Posts Tagged With: UAE

The Art of Exploitation

(The German version was originally published under a pseudonym in WOZ Die Wochenzeitung. The interviews were carried out in June 2015).

(Abu Dhabi, UAE) Much has been written on the foreign workers who built the New York University (NYU) and are still building the Guggenheim and Louvre museums in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat island. Reports of human rights violations have prompted NYU to order an independent enquiry into the mistreatment of workers (the Nardello report), which confirmed the abuse of one third of the working force employed in the university’s construction sites, with violations ranging from sub-standard accommodations to payment disputes escalated into forced deportations.

Apart from NYU, the Saadiyat gargantuan cultural enterprises are managed by the State-run Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). The TDIC took its first steps to ward human rights’ activists in 2009, when it announced an Employement Practices Policy (EPP) aimed at improving the workers’ welfare in Saadiyat. The EPP forbids retaining passports, although the ban is sometimes circumvented by asking laborers to sign a “handover form” allowing companies to keep their documents for “safety reasons”. It also states clearly that, with the exception of temporary staff and arranged exceptions, all the workers hired for TDIC projects should be accommodated in the Saadiyat Accommodation Village (SAV), which hosts up to six employees per room and is fully equipped with recreational facilities. Furthermore, the EPP stipulates that no worker should pay fees to recruitment agencies prior to his arrival in the UAE and, if this occurred, his employers should reimburse him. Finally, it grants foreign laborers the right to return home every year.

On the other hand, the most prominent critical voices on the workers’ conditions have been banned from the UAE: NYU prof. Andrew Ross and artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad are only some of the blacklisted names. “Artists and professors come attached to these institutions and denying access to them highlights how these projects are not about art, but about influence and power behind a sophisticated facade,” commented in a Skype interview Nicholas McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch Gulf researcher who has been banned from the UAE for his latest report (Feb 2015) on the workers conditions’ in Saadiyat.

A recurrent argument of the Emirati labor policy’s supporters is the unsuitability of Western human rights standards, while ignoring the fact that the Qur’an praises the manumission of slaves; there is thus nothing intrinsically Islamic or Arab in the exploitative kafala system subjecting the workers’ legal status to their employers’ sponsorship.

In a country where investigations are accepted only when they are turned into organized tours, WOZ decided to verify independently the laborers’ conditions in some less known projects in Saadiyat.

This Emirati island has been reclaimed from the sea to convert it into the crown jewel of Abu Dhabi’s touristic industry. While low-paid migrant workers reside in the city centre, most of the luxurious projects targeting wealthy expats and tourists are expanding on reclaimed islands such as Yas, Rim and Saadiyat.

Nonetheless, apart from the NYU campus and a couple of high-end hotels, Saadiyat is still a vast sandy construction site where workers wander around under the scorching sun, shielding their features behind Arab kufiyyat. The museums are scheduled to open in the next five years.

The British Cranleigh boarding school has also set up Abu Dhabi’s largest school campus in Saadiyat: designed over seven hectares of land to accommodate 1600 (three to eighteen-year-old) students, its fees range from 65.000 to 85.000 dhm per year (16.500 to 20.300 chf). Cranleigh opened in 2014, but its facilities are yet to be completed.

In line with the tradition of boarding schools, Cranleigh looks like a gated community for well-off kids pampered by the wide offer of cultural and sport activities on astroturf pitches. In the words of the construction workers, the UAE’s elitarian foreign educational institutions are anonymously ordered spaces. “Each time I pass by the French Sorbonne University [N/A: located in Rim Island], there are no students chatting in front of its gates…Which kind of university is that?!” commented Ravindra (36)[1], an Indian employee of the Emirati Target, a major Arabtec construction firm with 6500 workers and a 1105 billion dhm (449 million chf) yearly turnover. An avid reader of philosophy, Ravindra is financially supporting his wife and their two kids back home.

The main contractor on the Cranleigh site is an Emirati Royal Group company called Tafseer, which counted around 2000 laborers and a turnover of 409 million dhm (104 million) in 2012[2]. The Royal Group conglomerate is chaired by a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

WOZ spoke with six South Asian Tafseer employees and all of them had their passports confiscated by the company, a practice which is extremely common for everyone except for the (Western) expats.

All of the Tafseer workers employed in Saadiyat live in the company’s own camp in Rim Island, a structure with ten people per room (the minimum legal standard in the UAE), where there are no recreational facilities despite the related Emirati law. The camp hosts 25.000 workers from different companies. Here rooms are divided according to nationalities in reflection of the UAE’s socio-ethnic cleavages: all workers are aware that their wages are determined by the “value” of their passports in a deeply racialized labor market (for example, the Target employees reported that a Bangladeshi generally earns less than a Pakistani, but more than a Nepali).

