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How are Gulf countries dealing with slavery?

February 8, 2022

Despite having officially outlawed slavery, Arab states in the Gulf region have downplayed the legacy of repression and racism faced by minorities. But some countries are taking the first steps to address the past.

Drawing of a group of slaves from 1875
The legacy of historic slavery is only slowly being acknowledged by Gulf statesImage: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern slavery is still widespread in the Arab states of the Gulf region, where millions of migrant workers are forced to work under grueling conditions with little or no pay.

The"kafala" system, for example, a practice still common across much of the region's countries, allows employers to hire unskilled workers from places like Africa and South Asia. In return, workers give up their passports and the possibility to leave the country or change jobs without permission from their employers.

But the region's record of benefiting from forced labor isn't a recent development. Traditional slavery, where people were kidnapped and sold as slaves far from home, was still legal and practiced in large parts of the Gulf region as late as the 1970s. 

Unlike modern slavery, which some Arab states like Qatar are slowly beginning to take steps to address, the legacy of historic slavery remains largely unacknowledged and somewhat of a taboo issue.

Dealing with racism on a daily basis

"We usually get along well, Blacks, Arabs and Baluch, but as soon as a fight breaks out, appalling racial slurs are shouted out loud," said Yassar Khalaf, a 27-year-old Black sailor from Bahrain, who regularly travels to other port cities across the Gulf.

"It is very easy for people to disrespect us," said Maddah G., a Black man from Iraq who didn't want to give his full name. "People call us Abeed, [Arabic for slave — Editor's note]. It is so common that they don't even suspect it might be offensive," he told DW. 

sketche of an Arab slave trades and five slaves
Historians estimate that between 800,000 to 1.2 million slaves were brought to the Gulf region in the 19th centuryImage: CPA Media/picture-alliance/dpa

Born and raised in a Black community near the southern port of Basra, Maddah is one of roughly 1 million citizens of Black African descent living in the Gulf region. Most are descendants of enslaved people brought to the region in the 19th century.

However, "not all the Africans who lived in the region were brought here as slaves," said Hesham Al-Awadi, a history and political science professor at the American University of Kuwait. "Some of them arrived voluntarily for reasons such as pilgrimage or trade and then stayed permanently.

"Another part of the African population in the Gulf is the result of intermarriage of sailors with locals, marriage between two equals," he added.

Maddah G. doesn't know where exactly his ancestors came from, like many other Black people in the Gulf region. But "whether his grandparents were slaves or not is irrelevant," he said, "at least for those who keep calling Black people Abeed in the 21st century."

Little-known part of Gulf history 

Slave trafficking in the Gulf existed for centuries, but it wasn't very pervasive until the 1800s. Owning slaves was a sign of status, limited to a small group of wealthy elites, said historian Matthew S. Hopper in his 2015 book, "Slaves of One Master." Slaves weren't exclusively African and came from various places across the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Indian subcontinent, wrote Hopper. 

This changed in the second half of the 19th century, when the booming global demand for the region's date fruit and natural pearls created the urgent need for a workforce. Arab traders began increasingly kidnapping people from northeastern parts of the African continent and selling them in slave markets in the Gulf.

a sketch of pearl divers.
Thousands of African slaves were forced to work as pearl divers in the waters of the Persian GulfImage: Mary Evans Picture Library/picture-alliance

Following the global recession of the 1930s, the pearl and date markets collapsed. Many slaves who worked in palm plantations or the pearl industry were freed by owners who could no longer afford to sustain them, according to Hopper.

But it took a few decades until all Arab states of the Gulf region officially banned owning and trading slaves. Iraq had already formally abolished slavery in the early 1920s, and countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia followed suit in 1952 and 1962, respectively. Oman, once one of the biggest slave markets in the region, was also one of the last. It outlawed the practice in 1970.

Taboo topic

But despite having officially banned traditional slavery for decades, Gulf societies have not yet reckoned with their past as slave traders. 

Abdulrahman Alebrahim, an independent researcher in modern Gulf history, believes recent laws enacted under the pretense of national unity make it a topic that could fuel social divisions. That has made it difficult for scholars in to even research the issue. These laws include regulations on press, printing and publishing, enacted in Bahrain in 2002 and Kuwait in 2011.

"[These laws] have significantly prevented people — local historians, in particular – from discussing sensitive issues which are considered socially taboo," he told DW. "Even when this topic is addressed academically and within the framework of social justice and equity, it is strongly frowned upon."

While pointing out that the history of slavery in general terms is not a very sensitive issue, researchers could face difficulty once they begin to go into details and talk about the ongoing impact of slavery. In Kuwait for example, "mentioning the names of freed slaves' families and their descendants is punishable by law," said Alebrahim.

In Al-Awadi's view, cultural reservations are a more important obstacle. Black people and other ethnic minorities in the Gulf countries still refrain from highlighting their ethnic and cultural heritage in an attempt to fit in, and instead put the emphasis on their nationality, he noted.

Liwa Dancers in a row
Liwa, a traditional dance of African origin, is now considered a part of the Gulf's regional cultural heritageImage: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

"It has something to do with the way we explain our national identities here in the Gulf… We mainly emphasize homogeneity between our people, on the things we have in common," he told DW. "We do not celebrate our heterogeneity in our daily discourse."

Maddah G. cannot imagine that anyone in his community would be willing to talk about their African origins and the fact that many Africans were brought here as slaves. "As long as no one is ashamed of their slave-owner grandparents, you cannot expect Black Arabs to be comfortable with their own past," he said.

Slow change is underway

However, some corners of the Gulf region are taking the first steps in recognizing the legacy of slavery. 

Qatar opened Bin Jelmood House, the first museum to focus on slavery in the Arab world, in Doha in 2015. The museum explicitly speaks about Qatar's role in the lucrative slave trade and highlights the ordeals of its victims: men forced to risk their lives pearl diving in Gulf waters and people brought by force from Africa to work on oil rigs after World War II.

"Development has been so fast in Qatar, we wanted to look at how things changed, how Qatar was affected by slavery and how slaves were integrated into society," Hafiz Abdullah, the museum manager, told the Reuters news agency at the time.

The museum explicitly links the slave trading of the past to human trafficking and bonded labor today. "The story of slavery did not end in 1952," said Abdullah. "People need to focus on human exploitation today and how we can change that."

"On social media, people have been increasingly addressing slavery in the Gulf and its social and ethnic roots with specific reference to local Black populations," said Alebrahim, adding: "In recent years, the academia sphere and the new generation of Gulf academics have had more interest in slavery history."

Another step to recognition came last year, when Al-Awadi published "The History of Slaves in the Gulf," one of the first Arabic publications on the topic.

"For years, when narrating the Gulf history, we have focused on the urban people, famous people, rich people, rulers and elites," said Al-Awadi. "[This has come] at the expense of sometimes silencing, skipping, overlooking, ignoring, marginalizing women, the poor, slaves, people who had no voice.

"This book could be the beginning of a new culture," he added.

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Edited by: Martin Kuebler