries also push their citizens into remaining in the kafala system. Sri Lanka’s economy has been devastated by war and violence over the last few decades, and it relies on the money sent back by its citizens in the Gulf to keep its economy afloat and to help maintain social, cultural and political stability (Kanna 155). Although Sri Lanka is an extreme example, this tendency exists in other countries. Many governments and embassies fail to provide their citizens assistance when they face abuse abroad because they are reliant on the remittances that are sent back. India, for example, has made legal changes in order to take advantage of the money that people send back. The Foreign Exchange Regulation Act of 1973 made it easier for money to flow from the Gulf to India. The creation of the Nonresident Indian (NRI) classification meant that more migrant workers could be included in Indian society. This way India could benefit from their economic contribution while still denying them all of the political benefits that a full citizen would receive (Hamza 96).

     Related to the topic of how the Indian government exploits its citizens, it is important to acknowledge the middle and upper class Indian migrants who live in the UAE and the role they play in the kafala system. Although many South Asians in the Gulf are migrant workers, some of them are able to avoid much of the hardships that their lower class countrymen face. Instead of migrant workers, they are seen as expatriates, even though they share the same citizenship. These South Asians are privileged because of their socio-economic status.  The wealthy Indian expatriate may have more than one passport that allows them to manipulate the rules of the U.A.E. Furthermore, these Indian expatriates are often business partners with Emirati nationals. Although the Indian expatriates are not the sponsors for the employed migrant workers, they are the ones who deal with the workers on a daily basis. Their employees are often fellow Indians or South Asians, and these wealthy South Asians help maintain and legitimize the kafala system’s abuse against migrant workers (Voha 22).


     Host countries play the most obvious role in the perpetuation of the kafala system, but they are not the only ones who benefit from it and have invested in it. The cause of such a notorious labor system is more than just a bad government. We have identified class, colonialism, the British Empire and home countries as some of the creators and enablers of the kafala system. There’s more that can be said about them, and there’s still so much to be said about other actors not mentioned.

A model of the planned Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Alberto Gonzalez Rovira

A model of the planned Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Alberto Gonzalez Rovira

     Capitalism, globalization, the United States, major corporations, and the oil industry have all shaped the kafala system, and modern global labor more generally. Acknowledging those many stakeholders will help foster real change, as opposed to the superficial reforms that have taken place in the Gulf so far. Sometime in the next year, the Guggenheim plans to open a new museum in Abu Dhabi. The original announcement was surrounded by some controversy, but as prestigious, international institutions continue to flock to the Gulf, it will hopefully force us to remember and reevaluate the many lives at stake.

Works Cited 

Ali, Syed. Dubai: Gilded Cage. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Dubai Corporation of Tourism & Commerce Marketing. "Dubai Visa - Information and Visa Requirements." Dubai Visa - Information and Visa Requirements. Dubai Corporation of Tourism & Commerce Marketing, 5 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Foucault, Michel, Mauro Bertani, Alessandro Fontana, François Ewald, and David Macey. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.

Gardner, Andrew. City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain. Ithaca: ILR, 2010. Print.

Hamza, Sara. "Migrant Labor in the Arabian Gulf: A Case Study of Dubai, UAE." Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 6.1 (2015): 81-114. EBSCO Discovery Service. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

International Trade Union Commission. The Case Against Qatar. Rep. Sharan Burrow, 16 Mar. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.

Jamal, Manal A. "The “Tiering” of Citizenship and Residency and the “Hierarchization” of Migrant Communities: The United Arab Emirates in Historical Context." Int Migr Rev. International Migration Review 49.3 (2015): 601-32. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Kanna, Ahmed. "A Politics of Non-Recognition? Biopolitics of Arab Gulf Worker Protests in the Year of Uprisings." Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements 4.1 (2012): 146-64. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Muscati, Samer. "Migrant Workers' Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Roper, Steven D., and Lilian A. Barria. "Understanding Variations in Gulf Migration and Labor Practices." Middle East Law and Governance 6.1 (2014): 32-52. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Vora, Neha. Impossible Citizens: Dubai's Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke UP, 2013. Print.

Watkins, Ali, and Ryan Grim. "In United Arab Emirates, Don’t Think About Quitting Your Job." The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 2 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 May 2016.