Until recently, labour markets in the MENA’s oil-exporting countries were characterized by a large public sector, a small, weak private sector, and depending on the country, a sizable agricultural industry, and a sizable informal sector. But in the case of Iraq like elsewhere in the region, the volatility of oil prices and the pandemic impacted the economy, resulting in a critical situation where bloated public salaries at the heart of Iraq’s economic woes result in increasingly unstoppable youth unemployment. The currently general upheaval in the region, rural to urban and cross-border migration has not helped, leading to an even greater informal market.
Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes by Samya Kullab is a vivid picture or a series of pictures on life in Iraq as perceived by a locally based journalist.
People shop for clothing at the used-clothes market in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Iraq is in the throes of an unprecedented liquidity crisis, as the cash-strapped state wrestles to pay public sector salaries and import essential goods while oil prices remain dangerously low. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
BAGHDAD (AP) — Long-time Iraqi civil servant Qusay Abdul-Amma panicked when his monthly salary was delayed. Days of waiting turned to weeks. He defaulted on rent and other bills.
A graphic designer for the Health Ministry, he uses about half his salary to pay his rent of nearly 450,000 Iraqi dinars a month, roughly $400. If he fails to pay twice in a row his landlord will evict him and his family, he fears.
“These delays affect my ability to survive,” Abdul-Amma said.
Iraq’s government is struggling to pay the salaries of the ever-swelling ranks of public sector employees amid an unprecedented liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices. September’s salaries were delayed for weeks, and October’s still haven’t been paid as the government tries to borrow once again from Iraq’s currency reserves. The crisis has fueled fears of instability ahead of mass demonstrations this week.
The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions. But with early elections on the horizon, the prime minister’s advisers fear there is little political will to execute it fully.
“We are asking the same people we are protesting against and criticizing to reform the system,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq researcher.
The white paper’s calls for cutting public sector payrolls and reforming state finances would undermine the patronage systems that the political elite have used to entrench their power.
A major part of that patronage is handing out state jobs in return for support. The result has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004. The government pays 400% more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Around three-quarters of the state’s expenditures in 2020 go to paying for the public sector — a massive drain on dwindling finances.
“Now the situation is very dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Daraji, a lawmaker on parliament’s Finance Committee.
One government official said political factions are in denial that change is needed, believing oil prices will rise and “we will be fine.”
“We won’t be fine. The system is unsustainable and sooner or later it will implode,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.
Iraq’s activists have called for a march on Oct. 25, expected to draw large crowds, a year since massive anti-government protests first brought tens of thousands to the streets demanded reforms and an end to the corrupt political class.
“As far as meeting our demands, there have been no changes,” said Kamal Jabar, member of the Tishreen Democratic Movement, founded during the protests last year. “To us, the white paper is a joke.”
Abu Ali, a merchant in Baghdad’s commercial district of Shorjah, fears what the following months have in store. The state is the primary source of employment for Iraqis, and civil servants are the lifeblood of his business.
“The delays in salary payments have affected the market directly,” he said. “If these delays continue our business and the economy will collapse.”
Abdul-Amma’s September pay was 45 days late, and he still hasn’t received the October pay that was supposed to come on the first of the month. He worries about the coming months as well.
“I have a history of chronic heart disease, and one of my daughters is also sick,” said the father of four. He pays $100 in medical fees per month.
But to the architects of the reform paper, he is part of the problem: Public sector bloat is first in line for reform.
“We hope the civil service and bureaucracy will recognize a need for change,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Iraq relies on oil exports to fund 90% of state revenues. Those revenues have plunged to an average $3.5 billion a month since oil prices crashed earlier this year.
That’s half the $7 billion a month needed to pay urgent expenses. Of that, $5 billion is for public sector salaries and pensions, according to Finance Ministry figures. Iraq also imports nearly all of its food and medicine; with foreign currency reserves at $53 billion, the World Bank estimates the country can sustain these imports for another nine months. Foreign debts account for another $316 million.