The Tafseer camp appears to be a cheaper option than SAV. “What are these workers doing in this camp? The problem is that subcontractors [N/A: and contractors] don’t want to pay for SAV, ” prof. Ross, the NYU academic banned from the UAE, told WOZ in a written interview.

Some laborers were scared or tired, but those who dared to speak out knew very well the misdeeds of Tafseer. “It’s been 2 months since we received our wages, the last time we waited for 3 months,” said Bilal, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi Tafseer employee who has been working on the Cranleigh site for one year and a half.

Christopher is an Indian Christian Target employee in his fifties living in the Tafseer camp, who has already worked in several Gulf countries and considers the UAE the most tolerant towards non-Muslims. He told WOZ about a protest cracked down by the police one month ago, when the Tafseer workers rose up demanding their four-month late wages. Strikes and workers’ protests are illegal in the UAE. The recurrence of Tafseer‘s late payments was further confirmed by a Bangladeshi supplier working for construction firms in Saadiyat.

In the UAE modern slavery blossoms in the same gardens adorning the country’s touristic attractions. Manarat Saadiyat is located in front of Cranleigh School, it’s the complex of museum galleries and restaurants where tourists are indoctrinated about the Nahyan ruling family’s “vision” of the future of Saadiyat. Emirates Landscape, a Danish-Emirati joint venture, is in charge of the manteinance of Manarat Saadiyat’s gardens as a subcontractor of Sigma Integrated, a company hired by TDIC for the provision of services in both Manarat Saadiyat and Cranleigh School.

WOZ managed to approach a group of Emirates Landscape gardeners. “These two colleagues of mine arrived less than one year ago, after paying respectively 5500 and 4000 dhm (1271 and 1000 chf) to a recruitment agency in their countries,” said Nawaz (36), a green-eyed Afghani senior employee at Emirates Landscape, while pointing at two younger colleagues respectively from Sri Lanka and India. None of them has been reimbursed.

“They both earn 900 dhm (229 chf) per month, 200 dhm (51 chf) are deducted for food…if you count the money spent calling home and other expenses, they can only send 300 dhm (76 chf) to their families,” affirmed Nawaz. That means between 6 and 8 months to start earning something. A 900 dhm salary is actually considered a decent one according to the Emirati slavery-like standards for unskilled employees (650 dhm (165 chf) per month) in a country lacking laws on minimum wage.

Deductions are illegal in SAV, but Emirates Landscape was unmotivatedly allowed to accommodate its workers in the al-Mafraq camps, two structures which have been already criticized for the poor quality of their catering service. Furthermore, the Emirates Landscape gardeners are allowed to travel home every two years rather than one.

All these accounts suggest a wider reform of the UAE’s labor law and particularly of its enforcement policies are urgently needed before awarding the Emirates with other major construction projects like the ones featured in EXPO Dubai 2020. In the bigger picture, the campaign of solidarity with the workers of Saadiyat finds its raison d’être in the much more ambitious struggle for the creation of a safety net for all migrant workers in the GCC countries.  “NYU should launch additional research initiatives on labor systems in the Emirates and surrounding Gulf region, […] a living wage, for example, or research aimed at reform of the exploitative kafala system,” Kristina Bogos, a NYU Fair Labor Coalition’s student leader, told WOZ in a written interview.

[1]             Names have been changed to protect the identity of the workers.

[2]             Most updated figures available online.

Categories: Arab Gulf, UAE | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UAE strives to leave imprint on humanitarian aid in Syrian refugee crisis

[A heavily edited (i.e. censored) version of this article was published in the Emirati newspaper The National under a different title (“UAE camp cares for the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees”). The first text below is what I originally wrote, the second is the one appeared in The National].

(Zaatari- Mrajeeb al-Fuhud, JORDAN) Jordan hosts a registered population of 622.106 Syrian refugees, only 16% of them, those who cannot afford paying the rent, live in the three camps of Zaatari, Azraq and Mrajeeb al-Fuhud.

There is a blatant difference between the services provided in the giant UN-run Zaatari camp, which officially hosts around 84.000 refugees and the small efficient Emirates Red Crescent (ERC)’s Mrajeeb al-Fuhud camp, which is home to almost 5.000 refugees: in Zaatari residents are struggling to cover their daily expenses and children drop out overcrowded classes, whereas Mrajeeb delivers high-standard services in all fields.

Some humanitarian workers have already questioned the choice of setting up an A-level camp serving such a small proportion of refugees, but the ERC staff vow to maintain the same standards by focusing on a limited number of vulnerable beneficiaries. While the closely monitored residents can hardly find anything to complain about, the Mrajeeb al-Fuhud camp is still bound to remain a drop in the ocean in a country overwhelmed by the refugee influx such as Jordan.

