Inside the Labor Camps of the Gulf, with Nicholas McGeehan

Published March 30th, 2021 - 08:18 GMT
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A migrant worker lays in his bunk bed inside a labor camp in Qatar (AFP/FILE/GETTY)
The cities of the Gulf region in the Middle East are often depicted as cutting-edge metropolises.

Dubai in the UAE is home to the tallest building in the world, and it also has an indoor ski resort despite being in the desert. Abu Dhabi has its very own Louvre art museum. Doha in Qatar’s impressive skyline looks a mirage of steel sculptures reaching upwards in the middle of nowhere.

These images sell to the world the promise of the Gulf states as modern visionaries, bringing humanity into a new epoch of civilization.

But the picturesque skyscrapers or the region’s many artificially-made islands are virtually walled off from most of the countries’ inhabitants. Migrant workers make up a majority of these countries’ labor forces, and often form the bulk of their entire populations. But they are stuck living in packed labor camps or shantytowns, without access to clean water, hygiene, education, or healthcare. They are the ones who build these gleaming cities in the desert that inspire the world, and they are the ones who sustain life for the wealthy sub-strata of the countries’ people. 

A recent report by The Guardian revealed that at least 6,500 migrant workers in Qatar had died from 2010-2020 while the country prepares to host the FIFA World Cup, most of them in circumstances the government did not explain. 

So I’m seeking an explanation today from an expert on the situation of migrant workers in the Gulf. Nicholas McGeehan is a researcher and writer who has spent much of his professional life investigating the working conditions in the Gulf region of the Middle East, and he joins me in a discussion about the lived reality these people have, the economic forces throwing them towards the Middle East, and the political power that ensures their exploitation continues indefinitely. 


Nicholas McGeehan (Courtesy of Nicholas McGeehan)

It’s easy to exceptionalize the situation in the Gulf as an abnormality in our global economy. And while it’s truly exceptional by most accounts, McGeehan says in our talk, it is also illustrative of a general dynamic whereby rich economies depend on the vulnerable labor of imported migrant workers, who are subject to never-ending regimes of surveillance, violence, and threat of deportation from a combination of state and private power to keep them working until they are discarded. 

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