The Awful Treatment of Migrant Workers in The Gulf States

Male Middle East migrant worker
Top bloke. Face edited out for obvious reasons.

I absolutely LOVE travelling in The Middle East.

Whether it’s braving the gritty streets of Baghdad, unearthing the mystery of Bahrain’s Tree of Life, being wowed by Petra, or embracing all of the cool things to do in Muscat; I have a lot of love for this region in many ways, and it’s mainly down to the people.

However, seeing so nowhere is a utopia, there are always cons to the pros and one that irks me while travelling in the Gulf States; is the patently shitty treatment of migrant workers in The Gulf States.

Since the Qatar World Cup in 2022 and also the lead-up to it, the brutal treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf Nations has been highlighted. My article is more about the subtle disregard and cut-throat attitude towards the people who work hard every day, in order to prop up the very nations that chip away at their dignity.

What is a Gulf Country?

Regions of the world can be confusing and I’ve often heard The Gulf being referred to as The Middle East simultaneously. The Gulf nations of the Middle East are Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudia Arabia and The United Arab Emirates.

Related Post: A Handy Guide To The 6 Microstates of Europe 

I have visited all of those countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia (I was planning to go there, but the inception of Covid really started kicking off at the time).

The country under the main scrutiny from me today is Kuwait. However, I did see “same shit, different country” in Qatar, Bahrain and mostly the UAE. There could be an opposing argument that I have been to the UAE more often, so the law of averages would suggest that I had more exposure to this behaviour and sad stories than I did in other countries in The Middle East.

I’m also a big fan of Oman, so there’s a chance it can happen over there too and that maybe I had my selective empathy goggles blinding me during my fleeting romance.

The Gulf countries are some of the richest in the world thanks to their high concentration of oil, aggressive and open trading and very lenient tax policies. Sadly a decent chunk of them is also getting a deserved reputation for their rough treatment of overseas workers who sustain most of their economies in hospitality, taxi services, construction and a whole lot more.

Treated Like Trash

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but you aren’t allowed to leave with food from the breakfast buffet. It’s hotel policy.”

The Filipina waitress said this in various polite ways, at least 5 times.

But the disgruntled woman in question wasn’t so amiable and each time she spoke to the waitress, it was with an air of contempt as if she had a thirsty desire to strip her of any remaining dignity.

It was an absurd request. Her large family had already eaten a mountain of food from the breakfast buffet, and now she was not only flouting the hotel rules by taking more food with her – but she was actually demanding that the waitress package it up for her.

Sidenote: I’m certainly no ardent conformist. I’m naughty too. I like to challenge rules and authority and see what I can get away with, it was her behaviour that was the main focus here.

Sinister levels of snobbery emanated from this gluttonous, arrogant being as she dismissed the girl nonchalantly with a contemptuous hand gesture while repeating loudly: “Go away and do your job, I don’t want to hear from you anymore!”

The poor girl was clearly holding back tears as she cleared my table just minutes later.

“Wow, you’re a lot more patient than me,” I said.

She mustered a smile and replied that she had to be as it was her job. She was in a lose-lose situation. Another hotel policy was the old “the customer is always right” bollocks and she was pretty sure she’d lose at least 25% of her wages if the woman complained. Apparently, it happens a lot.

This wasn’t the first story like this in the Gulf region of The Middle East that I’d heard and sadly, I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.

On my way back to my room I asked to speak to the hotel manager. When we met I informed him that a customer had been verbally abusive to one of his staff members at breakfast and that she’d handled it really well.

I’m not sure whether he really listened to me, and took a mental note, or just pretended to, but he seemed receptive anyway.

“But Muuuh … This is only one experience. Mah feelings.”

(I hear you shriek)

This happened in Kuwait and if I got a hair follicle back on my balding head for every time I saw a local treat a foreign worker as if they were sub-human trash, then I’d have one beautiful mane of hair to contemptuously flick back over my irritated face.

Chatting With Migrant Workers in The Gulf

*Flashback to Dubai (United Arab Emirates) a week before …*

“The greatest business in this country is the fine business,” announced the Bangladeshi taxi driver.

He elaborated. Whenever the company he works for feels like it, they deduct a big chunk of his paycheck as a fine for supposed ‘negligence’.

When he finds time out from his gruelling 4 am-4 pm, a 7-days-a-week job he drives to the office (if he can manage to catch them before they close) and asks the reason for this latest deduction.

The best and most common answer he’s had so far is “Well if you don’t like it, you can always leave …”

Considering the fact that it’s common practice for employers to take away immigrants’ passports until they say so, it’s clearly way more complicated than that!

I play devil’s advocate and ask him if he was ever late, but he seems artless in his protestations. My intuition believes him. I don’t want to, because it’s infuriating – however, the truth isn’t always pretty.

Maybe I’m wrong, but after my wandering around the Gulf States and seeing for myself just how appallingly immigrants are treated (and this is in public), I’m inclined to believe him.

I spoke to an Omani guy about all of this in Muscat. He said I should be careful because people will always speak ill of their enemies.

He was a good man and his intentions seemed genuine.

But I found this a little too simplistic and, of course, I’d witnessed most of these incidents with my own eyes. Also, in my experience, Filipinas are one of the least likely people to talk about others in such a clandestine manner. They are overall way too lovely and when they share these rough stories, it’s still done with an air of respect.

I’m throwing out generalisations here, but all I can do is say it how I see it.

My heart really does go out to these people and I realise I wrote this a little high on emotion, but I’m rolling with it. I understand a great deal of the immigrants are flocking to The Gulf to make more money than they could at home and live a better quality of life (and a lot of their cultures dictates that they send a sizable wedge of money back to their parents when doing this).

I lucked out with a British passport and my life living in Chiang Mai, residing in Mexico and living in Medellin all as an immigrant was a very different story. (“Expat” is a more common word, one that I am fine with and I use it myself. I am also fine with being called an immigrant because I quite literally am one).

If I were them; I’d do exactly the same thing and move abroad to a place that pays me more money.

I don’t even doubt this for a second.

One of my main reasons for visiting the Middle East (other than eating copious amounts of next-level hummus) was that the mainstream media on both sides of the wild spectrum that exists today tends to spin the truth about this region, and I wanted to make my mind up for myself, instead of being told what to think while genuflecting like a nodding dog.

I thoroughly enjoy my time over there. This story is merely one chapter and it’s solely focused on the treatment of migrant workers in The Gulf States.

On my final day in Kuwait, a young boy around 10 years old strutted over to the cashier in the cafe I was in, and, in a clipped authoritative tone, barked: “GIVE ME STRAW!”

He then snatched the straw out of the cashier’s hand without a word. No, please. No thank you. No grateful nod …

“Little shit,” I thought to myself.

Anthony Middleton

A former loser who took a risk. I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting over 100 countries. Stay tuned for the next challenge against that clock!
Ultra runner walking in desert

Hi, I'm Anthony!

In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

Follow me!