Poor productivity of public workers is the heart of the issue, Allawi said.
“We’ve ended up with a low productivity, high-cost public sector that doesn’t really earn its keep,” he said. “In one way or another this issue has to be tackled by either reducing numbers, which is politically difficult, reducing salaries … or increasing productivity.”
The white paper calls for public sector payments to be reduced from 25% of GDP to 12% but doesn’t detail how. Officials said one step may be to restore taxes on civil servants’ benefits that previous administrations had lifted.
To meet month-to-month commitments now, the government has had to borrow internally from its foreign currency reserves. A request of a second loan of $35 billion was sent to parliament, drawing criticism from lawmakers.
Haitham al-Jibouri, head of parliament’s Finance Committee, said in televised remarks that if borrowing was the government’s only plan he would fetch a shopkeeper from Bab al-Sharqi, a commercial area in the capital, to do the finance minister’s job.
Parliament’s endorsement of the loan and the reform paper is crucial for the government to avoid a full-scale economic crisis.
But this will prove difficult with elections slated for next June, since factions want to hand out jobs to maintain their constituencies.
“Whoever decides to push ahead and support reforms first will lose out, they will also need to convince other political players who will also lose out,” said Jiyad. “That is a tough sell.”
Al-Kadhimi’s advisers privately acknowledge the challenges of having the system that produced such mismanagement and corruption be its own savior.
One official recalled a remark made by the finance minister at a meeting of a high-level committee tasked with managing the crisis.
He looked at the room of officials charged with halting the country’s fast spiral toward insolvency and said, “I can’t believe this was done for 10 years and none of you did anything to stop it.” There was silence.
William Beckerwriting this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas. Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?
Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility
Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.
Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.
The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”
Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”
But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.
The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.
The Internet’s value
Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?
The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.
Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”
Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.
As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.
The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.
News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.
It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?
Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.
Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”
Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.
Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.
America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.
The Internal threats
Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.
He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.
The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”
Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.
“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”
“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.
So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?
I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:
Only time will tell.
William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.
On 27 August 2020, OXFAM found that all MENA billionaires’ wealth increased by $10 billion, enough to pay Beirut blast repair bill.
The 21 billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), all of them men, saw their wealth increase by nearly $10 billion since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, almost double the estimated amount required to rebuild Lebanon’s shattered capital, while 45 million more people in the region could be pushed to poverty as a result of the pandemic, a new Oxfam report revealed today.
“The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities and massive failures in our economic systems, leaving millions in the region without jobs, healthcare, or any kind of social security, while allowing billionaires to add more than $63 million to their fortunes each and every day since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Nabil Abdo, Oxfam in MENA’s senior policy advisor.
“Unless governments immediately prioritize people over profits and the rich pay their fair share, millions more will be pushed to the brink of poverty and denied their basic rights. For too long profit has been prioritized at the expense of the public good and safety. The result of this could not be starker in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion in Beirut, which has further exposed the fragility of the economy and will only exacerbate existing inequalities.”
Governments in the region need to act quickly and raise revenues to protect the most vulnerable in society. In Lebanon, if a 5 percent solidarity net wealth tax had been introduced last year, $3.7 billion in tax revenues would have been generated to help rebuild the electricity and water infrastructure and provide services to keep people safe in the aftermath of the blast.
Before the virus hit, the MENA region was already one of the most unequal in the world; and COVID-19 has further deepened the gap between the rich and the poor. 76 percent of the region’s income goes to just 10 percent of the population, with 37 billionaires owning as much wealth as the poorest half of the adult population.
If Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco had implemented a two percent wealth tax from 2010, these countries could have raised $38 billion in tax revenues, which could have been invested in improving public healthcare and rebuilding social protection systems.
At the same time, measures to protect the poor have fallen short. It is estimated that only 11 percent of stimulus packages in the region focused on social protection and health measures. Against this backdrop, an estimated 89 percent of the region’s 16 million informal workers have been severely affected by pandemic measures. Foreign investment is also projected to drop by 45 percent and 1.7 million people are expected to lose their jobs, 700,000 of them women, costing $42 billion in lost wages.
