X Welcome to International Affairs Forum

International Affairs Forum a platform to encourage a more complete understanding of the world's opinions on international relations and economics. It presents a cross-section of all-partisan mainstream content, from left to right and across the world.

By reading International Affairs Forum, not only explore pieces you agree with but pieces you don't agree with. Read the other side, challenge yourself, analyze, and share pieces with others. Most importantly, analyze the issues and discuss them civilly with others.

And, yes, send us your essay or editorial! Students are encouraged to participate.

Please enter and join the many International Affairs Forum participants who seek a better path toward addressing world issues.
Wed. July 17, 2024
Get Published   |   About Us   |   Donate   | Login
International Affairs Forum
IAF Articles
The Cost of Exclusion: Labor and State-Sponsored History in the UAE
Comments (0)

Characterized by its soaring skyscrapers, cutting-edge architecture, and luxury shopping, Dubai symbolizes the United Arab Emirates’ ambition to become a global hub for innovation, tourism, and business. While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has consistently marketed itself as a progressive, modern, and tolerant haven in the Middle East, there exists a notable dissonance between its crafted image and the harsh realities faced by the migrant workers within its borders. Almost 90% of the state’s labor force consists of migrant workers, including foreign builders, service workers, and skilled laborers who have played an instrumental role in transforming a sandy coastline dotted with pearling towns into an ultramodern, economic hub. Inadequate legal protections and poor enforcement of existing regulations have allowed for the exploitation, entrapment, and abuse of migrant workers in the UAE. While the regime has enacted new laws, established tougher law enforcement units, and cooperated with international organizations to combat guest worker exploitation and human trafficking within its borders, there is one vital redress that has not been explored: acknowledging the wrongs of the past and the role that bonded laborers played in the state’s historical narrative. Modernity and progress are not holistically measured by economic and technological innovation, but by moral and ethical development as well. A state that confronts its past and rectifies its historical injustices demonstrates a dedication to a more just, equitable future.

This article analyzes the historical narrative presented in the Al Shindagha Culture of the Sea Museum and the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village to highlight the ways in which the state’s narrative of the pre-oil era excludes the harsh reality of historical slavery in the pearling industry. It describes the ways in which these museums present a version of history that paints the ruling families in a positive light and is comfortable for Emirati citizens and uncritical tourists because it omits bonded foreign labor that played an instrumental role in state formation before the discovery of oil. The article will conclude by providing recommendations on ways to adequately revise the representation of the history of the pre-oil era to provide a truthful, balanced record, address past injustices, and work toward a more inclusive and authentically progressive future.

The Al Shindagha Culture of the Sea Museum encourages its visitors to “dive into a world built on a mastery of the water”. The curators use similar rhetoric to highlight the Emirates’ rich maritime history, traditions, and culture throughout their exhibits about marine fauna, boat building, and pearl diving. The portrayal of maritime history in UAE museums constructs a narrative to showcase pearling as one of the many sources of pride in its rich heritage.

The pearling industry in the Persian Gulf was the region’s primary economic activity before oil. From about the middle of the nineteenth century, Arab tribesmen based in port towns such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi began to invest in the pearl trade. Nakhudas (pearling boat captains) hired divers of African, Asian, Indian, or Arab descent. They would feed, clothe, and house their employees, expecting repayment throughout the pearl harvest. Some pearling seasons were profitable while others were not.  If the divers didn’t find enough pearls to repay the cost of their provisions, they were liable to find themselves entrapped in a system of indebted labor or indentured servitude, a form of slavery. In the late nineteenth century, the Persian Gulf transitioned from being the primary pearl exporter for regional markets to the leading pearl producer worldwide, matching the skyrocketing global demand. Tens of thousands of paid workers mostly sustained this industry, but consistent labor shortages created a demand for additional slave labor.

Every pearling boat consisted of a nakhuda (captain), ghawawis (divers), and siyub (haulers). Ghawawis were typically provided food, shelter, clothing, and diving gear that consisted of a loin cloth and horn pinchers worn on the nose to prevent the entrance of water. However, these provisions were loaned, and repayment was expected throughout the pearling season; this system of private sponsorship is called kafala.  Many nakhudas would loan out amounts of money greater than their employees’ earnings or exploit their employees’ illiteracy to add additional debts that the employees would unknowingly accept. Nakhudas intentionally kept their employees indebted to ensure their annual return for work. While the levels of abuse and exploitation varied within groups of enslaved individuals and indentured servants, most participants suffered under the kafala system. Due to the global financial crash of 1929 and the increased availability of cheap, cultured pearls from Japan, the pearling industry declined and eventually collapsed.

The discovery of oil in 1958, followed by the United Arab Emirates’ independence in 1971 and the oil boom in the 1970s, caused a massive influx of migrant workers as the demand for labor skyrocketed. While this initially seemed like a wonderful opportunity for native and migrant workers, it soon became evident that it was yet another path to exploitation. Today, the Gulf’s economy relies heavily on migrant workers; approximately 90% of the UAE’s nine-million-person population consists of foreigners, many of whom are exploited by the same system that entrapped pearl divers for thousands of  years.

In the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village, there is a building dedicated to pearling with an exhibit limited to artifacts and a few pictures from the pearl diving industry. On display, there are ropes and baskets used while diving and tools for cleaning, measuring, and grading pearls. Additionally, there are a few unlabeled pictures of men on boats. Overall, this museum was primarily filled with artifacts and devoid of human representation. The Al Shindagha Culture of the Sea Museum had an exhibit with more information in addition to artifacts. The museum had documentaries, games, and a virtual reality simulation about pearl diving. The exhibit mentioned the different jobs such as the captain, diver, and hauler, but omitted mention of the injustices these laborers endured. Described as a “difficult way to make a living”, pearl diving wasn’t given the appropriate level of severity in rhetoric. The dangerous working conditions were briefly touched on, including the risk of drowning, getting stung by jellyfish, getting injured by the clams, and not having enough food to eat. However, these concerns were presented in an alarmingly fun manner; there was a tablet game for children where they had to dive for pearls and avoid the jellyfish. While pearling had better representation at this museum, the humanity of the workers and the abuse they faced were intentionally not displayed adequately. The UAE claims to be a progressive state with a future of acceptance, understanding, and inclusion, but these museums are living evidence that the government prioritizes and maintains the prideful narrative of the federation’s heritage by actively and intentionally reimagining history.

In order to fulfill the UAE’s mission of progress and ethical leadership, the state must confront its past and revise its historical narratives both within and outside of museums.  Genuine representations of the past may be constructed by compiling and displaying written testimonies and manumission documents of bonded laborers found within British archives. Additionally, the language used to describe the pre-oil era may be carefully selected to accurately highlight the conditions that migrant laborers endured in the pearling industry. Confronting the past helps to heal affected communities, build trust in the state, and create awareness of justice, inclusion, and human rights. But most importantly, moral and ethical steps like these decrease the likelihood that historical injustices like these will be repeated.

Casandra Walker is nearing the completion of a B.S in Global Conflict Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In her capacity as an undergraduate researcher and research assistant she uses her Arabic skills to understand states and societies in the Middle East.

Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)

Report Abuse
Contact Us | About Us | Donate | Terms & Conditions Twitter Facebook Get Alerts Get Published

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2024