As the Syrian war precipitated into a deadlock with no solution in sight, Zaatari has evolved into a proper settlement with a thriving souq, similarly to the Palestinian camps of the region, though in a no-man’s land in the middle of the Jordanian desert. In such dire conditions, most Syrians keep living up to their own right to return.

“We still hope to go back to Syria,” Lina (33) from Eastern Ghouta (Damascus) told The National, hiding her face covered by tears, “we don’t want our kids to grow up here.”

Lina has repeatedly tried to register her two children in one of the threeschools of the camp, but every time she was told that they had already reached the maximum number of enrolments. It has been two years since they attended the last class.

According to Mahmud Sadaqa (48), a Palestinian Jordanian volunteer, parents are often not supportive enough when it comes to education.

“Ignorance affects negatively education, parents are psychologically unstable, they keep thinking that they will go back to Syria tomorrow,” said Sadaqa.

Nonetheless, some families still encourage their children to pursue their studies and hold on to their dreams.

“I want to become a lawyer to defend the oppressed people,”Ghufran (12) toldThe National,“(…) we’re 60 students in my class… at first I stopped going to school, but then my mother convinced me to go back.”

Food and medicines are available, but all families struggle to meet ends without any source of income, particularly those where the father went missing.
“My husband has been in jail for one year in Syria, (…) the [ World Food Program] vouchers [N/A 20D (103 AED) each month per family member ] are not enough to buy clothes for my five kids,”  said Yusra Yusuf al-Masri (38) from Daraa, sitting on a mattress in front of her container, which was too small to host us.

Her desperate situation would actually comply with the entry conditions of the Emirati camp, which focuses on women, children, big families, orphans, disabled and elderly people, while denying access to single men.

The National visited Mrajeeb al-Fuhud shortly after Zaatari, escorted by a member in a leather jacket of the Jordanian security forces and the ERC staff, who took us on a ‘cruise’ of the camp on a golf cart.

By arguing these measures were taken to preserve our safety, the security agent took notes of the names of the interviewees, departing from us only upon request. However, the refugees denied the existence of any restriction on freedom of speech.

Differently from Zaatari, up to two family members have the right to be employed in the camp, depending on the size of the family.

“I used to be a muezzin before, so they promised me a job as muezzin also here in the camp,” Shafiq Abdul-Bari Mohsen (65) told The National, “at least I can send money back home, since I have another wife with twelve kids in Syria.”

Everything is methodically organized in sectors in the camp. There are around 30 students per class and even the children look incredibly disciplined.

“Children politely approached the ERC staff, as if they had been taught to do so, whereas in Zaatari they did not hesitate to play with us straight away,” noted Estella Carpi, a University of Sydney doctoral researcher in anthropology, who was conducting field work in Mrajeeb al-Fuhud.

That said, the residents praise loudly the meticulous administration of the Emirati camp in comparison with Zaatari.

“In Zaatari there were always tensions due to the lack of any sort of regulation,” Hussein al-Sari (40) from Eastern Ghouta toldThe National.

In Mrajeeb al-Fuhud there are no tents, only containers. Residents enjoy 24/7 hot water and a selected menu.

“The wishes of the refugees come first: the menu is changed according to their preferences,” Omar al-Swaidi, a member of the ERC administration, toldThe National.

On the other hand, the ERC staff do not eat with the refugees, they have a separate canteen, where they are reminded of their high living standards in the Emirates.

“Listen…we’re used to luxury in the Gulf, I spend 24 hours per day here in the camp, but I need to relax while I’m not working and I am not used to eating bamia [N/A:ladies’ fingers] like Syrians do,” said ERC member Said Shami with a peaceful smile.

As mentioned, some humanitarian workers have been critical of the amount of resources spent on such a small scale project, but the ERC personnel defended their commitment to support a limited number of vulnerable categories.

“Our goal is to host 10.000 people: rather than expanding the number of refugees, we prefer to focus on the weakest ones,” ERC member Said Shami toldThe National. It is worth noting that upon the inauguration of the camp in April 2013, the announced figure was 25.000.

Whether Mrajeeb al-Fuhud will host 10.000 or 25.000 people, similar figures will not relieve Jordan from the burden of the refugee influx. Asked if the UAE should accept part of the refugees back home, the ERC workers show reluctance to this issue as well as the Western governments.

“If we accept to set up camps in the Emirates, Syrians would escape and cause troubles in our country just like they are doing here in Jordan,” ERC’s Said Shami told The National.

Notwithstanding the UAE undeniable humanitarian efforts, Syria’s poorest neighboring countries are left alone paying the highest price of destabilization.


UAE camp cares for the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees

Zaatari and Mrajeeb Al Fuhud, JORDAN // There are more than 622,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, but only the 16 per cent who cannot afford accommodation elsewhere live in the Zaatari, Azraq and Mrajeeb Al Fuhud camps.