“The crushing austerity in recent years could have been avoided if the wealthiest in the region had paid more tax, a cost they can easily afford. This alternative could have given countries more flexibility on their spending policies and crucially, seen the region enter the coronavirus crisis with less inequality and debt”, added Abdo.
To avoid millions more being pushed to the brink of poverty, the region’s governments must urgently adopt deliberate inequality-busting policies like healthcare and education for all, and must raise the minimum wage and taxing wealth fairly to build better, more equal economies and societies.
Oxfam’s calculations are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available. Figures on the very richest in society come from Forbes’ Billionaires List and Forbes‘ Real-Time Billionaires ranking. We compared the net wealth of MENA billionaires on March 18, 2020, to their net wealth on August 16, 2020.
PWC has estimated the cost of damage to 30-40 destroyed buildings, 3,400 uninhabitable buildings and a total of 40,000 buildings affected by the blast to be $5 billion.
Roslyn Boatman in Tunis, Tunisia | email@example.com | +216 21359002
An Analysis dated 7 August 2020 by Dr Tankut Oztas is concerned by The Levant and North Africa with a challenging statement like: on the verge of economic malaise? The pandemic-induced crisis is expected to exacerbate poverty, deepen inequality and constrain households’ access to basic needs, including health service.
ANALYSIS – The Levant and North Africa: on the verge of economic malaise?
ISTANBUL: The spread of COVID-19 undoubtedly has had a catastrophic impact on the most vulnerable communities of the world. According to a recent World Bank report, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is ranked as second-lowest among all regions in the overall Global Health Security Index, and it comes last in terms of both epidemiology workforce and emergency preparedness and response planning. Without an effective and coordinated set of policies to achieve a swift economic recovery, the region is highly likely to suffer from greater political instabilities and become a breeding ground for terror groups.
The COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated these pre-existing vulnerabilities and risks in the widely-mismanaged economies of the MENA, where medical systems are under-resourced and much-needed infrastructure either destroyed or lacking.
A range of harsh anti-COVID-19 measures such as self-isolation, social distancing, and lockdowns, including total curfews and international travel restrictions have been implemented by governments to control the spread of the virus and protect lives.
These preventive measures, however, led economies across the region to experience severe supply and demand shocks. The most recent regional economic outlook reports published by both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that regional economies would most likely experience a sharp economic fallout by –4.2 per cent and 4.7 per cent in 2020, respectively.
Still, the real socio-political and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the MENA remains highly uncertain and will strictly depend on the duration of the outbreak and the effectiveness of the policy responses developed by each nation.
The current predictions, however, suggest that all critical macroeconomic indicators such as fiscal and current account balances, foreign reserves, and the inflow of foreign direct investment will be distressed as a result of the crisis. The pandemic-induced crisis is expected to exacerbate poverty, deepen inequality and constrain households’ access to basic needs, including health services.
The economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic effectively forced almost all countries in the region to request financial assistance from the IMF or other financial institutions to strengthen their economic position and prevent the possibility of a prolonged economic recession. As a result, regional economies have become heavily dependent on the reform directions of the IMF, World Bank, and other investment banks.
Socio-economic and political tensions remain a distinct possibility in the post-pandemic era if policy responses fail to meet the demands of the majority and set a path for swift economic recovery. Countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia already have debilitated capabilities. Persisting socio-political and economic hardship exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a vicious cycle of economic malaise.
The same outcome applies to the only two oil-exporting countries of the region, Iraq and Algeria. Their economies were hit by the complete halt of economic activities due to the pandemic and have also been severely affected by the crash of oil prices. A similar assessment is applicable to war-torn countries of the region, Syria and Libya too. Though their economic outlook is linked to a sustainable political order and strong security environment, the spread of the virus and its humanitarian and economic costs are extra burdens on the wellbeing of communities living in these countries.
