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Western academics OK human rights abuses in the Gulf

December 1, 2014 at 11:01 am

Mass abuse of migrant workers by the Gulf monarchies and sheikhdoms has a fan-club in the West; a clique of academics, lawyers and ideologues who think that exploitative labour is OK. The last few months have seen a major push from this group to help the GCC states get off the hook following bad publicity, by applying their free market ideology to human suffering. Their arguments are extremely worrying.

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, professors in economics and law at the University of Chicago, penned an article recently for The New Republic, entitled “A Radical Solution to Global Income Equality: Make the US More Like Qatar.” The pair suggested that inviting large numbers of migrant workers to the US would redistribute global wealth faster than foreign aid programmes. They brushed aside human rights concerns: “Qatar would not welcome so many migrant workers if it had to give them generous political and civil rights; in fact, Gulf states explicitly seek non-Arab, dark-skinned migrants so as to minimise the risk that nationals will sympathise, fraternise or intermarry with migrants (who would then demand permanent residence, if not citizenship).”

Proposing a similar policy for the United States, a country that already has such profound issues with racial inequality, this rhetoric is worrying, although not, it seems, for Posner and Weyl. “Reducing inequality will require uncomfortable trade-offs,” they conclude.

When a Human Rights Watch researcher tweeted a link to the article in question, Weyl fired back from the hip, tweeting that the organisation was “excluding the poor from a future”; calling HRW somewhat sarcastically “human rights heroes”; and with even more sarcasm, saying: “It is your job to decide what is good for the world’s poor, even if they violently disagree… Glad they’re in hands of group that doesn’t care about consequences.”

Posner published another piece in the United Kingdom; “The twilight of human rights law” called for countries to consider the migrant worker model favoured in the Gulf. “Human rights advocates often pressure countries with guest worker systems to grant guest workers the full panoply of rights,” he argued. Describing this as “rigid utopianism”, he added that if Gulf States were forced to recognise human being as human beings, “they will often choose to keep them out.”

An economist at the Centre for Global Development, a Washington DC think tank, and the International Organisation for Migration, Michael Clemens, is referenced frequently in Posner and Weyl’s work. The IOM is partly funded by the United Arab Emirates, which is complicit in the abuse of migrant workers. Clemens admits to having work funded by the IOM. He has also written a paper linked to the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, an Abu Dhabi think tank funded by the country’s ruling family. The paper called for Gulf think tanks to push his colleagues’ message that the economic benefits of migrant labour outweigh the human rights abuses from which many workers suffer.

Of course, if you take Posner, Weyl and Clemens as economists, their arguments have some validity. There is no denying that remittances from the Gulf provide sources of otherwise inaccessible income to several developing countries, notably India and, increasingly, east African nations. However, the real world can’t be plotted on a graph. It’s difficult to explain to a Filipino domestic worker who is raped repeatedly by her Saudi Arabian employer, upon whose grace her continued visa status depends, that her ordeal is acceptable because, on average, an economists’ graph shows that her country is getting wealthier. Nor is it easy to explain to an Indian construction worker that being denied his wages, having his passport confiscated or being deported back to poverty if he objects to such employment conditions is justifiable for macro-economic reasons.

It is imperative that Western academics do not pander to the Gulf status quo. The incentives to do so, however, are increasing. Some of the best funded think tanks in Washington are funded by GCC countries. The United Arab Emirates funds the London School of Economics Middle East research programme in its entirety, and contributes to half a dozen more top universities in Britain. New York University is currently building a new branch in Abu Dhabi, using migrant labour to do so; the British Museum in London has a stake in the project. Both have hired public relations agencies to deal with the predicted media fall out, but are desperate for the cash.

There is a case for migrant labour in the Gulf as a way to generate wealth for poor countries. There is also a case for a little more humanity in how such labour is recruited and workers are treated. Offering the rights to change employer, strike and have access to effective legal redress if wages go unpaid, is not a great ask for a government. Clemens, Posner and Weyl say that the Bin Zayeds, the House of Saud and the Al-Thanis cannot be pushed to offer workers more rights. My question is simple: why not?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.