During a recent visit, it was clear that there is a discernible difference in the support available at the giant United Nations-run Zaatari camp, home to about 84,000 refugees in Mafraq province, and the smaller Emirates Red Crescent (ERC) camp, Mrajeeb Al Fuhud, in Zarqa, which has about 5,000.

At Zaatari residents struggle to meet their daily needs and school rooms are often overcrowded.

The ERC camp, on the other hand, delivers high-standard services in all areas. It was set up in April 2013 at a cost of Dh37 million to help ease overcrowding at the Zaatari camp. The ERC opted for a small-scale camp, as it wanted to help those most in need, such as orphans, women, children, disabled people and big families. Single men are not accommodated at the site.

While some humanitarian workers question the decision to set up an A-grade camp that serves a small quota of refugees, ERC staff say they are only able to maintain standards by focusing on a limited number of the most vulnerable refugees.

As the Syrian conflict continues, Zaatari has evolved into a mini-city with a thriving souq, similar to Palestinian camps elsewhere in the region.

“We still hope to go back to Syria,” said Lina, 33, from Damascus. She hid her face and cried as she spoke. “We don’t want our kids to grow up here.”

Lina has repeatedly tried to register her two children in one of the three schools at Zaatari. However, classes are full. It has been two years since her children last attended school.

Despite the fact that the schools are full, there remain parents who are not sufficiently supportive of education for their children, said Mahmud Sadaqa, 48, a Palestinian-Jordanian volunteer at the camp.

“They keep thinking that they will go back to Syria tomorrow,” Mr Sadaqa said.

Nonetheless, some families encourage their children to pursue their studies and their dreams.

“I want to become a lawyer to defend the oppressed,” said Ghufran, a 12-year-old girl. There are 60 pupils in her class, and difficulties at the camp forced her to stop attending at one point. Her mother, however, convinced her to return.

Food and medicine are available, but families struggle to make ends meet without a steady income, particularly those where the father is absent.

“My husband has been in jail for one year in Syria,” said Yusra Yusuf Al Masri, 38, from Deraa. She receives World Food Programme vouchers worth about Dh100 each month for each member of her family, but it is “not enough to buy clothes for my five kids”.

The National was able to visit Mrajeeb Al Fuhud shortly after Zaatari, escorted by a Jordanian security forces member and ERC staff.

In the Emirati camp, up to two family members have the right to work on site, depending on family size, and school class fit between 25 and 30.

“I used to be a muezzin, so they promised me the same job here in the camp,” said Shafiq Abdul-Bari Mohsen. “I can send money home since I have another wife with 12 kids in Syria.”

Residents of Mrajeeb Al Fuhud praised the administration of the camp. “In Zaatari, there were always tensions due to the lack of any sort of regulation,” said Hussein Al Sari, 40, from Eastern Ghouta. There are no tents in Mrajeeb Al Fuhud, only trailers. Residents have access to hot water around the clock, and have food options.

“The wishes of the refugees come first,” said Omar Al Swaidi, a member of the ERC administration. “The menu is changed according to their preferences.”

Fellow ERC member Said Shami said: “Our goal is to host 10,000 people. Rather than expanding the number of refugees, we prefer to focus on the weakest.”

Categories: Arab Gulf, Jordan, Syria, UAE | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jordan pressured to restrict Muslim Brotherhood

I went to Jordan and wrote this article for Al-Monitor without disclosing my identity (I used to be permanently based in the UAE). It deals with the pressure exerted by Gulf countries on the Hashemite Kingdom to restrict the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). However, some argue that the MB will not face a proper crackdown in light of its historically ambiguous relationship with the King. 

jord mb.jpg

(Photo: Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood protesters make the “four-fingered salute” during a protest against Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they mark the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Amman, Jan. 25, 2014.  (photo by REUTERS/Majed Jaber))

AMMAN, Jordan — The Jordanian authorities arrested on Nov. 20 the local Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Zaki Bani Arshid over a Facebook post in which he had attacked the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to list his organization as a terrorist group. He is due to appear before the State Security Court for “disrupting relations with a foreign state,” a terror charge according to the Anti-Terrorism Law.

In Jordan, like any other recipient of Gulf aid, a wide spectrum of political Islam followers are increasingly watched by authorities. The Muslim Brotherhood cautions about the rise of jihadists on the ashes of their criminalization, whereas the secular parties call for the reduction of the Islamist influence on education to counter extremism. Despite foreign pressures, the Brotherhood is not considered a terrorist organization in Jordan, and the kingdom is not likely to jeopardize its longstanding tacit alliance with the movement.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/jordan-muslim-brotherhood-gulf-aid.html#ixzz40pNAMGYh

Categories: Arab Gulf, Giordania, Middle East, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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