Paula Chakravartty, a member of Gulf Labor Coalition, responds to an article published in ArtFCity on June 3rd titled, “Too Little Too Late: The Art World’s Letter-Writing Campaign to the UAE.”
On June 3rd, ArtFCity published an article by Michael Anthony Farley responding to a letter signed by some of the leading voices in the art world in support of Gulf Labor members Ashok Sukumaran, Walid Raad and Andrew Ross’ travel bans to the United Arab Emirates. In this article, the author makes the case that the “global cultural community” must go much further than a “polite letter” on “issues of freedom of speech and labor rights in the UAE.” He goes on to state that “we” have “always known” about the UAE’s “medieval Sharia law,” and goes on to invoke the ways in which traditional Islamic culture is inherently antithetical to “the sexually liberated” progressive values of the West and Western cultural institutions like the Guggenheim and NYU.
This self-consciously polemic article is a flagrant example of the Orientalism and racism that drives much of Western media coverage of the very serious issue of labor abuse and violations of workers rights in countries like the UAE and Qatar. The author of this article is clear that “we” are not “them”. It is “their” exceptional politics and in effect culture (Islam) that leads to mistreatment of sexual minorities, women, and workers in the region. It is beyond the scope of this small intervention to point out the myriad ways in which this line of reasoning is false and politically irresponsible. The author equates the culture and politics of the UAE to the voice and whims of the Emirs, with no pretence of understanding the history or cultural complexity and social dissent that exists in the country and throughout the region. Moreover, there is a much longer history of migrant work, trade and cultural exchange between South Asia and the Persian Gulf that complicates the line of reasoning found in this piece. Suffice it to say that the author aligns himself comfortably with Islamaphobia, which drives the mainstream western view of the entire Middle East region, especially in the aftermath of a decade plus War on Terror.
As a transnational coalition of artists and writers committed to social justice, labor rights, and anti-racism, I want to make clear that “we” do not share Mr. Farley’s troubling common sense Orientalist rant. The issues at stake on Sadiyaat Island bring to the fore the low wages, high debts and often poor treatment of migrants workers under the Kafala system—which is a modern and lucrative visa-trading system that benefits Emirati elites, South Asian middle-men and Western partners in developments like NYU, the Guggenheim, Louvre and the National Museum. In pushing for reform and redress of the Kafala system it is crucial to point out that it is not just the Gulf monarchies that have a shameful record when it comes to migrants and racial/ethnic minorities. The US holds first-place status in imprisoning its own population, not to mention police violence against African Americans and an abysmal record of detention and mistreatment of undocumented migrants. Similarly, we can look at a Europe in the midst of a racially charged migration crisis that hardly provides a “civilized” solution for the non-Western world.
The article also misrepresents the plight of migrant workers themselves by equating the conditions of the Kafala system with slavery. This is once again a false and lazy depiction that renders these workers as victims in need of rescue by Westerners. The extensive research on migrants from South Asia to the Gulf has shown quite clearly, that workers from across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines seek much needed paid work and social and economic mobility in migrating to the Gulf. The wide gap between what workers are promised in their home countries and the worsening conditions, wages and terms of work in the Gulf might help explain the series of worker actions and strikes that have taken place in the UAE, Qatar and elsewhere in the last four years.
The very fact of these unprecedented labor actions opens up new possibilities for coalition building between artists, writers, workers’ and migrant rights groups spanning the US, Europe, South and South East Asia and the Middle East. Tired Orientalist diatribes only hurt in building these promising coalitions for social justice.