Middle East Briefs
Parallel to the Center’s scholarly work, Middle East Briefs provides a brief analysis of a single issue at the top of the region’s political, social, or economic agenda. Targeted primarily at decision-makers and opinion leaders, the publication was launched in 2005.
July 2021 – Reconceptualizing Noncitizen Labor Rights in the Persian Gulf
Middle East Brief 143 (Summary) — Several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states recently announced independent plans to abolish what is often called the "kafala system," regulations that require noncitizen residents to be sponsored by a citizen or citizen-owned business. Sponsorship is widely blamed for the exploitation of and poor conditions faced by noncitizen workers, and the reform announcements followed increased international attention on the issue. In this Brief, Alex Boodrookas unpacks three widely-held misunderstandings about labor and migration in the Persian Gulf. He argues that sponsorship legislation does not reflect long-standing regional tradition. Instead, it dates from the imperial period and reflects the shared economic interests of elites and multinational companies. And "kafala" is not a single system; it is a diffuse set of coercive mechanisms and practices controlled by different actors. Dismantling sponsorship alone, therefore, will not bring an end to the systemic exploitation of noncitizen workers. Finally, Boodrookas details a long history in the Gulf of citizen workers allying with noncitizen workers to improve labor conditions and rights for all. The divide over sponsorship, he argues, is better understood as one of class interests and racial hierarchy than one that pits citizens versus noncitizens, which has implications for the prospects of further and deeper reform in the future.