Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the Gulf, 1 Installation at a Time

Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the Gulf, 1 Installation at a Time

Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the Gulf, 1 Installation at a Time

For the artists in the activist group Gulf Labor, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi epitomizes the conquest of art by corporate interests.


Saadiyat Island, or “Happiness Island,” is a luxury development under construction off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the capital and second-biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. When completed in 2020, the island will be home to New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, an outpost of the Louvre, and a branch of the Guggenheim designed by the starchitect Frank Gehry. The island will cost at least $27 billion and will also feature a golf course, malls, boutique hotels, and villas. Abu Dhabi has reportedly paid $520 million just to franchise the Louvre brand, and at least double that amount in management fees, art loans, and construction costs. (The deals with NYU and the Guggenheim, for which the UAE is also footing the bill, are confidential.) The work of building the island, like everything else in the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf, is being done by some of the millions of predominantly South Asian migrant construction workers who make up the majority of most of these countries’ populations. The average monthly pay of one of the workers employed to build Saadiyat is $177. In 2013, the salary of Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was nearly $760,000.

These figures have been highlighted by a group called Gulf Labor, which was created by the Lebanese artist and Cooper Union professor Walid Raad, NYU professor Andrew Ross, and other artists and academics to shame the Guggenheim and the Emerati government into respecting international and domestic labor law. That would include refraining from confiscating workers’ passports, delaying their pay, or forcing them to work overtime or at the hottest hours of the day; not punishing and deporting them for making complaints or staging strikes; and not turning a blind eye to the coercive recruitment fees that workers pay in their countries of origin or when they arrive, and to the false promises that leave them heavily indebted for years.

Gulf Labor has now produced The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (OR Books; Paper $20), which recounts its activism during the last five years. In 2011, artists, curators, and writers affiliated with the group signed up for Gulf Labor’s boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. In New York, they projected messages on the museum’s outer walls, dropped fliers inside, and pasted their own work on its walls alongside exhibitions. At the Venice Biennale, they assailed the Guggenheim site by boat. With the group’s 52 Weeks campaign, which was launched in October 2013 and is documented in The Gulf, artists created works—mostly video and print materials—to support the campaign, sharing them online over the course of a year. Many of the pieces draw their power from simple juxtaposition. Of salaries, as mentioned above; of square footage (the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s 322,917 square feet to the 182 square feet of a windowless dorm room for 10 workers); of the grandiose design of the museum to the punishing mathematics of the workers’ debts, pay, and work hours. In a digital collage entitled 2015: Grand Opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Janet Koenig simply Photoshops workers into the lobby of the museum they have built, where they look terribly out of place but also possibly like a brilliant installation.

For the members of Gulf Labor, Happiness Island epitomizes the conquest of art by corporate interests and speculators, and its reduction to little more than a luxury accessory. They argue that the development is both an egregious example of ultra-inequality and a strategic opportunity: Because the oil-rich emirates and their Western partners are concerned with their public image, they are (somewhat) susceptible to pressure.

Unfortunately, some of the essays here suffer from their own strains of grandiosity and speculation: They are burdened by the jargon of academia, activism, and the art world, and can’t level an indictment more precise than blaming “frontier capitalism” and “economic globalization.” Still, despite these shortcomings, they raise interesting points. Doris Bittar notes that “artists are migrant workers of sorts—perhaps a rung or two above the traditional kind, and with trendsetting clothes.” While well aware of their privilege, she adds, they are also part of an increasingly vulnerable creative class whose members often live in debt in the hope of a big payoff. Gregory Sholette presents a history of protest art and wonders if artists, as practitioners of “freely directed labor,” may be natural advocates for workers’ rights. In any case, “it is no longer possible, even if it were acceptable, to separate the creativity on display from the organizational infrastructure that hosts the artworks,” argues Guy Mannes-Abbot. “Art’s new co-dependency with global corporations directly implicates or involves debt bondage, crimes against humanity, and climate-driven devastation,” he insists. Therefore, activism needs to “aim everywhere, strategically. To protest at every point in the chain, up, down and throughout the collateral system, challenging every complicit element.”

That’s dauntingly ambitious, but “complicity” is the key word here. University and museum leaders who make deals in the Gulf often argue that they cannot dictate Western values to others and must respect the local laws, customs, and culture. But they also tend to claim that their institutions’ presence will be transformative in some unspecified, long-term way. The first argument ignores the fact that Gulf societies have undergone extraordinary transformations in the last 50 years, and that their current demographic and labor arrangements are hardly “traditional.” It also confuses the policies of ruling families with entire societies. There was dissent in the emirates following the Arab Spring, but it was stamped out by a vigilant police state. Today, the UAE is one of the most repressive Arab countries when it comes to freedom of expression, including the use of social media.

