Category Archives: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

The Plight of Refugees and Migrant Workers under Covid

In a world where nationalism and social division is increasing, bigotry growing, are the words refugee, asylum seeker, migrant worker, derogatory labels triggering prejudice and intolerance? Such terms create an image of ‘the other’, separate and different, strengthening tribalism, feeding suspicion, our common humanity denied.

Under the shadow of Covid-19 those living on the margins of society have been further isolated; the refugees and migrants of the world, those displaced internally or in a foreign land, people living in war zones, and the migrant workers in the Gulf States, India, Singapore and elsewhere.

Refugees/migrants and migrant workers are among those most at risk from Covd-19, the economic impact of the pandemic as well as xenophobic abuse linked to the virus. Migrant workers (who universally have few or no labor rights) from Qatar to India have been discriminated against, discarded and ignored. Migrants, particularly those of Chinese or Japanese appearance in the US and elsewhere subjected to violence and abuse, and in refugee camps across Europe and the Middle East, including Gaza, thousands have been left in unsafe camps without medical support.

Homeless, hungry and at risk

Even before the pandemic erupted, to be a refugee, migrant, or migrant worker was commonly to be mistrusted, marginalized and in danger. Whether working as a maid in one of the Gulf States, an internal migrant worker in their homeland or living inside an overcrowded refugee camp these men, women and children are amongst the most vulnerable people in the world. In Europe, where thousands of refugees (many from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) are packed into camps, their lives already swamped by uncertainty, the fear of the virus hangs heavy. Lacking sanitation and essential services these overcrowded tarpaulin cities are unsafe; the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, for example, was designed to accommodate 2,840, but now has 19,000 people; 40% are under 18, self-harming and attempted suicides are widespread. Compounding the heightened risks Covid has created, since July 2019 asylum seekers throughout Greece no longer have free access to the healthcare system, other than emergency support.

Meanwhile, in countries with large populations of migrant workers Covid-19 and the economic impact of the pandemic is adding additional layers of suffering to already arduous lives, not just of workers, but the families migrant workers support. According to the UN, round 800 million people globally are supported by funds sent home by migrant workers. Families depend on such payments to pay rent and buy food; when this flow stops, as is the case for many now, poverty and the risk of starvation is made more acute. The World Bank is warning of huge drops in global remittance payments of around 20%, resulting from the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, which they say has impacted on migrant communities particularly hard.

In the Gulf States, which depend on millions of workers from Africa and Southeast Asia, Covid-19 is intensifying discrimination and increasing abuse against migrant domestic workers, including abrupt termination of their contracts. In Kuwait suicide among migrant workers has surged; Saudi Arabia has deported thousands of Ethiopian workers (A total of 2,968 migrants were returned in the first 10 days of April, UN state), without any medical screening, which the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Ethiopia said, is “likely to exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 to the region and beyond.” And in Lebanon (where the majority of migrant workers are Ethiopian) and elsewhere across the region, lower income families unable to cover salaries, cover food costs or provide accommodation have laid off domestic staff; resulting in migrant workers being at high risk of forced labor, including prostitution.

Worse still is the case of freelance (‘live out’) workers, whose work has stopped, leaving them with no income, no food and nowhere to go. In Qatar, (one of the richest countries in the world, with over two million migrant workers) which has one of the highest rates of infections per capita, many of those suffering from the disease are migrant workers. Foreign workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines are being laid off or remain unpaid, as the economic impact of the virus hits. Some domestic workers (women) have been made destitute. In Singapore, widely thought to have responded well to the pandemic, migrant workers, employed mainly in the construction industry, were thrown to the wolves. And in India following the hasty decision by Prime Minister Mahendra Modi to lock the country down on 25th March, (giving people four hours warning!) tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of internal migrants working in cities were forced by their landlords to vacate their homes and had no choice but to head back to their native village. Without funds and with transportation suspended, huge numbers were forced to walk the hundreds or thousands of miles home.

Homeless, hungry and at risk of contracting coronavirus, migrant workers were ignored by the Modi regime. Reacting to this wholesale neglect, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to housing and on extreme poverty said (4th June), “we are appalled at the disregard shown by the Indian Government towards internal migrant laborers, especially those who belong to marginalized minorities and lower castes…..the Government has failed to address their dire humanitarian situation and further exacerbated their vulnerability with police brutality [which is commonplace in India] and by failing to stop their stigmatization as ‘virus carriers’.”

Contemporary Slavery

Covid-19 has highlighted a raft of social inequalities and destructive practices throughout the world. As such issues float to the murky surface of human affairs an opportunity presents itself for reform, for changes in attitudes and practices.

There needs to be a fundamental overhaul of employment rights for migrant workers throughout the world, with migrant workers receiving the same protections as native employees, including access to health care, limits on the hours of work, rates of pay, days off etc.

