The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor
Ed. Andrew Ross
New York, NY
Much has been written in recent years about the exploitative labor practices inherent to globalization, especially those pertaining to vulnerable migrant workers from the developing states. The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, edited by Andrew Ross and featuring a deep bench of contributors from the social sciences, labor advocacy groups, and protest artists from around the world, provides a distinct voice and a highly specific contribution to the conversation. Focusing on the labor systems and practices of Persian Gulf states and the massive investments those states have recently made in cultural institutions–landmark museums, Western university satellite campuses—The Gulf makes a compelling case for opportunities to shine light on both egregious conditions ongoing from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Riyadh, as well as opportunities to confront and dismantle these oppressive systems.
As repeatedly noted throughout The Gulf, the harsh conditions facing migrant workers in the region can often raise valid common questions: why migrate for work when one can expect such difficulties in the first place? Why might someone actually return to the region, to those wretched conditions, after returning home one or more times, as is the case for so many? Simply put, the breadth of opportunities and the widespread availability of work, even if only marginally better-paid than those in countries of origin, remains compelling to millions (49). Especially in the contexts of caste hierarchies and racial group dynamics within sending countries like India and Nepal, such opportunities are more promising than the lacking alternatives back home—no matter how laden with caveats and risks those opportunities abroad may be.
Ross immediately outlines the evident problems in these particular cases, many of which are well known. The deeply abusive “kafala system” is referenced extensively throughout, the linchpin of wealthy oil-producing Gulf societies: namely, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Kafala systems, in brief, are where, “all migrant laborers [are required] to have an in-country sponsor who oversees their visa and legal status” (11), thus shifting generally state-run administration of immigration policy and regulation to migrants’ private-sector employers. In practice, relegating these functions to private employers in states with few legal protections for laborers has produced a system of abuses from migrants’ initial recruitment abroad to their daily toil in the deadly, searing heat of the Gulf’s desert landscape. These migrant workers, drawn mostly from South Asian and, increasingly, Sub-Saharan African countries, incur massive “recruitment fees” and so thus begin their employment already indebted to their employers. These “recruitment and transit fees” are often in the thousands of US dollars, several times their typical, median annual incomes, and upon arrival, workers find themselves ensnared in isolated worker camps, in overcrowded and decrepit housing in the shadows of the very glistening towers they construct. Coupled with low wages, often far below those promised at the time of recruitment, and complete removal from the rest of their host societies, the “punishing work” offers little hope of escape, no recourse for protest of conditions, and virtually no social, economic, or political rights.
The Gulf’s variegated contributors focus on the investments of elite Western cultural institutions specifically. The result is a complex picture of interacting interests and incentives among global elites, and the numerous ways these actors and institutions rely upon inequality to perpetuate their status and wealth. The key undercurrent of each individually authored chapter is how migration policy, financial systems, and cultural elite institutions have come to rely upon these mutually linked incentives. The advent of multi-billion-dollar projects carrying iconic Western social, cultural, and educational brand names, radically imprinting themselves throughout the Gulf region and facilitating the expansion of labor migration therein, includes institutions like New York University’s Abu Dhabi expansion (Ross is a professor at NYU’s main campus and has led campaigns for accountability regarding NYU’s disavowal of responsibility for harsh conditions at its satellite), as well as the Guggenheim, Louvre, and Tate Museums (15). Interestingly, scrutiny is also place on the adjacent fields of architecture and planning, their “lustrous starchitects” especially, “Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, [the recently deceased] Zaha Hadid, Raphael Viñoly, Tadao Ando, and Norman Foster,” among others (14). The inherent contradictions of placing liberal arts institutions and other emblems of free expression in art amid tightly controlled authoritarian regimes is fully documented throughout the text. Furthermore, The Gulf poses thought-provoking chapters, as well as a beautifully presented collection of protest art.