The only countries in the region with a relatively positive socio-political and financial outlook are Israel and Morocco. While their economies are experiencing the economic consequences of the pandemic, their macroeconomic variables are in a better position compared to their peers. Their public and externals debts are relatively lower in comparison to other nations in the region.
Nevertheless, every country will experience the heavy burden of issues such as collapsing global trade, low commodity prices, major capital outflows, and healthcare-specific challenges inflicted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The crisis is dealing a heavy blow on sectors such as tourism, export companies, and small and medium-sized businesses, which employ the largest share of the workforce and generate a considerable share of the revenue streams for the region’s economic development.
A reduction in income from these sectors, as well as remittances and foreign investment from the oil-rich Gulf countries, subsequently hampered the foreign reserves and deepened the current account deficit across the region as a whole.
Against this challenging backdrop, a range of economic recovery packages have been announced by the governments to mitigate the economic repercussions of the COVID-19. The majority of them are aimed at helping the most hard-hit sectors and communities through temporary tax relief, cash transfers or cheap financing.
The uncertainty about the real economic impact of the pandemic, however, has complicated the policy response. Many of these economies have limited fiscal and external debt capacities. The Lebanese government, for instance, has the highest external debt in the region with approximately 170 per cent of its GDP. Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq follow Lebanon with external debts of 97, 90, 87.2 and 80 per cent of their GDP, respectively.
Ultimately, many of these economies had already been battling with high poverty, political instability, and poor healthcare infrastructure; hence the historic economic downturn provoked by the novel coronavirus will aggravate existing economic and humanitarian challenges. The region already has the world’s highest youth unemployment, and it hosts countries that have weak security institutions.
In the period that lies ahead, if the geostrategic vulnerabilities and risks continue to amplify across the region without a stable political leadership, effective civil service, and a well-targeted set of economic recovery programs, the region will likely experience a prolonged economic recession and an increased risk of social unrest.
[ The writer is a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He holds a PhD in International Political Economy from King’s College London and specializes in global security, geopolitical risks and the politics of transnational economic affairs ]
Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency
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UAE’s migrant workers fret over future in coronavirus economy; that is according to my reading, perhaps about their own future in the Gulf region, particularly in the UAE during and above all after the passing of the pandemic. It must be reminded that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) successfully launched its Mars mission dubbed “Al Amal”, or “Hope”, on July 20, 2020.
In the meantime, here is the original Reuters article that covers this traumatic period in the life of those numerous migrant workers in the UAE.
DUBAI (Reuters) – When Kapil left his Nepali village for an airport job packing cargo in the United Arab Emirates, he thought he was securing a future for himself and his family.
But less than a year after arriving in the Middle East trade and tourism hub, he questions whether it was the right decision after learning there would be no work this month.
“I’m totally hopeless,” said 29-year-old Kapil, whose wife and five-year-old son are in Nepal.
The coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economies of the oil-rich Gulf, heavily reliant on low-paid foreign workers.
They are the backbone of the Gulf economies, taking jobs in construction, services and transport, and are now facing the realities of the pandemic.
Reuters spoke to over 30 workers like Kapil in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, who all said they are now enduring hardship due to coronavirus.
Many have racked up debt and would go hungry without the help of charities as they wait for work and to be paid.
Some said they found little reason to stay without work and wanted to return to their home countries despite being owed months of wages; hundreds of thousands have already left.
The treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf has come under greater scrutiny, with human rights groups saying conditions have deteriorated because of the pandemic.
In the UAE, most attractive because of the economic opportunities it offers, there is no social safety net for foreigners, who make up about 90% of the population.
A laundry service worker from Cameroon told Reuters he had not been paid in months and was now selling fruit and vegetables on the street earning 30 to 40 dirhams a day ($8-$11).
The UAE government communication office did not respond to emailed questions about migrant worker welfare.
In May, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the Gulf state was committed to protecting the rights of all workers, state news agency WAM reported.
Those in blue collar jobs are the most vulnerable. They are paid low wages, work long hours and often live in cramped dormitories that have been coronavirus hotbeds.