The Kafala System is used throughout the Gulf States, where the UN estimates there to be “35 million international migrants in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Jordan and Lebanon, of whom 31 per cent were women.” Under Kafala a migrant worker, many of whom are domestic staff and therefore out of sight, cannot resign if an employer is abusive, the work exploitative or the conditions unacceptable. Amnesty International relates, that it “ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer.” The system enables employers to essentially own workers, giving them total control of workers’ movements. This legitimization of modern-day slavery must be brought to an end immediately.

Refugees and migrants are human beings fleeing violent conflict (are often traumatized), persecution and economic hardship. The journey into an unknown future is often treacherous, always uncertain. In the vacuum left by governments and regional authorities like the EU, that should be processing asylum applications in designated centers and offering safe passage, criminal gangs control migration routes and methods of travel, which are unsafe and extortionately expensive. Deaths are commonplace, abuse and exploitation widespread. If they survive the dangers and arrive in their destination country, all too often they are viewed with distrust and antagonism, instead of being warmly welcomed. They are pushed into the shadows, the margins of society, offered little or no state support and made to feel unwanted.

This must change; all should be embraced, not only those with skills in short supply.  The idea of judging who can and cannot enter a country based on some discriminatory points system related to national need (the Australian way – a country with a shameful immigration record), as the UK government is proposing, reduces human beings to commodities, some of which are more valuable on the ‘open market of immigration’ than others – and is completely abhorrent.

Deal with the causes of migration, help construct a world at peace by cooperating, sharing and building relationships; reject competition and nationalism in favor of unity and tolerance and see a dramatic fall in the numbers of people forced to leave their homeland, whether in search of safety or opportunity.

The Coming Break up of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Five months after the diplomatic spat between the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet and Qatar kicked-off, the ante is being upped. Bahrain, one of the quartet alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, has called for Qatar to be frozen out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As the council starts to unravel, what will this mean for Qatar and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?

The Bahraini proposal, which would have been coordinated with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, to lock Qatar out of the GCC is a logical move in the nearly six-month long siege, with the next potential step the removal of Qatar from the Council altogether.

This unprecedented inter-GCC crisis has led to the biggest divisions within the Council – which consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – since it was formed in 1981.

Qatar leaving the Gulf monarchical club would seriously loosen the threads that bind the GCC together, as the original idea of the Council was proposed by Saudi Arabia as a security pact to make sure any challenges to their respective thrones were quashed. Ironically it was the threat of Islamic extremism that prompted the creation of the GCC, and it is the Anti-Terror Quarter (ATQ) accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups that is driving the GCC apart.

The spur to form the GCC was the siege of Mecca by radical Saudi Islamists in November 1979. It shook the kingdom to its core for two weeks and nearly lost the Saudis the much coveted, and much abused, title of the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. To deal with the domestic threat, Riyadh encouraged Islamists to go and fight with the Afghan mujahideen following the Soviet invasion in December 1979. We all know how that ended: Al Qaeda and its offshoots, 9/11, and blowback for the Middle East and much of the world.

Internal power jockeying among royal family members aside (for instance the Qatari Emir’s father, Hamad, deposed his father, as did Oman’s Sultan Qaboos), the only time the GCC has acted in each other’s defence was not the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, but the Bahraini uprising in 2011.

Bahrain’s rulers, the Khalifas, might have been dethroned by the mass unrest – the royal family is Sunni, which accounts for around 20% of the population, the remainder Shia – without GCC military intervention.

It was a brutal and blatant example of how far the GCC will go to ensure its self-preservation. At the same time it brought Bahrain even more into the Saudi camp amid the inter-GCC rivalry to be the leader of the Council.

Traditionally it has been Abu Dhabi and Riyadh jockeying for top position, evidenced in neither capital willing to capitulate to the other over the proposed location of a GCC Central Bank when a Gulf Common Market (GCM) was being mooted in 2008.

But the Arab Spring brought the two closer together in the face of a common enemy: populist uprisings.    The relationship has been further cemented by the close ties of the young bucks Mohamad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamad bin Zayed.

Qatar, however, did not follow the GCC line, reflecting its assertive foreign policy over the previous decade to steer its own course. This culminated in the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014 (they did not return until November 2014).

Tensions were ironed out yet not fully resolved, which pointed out some crucial problems within the GCC itself: no framework governing relationships between members, no mechanisms to resolve member disputes, and no GCC court or framework to follow up and back GCC resolutions.

In addition to the lack of such frameworks, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lacked any leverage over Qatar. With Qatar having a small populace of 350,000 and one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, Riyadh cannot use cheque book diplomacy as it did with the UAE’s Sharjah in the 1970s, when the penniless emirate was bailed out by Riyadh in return for a greater say in Sharjah’s internal policies, which extended to banning alcohol.

Neither is an uprising in Qatar likely due to its citizens’ wealth, but also the lack of different sects with any grievances that could be externally exploited – the majority are Sunni, of the Wahhabi school, the same as Saudi Arabia – although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have tried to capitalise this year on tribal divisions to overthrow the Emir. Saudi and the Emirates instead had to resort to infowars to try and bring Qatar to heel.

