Guide Constructing Qatar: Migrant Narratives from the Margins of the Global System

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Every year, tens of thousands of men and women from South Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world journey to Qatar and the other petroleum-rich states of the Arabian peninsula to work. Constructing Qatar, containing eighteen meticulously crafted migrant stories and two photo essays, is an attempt to illuminate the experiences and perspectives of these transnational laborers.

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As construction workers, drivers, servants, accountants, shopkeepers, custodians, general laborers, and countless other vocations, these men and women toil in relative obscurity. Constructing Qatar is an attempt to illuminate the experiences and perspectives of these transnational labor migrants. The stories carry the reader from the villages of Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and many other places to the labor camps of Qatar.


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In total, the book contains eighteen meticulously crafted migration stories, two photo essays by Kristin Giordano, and an introduction by editors Andrew Gardner and Autumn Watts. Create Widget. At the time, this could be read as a fairly substantial change to the kafala, but the research I've read and the migrants I've talked with don't describe any substantial change in their experiences on the island.

Thinking about the region as a whole, in my mind all of this points to a few basic conclusions.

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First, we need to recognize that these headlines and declarations of abolishing the kafala are really the prime currency resulting from these proposed, incremental changes, for they allow the Gulf States to broadcast their evolving positionality in a global index of modernity that, thankfully, I suppose, includes EuroAmerican-styled ideas about individual human rights.

Second, I think it is important that we understand the kafala not as a singular and stable thing, but rather as a collection of laws, practices, norms, and traditions that undergird this contemporary migration system.

Summer Update: Andrew Gardner

Interwoven with it is a globally-accepted system of legal contracts that really achieve many of the same ends -- locking migrants to particular jobs for specific periods of time, for example. Third, and related: so while aspects of the kafala may be "abolished" in some GCC states in the coming decade, I am not certain that we'll see any substantial changes in the migrant experience, as these contracts foster the same kind of control that is the critical and criticized facet of the kafala.

The barometer by which we evaluate that change in any of the GCC states should be migrants' experiences. I have not noticed any specific, recent changes in official narratives of migrant issues in Qatar, but I have not been present in Qatar nearly as much over this last year. Colleagues have reported more difficulty obtaining data and other information from the various ministries that oversee the migrant presence on the peninsula.

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I would definitely say that these reports echo some of my anxieties about the current situation. I have been somewhat critical about the shrill and accusatory tone that many reports and some journalism takes with this issue, and I'm concerned that the growing global scrutiny to this issue will further exacerbate the state's reticence to foster transparency on this issue.


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  • From my vantage point, Qatar's previous willingness to allow and encourage citizen-researchers and foreign researchers to explore these complex issues was a significant advantage, and one that was notably aligned with the peninsula's aspirations to build a "knowledge-based economy and society.

    I don't see grassroots work amongst migrants leading to much practical or political change in the region. In general, the region's migration system is really structured to prevent these sorts of results, and while I know that fear of some sort of revolutionary uprising looms large in the minds of some citizens and host states, I don't see this anxiety grounded in any sort of reality.

    No migrant I've ever spoken with desires anything except to work and get paid. They don't really even want to be there. They're there because they have no better options in their underdeveloped home states. Over the years, I recognize that some grassroots work has made some difference to some migrants for some period of time, but meaningful change will have to come from above, I believe.

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    That said, I believe grassroots action is essential to understanding and measuring the problem and the issue. How do you read the ongoing crackdowns on migrants; notably, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

    I read the ongoing crackdown on migrants as mechanisms by which the state appeases the citizenry's anxieties about the astonishing proportion of migrants present in the region, and little more. These crackdowns are typically levied against groups of undocumented migrants that are produced by the stresses and frictions inherent to the kafala and the exploitations that it fosters.

    For example: many migrants are simply not paid the wages promised to them by sponsors or the sponsor's proxies; they "abscond" from the only job they are legally allowed to hold; they become undocumented or "illegal" workers under the kafala; they are targeted by various policing arms of the state in "crackdowns" -- this is a vicious circle that I've been observing for over a decade. Domestic workers are excluded from labor laws in some GCC countries.

    They also happen to be overwhelmingly women.