A wide-ranging critical discussion of historical, economic, and financial forces, along with contextual explorations of globalization and region-specific pressures, is developed primarily within the first half. The Gulf ties these disparate threads together clearly and powerfully, creating a clear call for global solidarity. Largely, in contrast to other books on migrant labor or globalization, the aforementioned diversity of the contributors propels the reader through the text.
In addition to Ross, other contributors are drawn from the activist organization Gulf Labor and its “direct action [spinoff],” the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.). Through their perspectives, the reader receives an insider’s view of of this transformational movement for migrant workers’ rights—in itself, a rarity worth exploring. Various other groups enter the conversation on specific issues as well, such as Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?), “another Gulf Labor spinoff” which works to “press the architecture profession on its ethical responsibilities toward those who build its buildings” (25).
While concerns of abuse and structural oppression have long been voiced vis-a-vis the Gulf, the book dismantles many Western institutions’ longstanding defenses of their involvement in the region. Elite institutions’ counterarguments—that their presence and investment, not to mention the normative values they claim to uphold amount to an opportunity to presage change—are unequivocally derided. Indeed, “far from promoting liberalization... the presence of the museums and [NYU have] appeared to be generating exactly the opposite effect,” with violent crackdowns on migrant worker camps, travel bans on activists—including many Gulf Labor and G.U.L.F. activists, Professor Ross included—and a sense of implicitly legitimizing the region’s authoritarianism altogether.
The broader ideological approach of this network of writers and activists, note Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon, is that “the spate of labor protest in the Gulf calls for a politics of solidarity and not one of rescue,” moving beyond the Orientalist tropes of (largely White) Western salvation, and related assumptions of social, political, and economic notions of the exotic other. These contributors also dispel two common myths: first, “that kafala is a premodern patronage system... [and second] that the migrant workers... are passive victims in need of rescue” (38–9). In reality, the “Saudi case” shows that kafala actually “has deep colonial and neocolonial roots” in the mid-twentieth century, and that its emergence and forms have borrowed from Western ideas with “continue to shape the institutionalization of racial hierarchies in the region” (42).
The subsequent contribution by Gregory Sholette departs from the social sciences grounding of Ross and Chakravartty and Dhillon to address the roles of artists, architects, and designers in acts of solidarity and defiance—or more commonly and troubling, acts of collusion and willful detachment from their roles in perpetuating oppression. Sholette’s stocktaking of artists’ movements toward “more direct political action” succinctly breezes through several decades of history, but he remarks conclusively that “the art world [establishment institutions] . . . respond with renunciation or denial” regularly (65–6), a call to continue extant modes of exerting pressure for change. Later, Guy Mannes-Abbott picks up this thread, turning toward more recent “creative interventions,” both in response to developments throughout the Gulf and in direct confrontation with the landmark art world institutions of London, New York, and other Western “global” cities (87). The complicity of these institutions is a critical point, powerfully articulated here by Mannes-Abbott than elsewhere, drawing a direct line of culpability to these groups in the objectionable reliance on exploited, lethally mistreated migrant workers. Elite cultural gatekeeping, a trend toward homogeneous forms and views in “high art” (i.e., perpetuating Western, White ideals of beauty and value), the “privatization” of universal cultural heritage, and the mere persistence of elite self-justifying vanity – all these threads are woven together as part of a larger, logically coherent system:
Perhaps this is not simply a manifestation of the directionality of the art world but a familiar experience for so many of us in so many parts of the globe. Trade fair or national embassy, arms or art-sales, cultural legacy or political cover, mall or museum, architect or slave-driver – these distinctions are blurred in a single, increasingly totalized, collateral system. (89)
Given the obvious constraints and real, personal dangers facing activists throughout the Gulf, the most confrontational actions by Gulf Labor, G.U.L.F., WBYA? and other activists have focused largely on the existing high-art world spaces of major galleries and museums in the US and Western Europe, often through spectacularly artistic provocations: projected images on museum facades, direct protests on gallery floors, disseminating free protest artworks to patrons, and so on. Two goals unify the protest tactics: “to create maximum visibility and to make it structurally difficult for the [target] institution itself to function” (95). This high-impact model has been generally successful wherever it has been implemented. Wherever the art world elite may be present, from Sao Paulo to Venice to the spiral staircase of New York’s Guggenheim, the movement has pushed, all while expanding the ranks of artists voicing opposition, withdrawing submissions from and condemning the very institutions featuring their works.