The Gulf crisis was sparked in May (2017) by the UAE government hacking Qatari government news and social media sites to plant false statements by the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The most damning false statement was that the Emir respected the Iranian government – the arch nemesis of the Sunni Gulf monarchies, especially Riyadh. After all, a second core reason for the GCC’s creation was the Iranian revolution, and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

News of the UAE’s hack only came out in July, weeks after the ATQ had cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar. The ATQ’s top accusation? Qatar was financing terrorism, sailing too close to the wind with Iran, and pursuing too independent a foreign policy for the ATQ’s liking.

The ATQ, which includes GCC outsider Egypt, has used all the means at its disposal bar military action to try to isolate Qatar. Kuwait has been acting as a moderator between the two sides, while the Sultanate of Oman is trying to sit on the fence. The Sultanate, however, is on good terms with Tehran, and has allowed Qatari planes and ships through its territories to circumnavigate the UAE’s blockade of its territorial waters and airspace. Muscat is effectively distancing itself from the Saudi-UAE dominated GCC.

The split has pushed Qatar further into the arms of the Turks, with whom they have a military pact, and the Iranians; both countries are now major providers of food and other goods to Qatar. Turkey is a crucial ally as it is pro-Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab moderate Islamic party; President Erdogan’s AKP party has championed the Brotherhood while Qatar has allowed both the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate, Palestine’s Hamas, to operate out of Doha, much to the ATQ’s chagrin.

The Gulf monarchies have long opposed populist Islamic parties – if they could not have some sway over them – fearing any threat to autocratic rule by organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood that have broad appeal with moderate and middle-class Muslims. Hence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power in the wake of the 2011 uprising, and supported the 2013 coup by the Egyptian military, which has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, locked up some 60,000 political prisoners, and imprisoned the former president, Mohamad Morsi.

The ATQ have followed Cairo’s lead by designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. It has not stopped there. The UAE has listed 82 organisations it deems terrorists, while the ATQ has published a list of 30 organisations it wants Qatar to expel and stop funding.

With Qatar being a host for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and, for a spell, the Taliban, they have joined as an outlying member the “Axis of Resistance”, a term spawned following George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, to denote the anti-Israeli and anti-US alliance between Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The analogy is not quite right, though, in that Qatar opposed the Syrian regime, gets on with Washington, and is not ideologically nor theologically on the side of Shia Iran or Hizbullah. Instead we have a new, loosely linked axis comprised of Qatar, Iran and Turkey that opposes the Saudi-UAE led GCC. It is no longer an ascendant Shia Crescent pitted against the Sunni Arab states as Jordan’s King Abdallah warned of back in 2004, but a more diverse bloc.

What is clear is that a major cleavage has occurred in the MENA, and that there is no turning back by the ATQ or Qatar to resolve the GCC crisis; there has been too much water under the proverbial bridge between the two camps, and the infowar has been both harsh and personal.

The ATQ’s blockade strategy has not worked, as following the 2014 diplomatic spat Qatar prepared contingency plans to weather a potential siege, which the ATQ was seemingly unaware of. The crisis has also caused the Qataris to rally around the flag.

The ATQ is now trying to strip Qatar of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and has compiled dossiers about Doha’s terrorist financing, although it has not released its ‘black book’ over fears Doha will expose the ATQ’s, especially Saudi Arabia’s, involvement with questionable groups (a case of the kettle calling the pot black) despite Mohamad bin Salman’s public statements to “return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”.

At present, the ATQ is running out of other options other than a complete divorce if the crisis continues. The step after a Qatar GCC exit, a ‘Qatexit’? Saudi intervention according to analysts, especially if Mohamad bin Salman’s reform plans and Vision 2030 to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons does not pan out, and the kingdom becomes increasingly cash-strapped due to low oil prices.

Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at Washington D.C.-based consultancy Gulf State Analytics, posits that Qatar could be brought under Saudi’s umbrella by force to seize the country’s huge gas reserves, the third largest in the world. It could be a Crimea-type scenario.

Who knows, black swan events do occur, and the global powers would vocally oppose such a move but likely not exercise military intervention a la 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US troops based in Qatar would just stay in their base; the Trump administration has signalled it has sided with Riyadh, even though the State Department has been more nuanced towards Doha. As for the Turks and the Iranians, they would not want to be brought into a conflagration with Riyadh and the ATQ. That really would tear the MENA apart.

Ultimately, there’s not much to stop a Saudi gas grab. There’s not much desire internationally for yet another Middle Eastern military ‘adventure’ following the debacles in Iraq and Libya, while nobody’s lifted a finger against Saudi Arabia for its war against Yemen. As long as Qatari gas exports remain uninterrupted, the global powers might readily accept a change of management.

That said, such a Saudi move may be far-fetched, but a new GCC without Qatar seems increasingly likely.