The wealthy nations of the Persian Gulf have been taking heat recently for not taking in more humanitarian migrants from neighboring war-torn countries in the Middle East, but these insular petrostates are actually packed with refugees of a different sort. The countries regularly import masses of migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, and other Asian countries to construct the revered cultural institutions—such as university campuses, ritzy galleries, and sporting arenas—that dot the Gulf’s manicured paradisical landscape. While these workers, toiling under exploitative, often abusive conditions, make up the underbelly of globalization, there’s more than brute labor happening on these neoliberal fiefdoms. Globalization is galvanizing an international cultural movement to bring labor rights to the foreground of the art world.
The Gulf Labor movement began when academics and activists started campaigning to raise awareness about labor conditions at Gulf development projects linked to Western institutions, particularly New York University’s state-of-the-art satellite campus on Saadiyat Island in United Arab Emirates (UAE). Taking a page from the protest playbook of the anti-sweatshop movement generation, they used the campus as a site of community education and protest. Over five years, Gulf Labor and its activist network have evolved into a community-labor-arts alliance that challenges growing entanglements between cultural and academic industries and corporate and authoritarian regimes.
The group’s new book, Hard Labor/High Culture, documents a half-decade of progress through a compendium of critical essays that draw on academia and agitprop. It’s not a manual so much as a scrapbook showing an ever-widening “diversity of tactics” including boycotts, field research, and spectacular protests, banner drops and strikes, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Uttar Pradesh. Throughout this time they’ve dialogued with boards of trustees, unions organizing in the Middle East, and human-rights groups—while still making time for a guerrilla intervention featuring the Handala icon of the Palestinian resistance at the Venice Biennale.
NYU cultural studies professor Andrew Ross, an organizer with the coalition, says the group’s eclectic portfolio highlights “the place of cultural practitioners in a broad coalition like this. We’ve been able to do things that these labor NGOs cannot do. I think that demonstrates that cultural practitioners have a role to play in a labor campaign like this, that is so vast and apparently intractable.”