By asking, loudly and repeatedly, “Who’s Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?,” Gulf Labor punctured a convenient silence. Its other accomplishments are less clear. The Guggenheim pledged to respect workers’ rights and to house its laborers in a purpose-built model facility on Saadiyat. A field visit by Gulf Labor members in 2014 found that the camp was outfitted with Ping-Pong tables and a pristine cricket pitch, but it was also isolated and sinisterly regimented (the workers also complained that the food was terrible). Thanks to Gulf Labor and other groups, there is much greater, if superficial, international awareness of the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, with newspapers regularly reporting, for example, on the number of Nepalese workers dying in Qatar on future World Cup construction sites. But as the artist-activist collective itself notes, despite meetings and assurances, the Guggenheim and the Emirati development company building Saadiyat “have yet to deliver any tangible results on behalf of workers,” who “continue to pay recruitment fees, to be forced into different jobs at lower pay than they signed up for, and to be controlled through the kafala system,” in which they are beholden to all-powerful local “sponsors.”

In the spring, Raad, Ross, and the Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, another member of Gulf Labor, were banned from entering the UAE. Western cultural institutions with branches in Abu Dhabi expressed no indignation over these bans, seeming to justify Ross’s claim that “far from promoting liberalization of speech, the presence of the museums and the university appeared to be generating exactly the opposite effect.”

The construction of the Guggenheim itself has been delayed, but not derailed. Given the creaky state of Western economies and public spending on the arts, Qatar and the UAE are clearly set to become significant patrons of international culture. It’s a good investment for them, one that will burnish their image and create strategic links with the West. And the new prizes, museums, and other cultural institutions recently established in the Gulf provide an important support to Arab writers and artists, especially as traditional cultural capitals like Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo totter or collapse. For many young academics, artists, and other white-collar professionals from the West, taking a job in the Gulf is also an opportunity that, in a spotty academic job market, can be hard to pass up. Defenders of Saadiyat and similar ventures will say that art has always been patronized by elites, that it faces and weathers censorship everywhere, and that there’s a whiff of Orientalism behind the endless denunciation of oil sheikhs buying “our” culture. 

The question remains why, despite the efforts of activists and the pledges of foreign institutions and Gulf governments, labor abuses remain so widespread in the region. One answer is greed and desperation. Everyone, including the workers’ own countrymen, exploits them along the way; this is made all the easier by the seemingly endless reservoir of workers prepared to risk such exploitation if it means they may be able to help their families (rather than lose their land to creditors).

But the exploitation of workers is driven by more than economic factors. Countries like the UAE and Qatar are new, tiny, and extraordinarily wealthy—which is to say insecure. In most of the Gulf, citizens are a minority in their own countries (in the UAE, they are about 15 percent of the population). It is uncomfortable to admit that one depends so deeply on the productive activity of outsiders. White Western professionals are not a threat, but most Emiratis are reluctant to empathize with the brown-skinned South Asian majority that builds and maintains their lifestyle. Acknowledging the migrant workforce’s humanity is a danger to the locals’ fragile sense of superiority and to an autocratic and hierarchical system—hence the insistence by governments and employers on constant segregation and on maintaining workers in a state of indebtedness and subservience. The assumption seems to be that if workers aren’t properly cowed, they will immediately begin agitating for better conditions (and, in fact, there are strikes and sit-ins on a regular basis). The hope seems to be that in a few decades, once the infrastructure and landmark developments are built, most workers can be sent back to South Asia, their role in constructing the Gulf’s skylines erased.

“The weave between aesthetics and politics becomes so complex that the space of art is required to pick it apart,” write Mariam Ghani and Haig Aivazian. In several essays, artists defend their decision to join Gulf Labor against the accusation that by boycotting, they are choosing disengagement over engagement and striking a sterile, high-minded pose; or, on the other hand, that they are politicizing (and hence compromising) the field of art.

In fact, the desired outcome of ventures like Saadiyat Island seems to be a particular kind of very polite, market-friendly engagement—which one might also call self-censorship. But that’s not a given. It may require judgment and nerve, but it is not impossible to take a teaching post or an artistic commission in a place like the United Arab Emirates and then tackle, as an individual or through one’s work, the reality that one experiences there. If the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, when it opens, hosted an exhibition of Gulf Labor’s protest art, wouldn’t that be truly “transformative”? 

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