WBYA? then offers somewhat unsettling takeaways, namely the unthinking complicity of alienated design and architecture professionals participating in a globalized industry, along with the indignant excesses of the “starchitects” themselves. An especially famous quote from the recently deceased Zaha Hadid—the first woman to ever win the prestigious Pritzker Prize in architecture—has been frequently cited: “[responding] to a question by the Guardian about the welfare of workers on one of her construction sites in the Gulf, after a number of them [had reportedly] died in the heat: ‘I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up’” (121). A particularly harsh critique of these sentiments resulted in Hadid filing a defamation lawsuit, and later she clarified and defended her exact involvement in Qatari construction work. The sentiments, however, remain evocative.
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The second half of The Gulf departs from the big-picture explication of the first, focusing on the overarching 52 Weeks protest project (178). The 2013–14 campaign was “an important tactical shift for” Gulf Labor, “giving birth to the [spin off]” G.U.L.F. and setting a template for subsequent confrontations (180). Within the text, the scope and style of 52 Weeks is first described, then beautifully rendered in chronological order through grey-scale images. Altogether, the presentation moves from wrenching quotes from migrant workers superimposed over the gleaming architectural projects they served to gripping photographs of direct protest actions and the widely covered projection of “1% [Global] Museum” across the facade of New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
The Gulf brings a longstanding crisis to light—and to life. It is an insightful and thoroughly engaging read throughout, but not without problems. Organizationally, keeping separate the denser historical explanations of the phenomena from the visual presentations of Gulf Labor and affiliated organizations’ protest art seems a disservice to both; they work together so well that it might have been clearer and more powerful to intersperse some of the iconic elements of 52 Weeks within the book’s first half, at a minimum. This is a stylistic matter, of course, and keeping the entire stretch of the protest project in one place, chronologically, has the advantage of tracing the movement fully, in its entirety.
More substantively, however, some of the historical and political context highlighted in the text buckles under scrutiny. In some cases, the lack of thorough attribution or explication of cited information––both from migrant workers themselves, as well as general statistics—begs for deeper analysis. For example, the otherwise powerfully written introduction by Ross quotes a man identified only as Ganesh, introduced as a representative stand-in for migrant workers in the Gulf, broadly. Ganesh “reckons” that as many as 30–40% of families “lose their land” because of an inability to repay recruitment and relocation-related expenses within his home community in Nepal (28). This figure is astounding; but no matter how credible it seems, given the extensive exploitation and abuse chronicled throughout this and many other texts, it demands verification. If a third or more of families in certain communities are at significant risk of losing, or actually do lose their property because of this system, that is beyond scandalous and worthy of further exploration. The Gulf is not an academic text, nor is it aiming to produce or disseminate hard-edged research. It could still be strengthened through tightening arguments through better, more varied sourcing of information for its main arguments.
There are missed opportunities in The Gulf, generally minor quibbles. The entirety of the book, cover to cover, remains powerful nonetheless. There are few more comprehensive resources—in print or otherwise—anywhere, linking fields of research, mediums of artwork, and first-hand accounts of protest. The Gulf stands alone in this regard. That it leaves readers with a hopeful outlook, a pragmatic expectation of continued agitation and ultimate, meaningful reform, is a rare gift.
Andy Jon Carr
Carr is a resident of San Francisco, California, where he works for an international nonprofit organization. He is also an editor and writer, mainly covering global politics, development, and urban sustainability.