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Pol/Econ: Migrant Workers in the Middle East
Tuesday, 03 July 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
The Gulf Daily News announced earlier today that a new forum for cooperation between Bahrain and Bangladesh was to be founded. It may surprise readers of Bits- but Bahrain has a vast Bangladeshi expatriate community totalling some 86,000 individuals (out of a total population of 708,573 and a foreign population of 235,000 estimates from the CIA world factbook)- consequently this new association its thought will help advance cooperation between the two countries whose populations themselves are no so intimately bound together. Bahrain and Bangladesh though form a part of a much wider developing phenomena- the way that the Gulf states have become the residence of a large group of individuals from various parts of Southern and Eastern Asia- largely as migrant workers attracted by the oil wealth!

Its estimated that around 10 million foreign workers are at work in the Gulf at the moment- in 2002 around 80 billion dollars was sent back in remittances from the Gulf states- with the largest recipients being India, Bangladesh, the Phillipines, Egypt, Jordan and Morrocco. Those numbers will have spiralled further upwards ever since- especially when one takes into account the foreigners working in Iraq at the moment. Overall in an area that has been overwhelmed with money but is relatively underpopulated the presence of migrant workers has helped maintain the production of resources whilst continuing rising living standards for the general population. In most countries in the Middle East, this migrant workforce has also provided political stability taking the risk of unemployment and poverty for the population, so that the local regimes can survive.

Of course though that creates a dark side in terms of the treatment of these workers. Many in Iraq for instance have been the victims of kidnapping- without the elaborate defensive routines of the British or Americans, or the local knowledge of the Iraqis themselves, migrant workers have been kidnapped and killed. Others have found themselves in Iraq despite aiming for other places in the Gulf- 17 Sri Lankans for instance were rescued from Irbil in February having been taken there against their will. The risks they feared were particularly evident in the case of the twelve Nepalese cooks executed in August 2004, whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped in a field and photographed for an Islamist website.

Saudi towers:
The product of migrant work
The kidnappings in Iraq are perhaps the most lurid illustrations of a particular problem though in the Middle East- migrant workers are often not treated very well at all. In 2006 despite strikes being illegal migrant workers working in Dubai stormed off the building site protesting against the fact that they were sleeping 25 to a room and were being paid barely 4 dollars a day. The story of Leela, a Sri Lankan girl who was incentivised by her government to go to Lebanon to work as a maid, and ended up working twenty hour days with regular beatings is not as Monica Smith found out atypical. Governments keen on remittances encourage their populations to leave- but often that results in riots themselves- in 2005 Bangladeshi migrant workers in Kuwait assaulted the country's own embassy Indeed Leela's story of savage abuse and over work for minimal pay is the story of most of the immigrants flocking to the Middle East- rights are scarce and expectations too often dashed.

Partly this is because the governments of the region are very often repressive- the Saudi Arabians don't treat migrant workers well because they don't treat their own subjects that much better either. But there is a wider issue- in the kerfuffle over the Middle Eastern links of Al Quaeda and the problems in Palestine its often forgotten that some of the most consequential racism in the Middle East is not against the distant Americans or Europeans but against their own migrant working populations. One correspondent on the BBC page about this testified that in his opinion as an Indian working in Saudi Arabia it was the 'one of the most xenophobic countries in the world'. Indeed as Abdullah Al Mutairi commented in Arab News violence against foreign workers is common, his students recalled throwing rocks at migrant workers as they proceeded to school because it was fun to beat someone up.

Europe and America are in the midst at the moment of bitter debates about immigration- but its often forgotten that the issue is very current in other parts of the world as well. For instance if the oil begins to dry up in the Middle East or if the sons and daughters of the Bangladeshi workers grow up and think of themselves as Bahraini what will happen. Given that migrants in even the bigger states like Saudi Arabia constitute about a third of the regional population- its a problem that can only get more urgent. The answers aren't clear at the moment and to a large extent depend on wider issues and are variable through the region depending on the country- but its an issue which is as current there as it is here if less reported.

One can only hope that enterprises like the Bahraini Bangladeshi council work and bring people together- migrant workers in the region need that kind of success urgently.