art of resistance, United Arab Emirates

Under The Splendor & Sparkle of The Gulf: Modern-day Slavery.

‘My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,’ said Tariq, a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.”

That is how Molly Crabapple’s article for the Vice, Slaves of Hapiness Island,  begins. It was published in August last year. What happened in the meantime with migrant workers of Abu Dhabi and the grand museums they are building? Well, everything is pretty much the same. Poor living and working conditions for the workers is still modus operandi in the Gulf, while spectacular museums grow like mushrooms after rain (Louvre Abu Dhabi is set to open in December this year).

slaves-molly-crabapple/image © Molly Crabapple/

Just this month, the United Arab Emirates has barred New York University professor Andrew Ross from entering the country after he published research about migrant workers and labor abuse in the Gulf State. Ross learned of the ban after arriving at the airport in New York, where he was set to board a flight to continue his research in the UAE. It has also emerged that a private investigator was hired to target him and a New York Times reporter, Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the expose on workers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus facing harsh conditions. 

A freelance journalist based in the Emirates who collaborated on the article, Sean O’Driscoll, said in an interview that he was also summoned by the authorities several weeks after its publication and offered immunity from prosecution and high pay if he would agree to publish pro-government articles. O’Driscoll said he refused and was later expelled from the country.

Capture/Construction workers can live as many as 15 men to a room. Space is so scarce that a dozen men can share a space of barely 200 square feet. One of New York University’s labor values states that contractors should not house more than four people in a bedroom. © Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times/

This was an important article – so important that it was not printed – the New York Times was not printed in the Emirates that day. It was the first time the New York Times was actually banned from circulation.

Gulf Labor, a coalition of of international artists working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, also did (and does) a lot of work to put pressure on the Guggenheim Museum because the Guggenheim is also building in Abu Dhabi.

In their 2014 report, main observations were that the wages on Saadiyat Island remain very low, all workers had paid recruitment fees, but the fees have not been reimbursed to them (many of the workers take up big loans in their home countries in order to get to UAE  but then struggle to pay the debt in order to gain any profits), and there are no organized workers’ groups to speak to.

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/image – Gulf Labor facebook page/

There is a consistent pattern of fair labor standards violations and human rights abuses among the migrant workers in the UAE and also in Qatar, because it’s the same migrant-labor sponsorship system that brings workers from South Asia to these two countries. More than 80% of UAE and Qatar’s population are foreign workers. Most of these workers come from far poorer nations such as India, Bangladesh, Philippines and Nepal.

All of those people bare the same burden – like Crabapple wrote – “in company-branded jumpsuits, men toiled through their 12-hour shifts, welding and lugging rebar beneath the merciless sun.”

nyc149070/image © Jonas Bendiksen, Far From Home – Guest Workers of the Gulf/

In the meantime, those who try to speak up against this outrageous treatment of workers, end up being banned from the country, or their articles are not being printed. How come this is (still) possible?

• • •

For more on this story, I recommend the following articles/videos:

The Dark Side of Abu Dhabi Cultural Revolution, video by Guardian‘s Glenn Carrick

Slaves of Happiness Island, Molly Crabapple’s article for the Vice

Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions, Ariel Kaminer & Sean O’Driscoll for The New York Times

Inside Story – The Plight of Qatar’s Migrant Workers by Al Jazeera English

United Arab Emirates: Trapped, Exploited, Abused, by Human Rights Watch

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