Many also pay fees to recruiters in their home country, a practice common for low paying jobs in the Gulf.
Kapil, who said he paid a recruiter 175,000 Nepali rupees ($1,450) for his UAE job, is not sure when he will work again.
His employer told staff they would only be paid when they worked and it was unclear whether there would be any work next month, he said.
Kapil said he had been earning around $600 a month – six times more than his teacher salary in Nepal – working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week at the airport.
He said not working had left him stressed and unable to provide for his wife, child and elderly parents in Nepal.
Kapil, who showed his employment contract and other documents to Reuters, asked that his full name not be published and his employer not identified over fears he could face repercussions.
Arriving in the UAE last October, Kapil thought he would work at the airport for a few years before finding a better job, possibly using his teaching skills.Slideshow (4 Images)
Now he just hopes to work until the end of the year to pay back his loans.
“The global economy is getting worse and it’s affecting each and every business … I think during this time it’s hard to find any other job.”
No official statistics of how many people have left the UAE are available. But at least 200,000 workers, mostly from India but also from Pakistan, the Philippines and Nepal, have left, according to their diplomatic missions.
Sectors like construction and retail were struggling even before the crisis, which exacerbated hardship for workers already exposed to payment delays.
Mohammed Mubarak has not been paid for around 11 months for security work at a Dubai theme park.
“The company doesn’t know when they’ll be able to pay us, and we are suffering,” the Ghanaian said.
Government coronavirus restrictions that forced many businesses to shutter for weeks began to ease in May. Shopping centres, water parks, bars and restaurants – all staffed by migrant workers – are once again open, raising hopes.
Zulfiqar, a Pakistani in Dubai for 12 years, sent his family home early in the outbreak but stayed on hoping for work, sharing a room and what cash he has with a dozen other unemployed men.
With the “Oil for Protection” pact with the United States in 1945 and the contribution of petrodollars, Wahabism took off. It was exposed outside the kingdom, notably to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This export was a defence system against the ideological incursions of neighbouring republics states, all friends at the time of the Soviets, and sworn enemies of the Saudi monarchy. The MENA countries of today are still divided along the same lines of governance; those of republics versus monarchies. One thing though ties all the countries is the autocratic reality that underpins all systems. These stem fundamentally from the following.
Wahabism is the school of religious thought initiated by Md Ibn Abdel Wahab in the 18th century, itself derived from the Hanabalite current of thought. This school advocate a return to the religious precepts of the time of the prophet and does not tolerate any other interpretation of the sacred texts other than those disclosed by the first caliphate.
During the Cold War and to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan, the U.S. trained Islamists extremist militants in resistance and guerrilla methods. Saudi bin Laden came to be known as the head of an organization of freedom fighters against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The cold war ended with the Berlin wall collapsing bringing the end of the USSR and thus the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. From then on, the U.S. was a dominant power in this part of the world with later, a visible presence in the Middle East’s Gulf region. The experts in U.S. geopolitics then discovered a new enemy to manage, that is Iraq and eventually Iran. But many terrorism victim states pointed the index at Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism, denouncing it as the spiritual support and backer of these terrorist organizations. It is an undeniable fact that the Wahabi Islam has done great harm to the Islamic world as much as to Islam itself. On the other hand, the cultural vacuum operated by authoritarian socialist regimes in most of the republic states in the MENA region was an ideal breeding ground for the implantation of ideologies imported from the Arabian Peninsula.
It would, on the other hand, be more accurate to talk about shared responsibility between the Arab states and the U.S. rather than to focus it on Arabia alone. Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) wants to reform Arabia but with the excellent advice of the U.S. and its ally, Israel. With the terrorist strikes of the nine-eleven 2001, the Americans had apparently decided to tackle the source of the evil, i.e. the Saudi Wahhabism that they had supported themselves before.
Trump and his allies have turned a blind eye to MBS’s notorious behaviour which by opening the country to “emancipatory” Western ideas and certain financial benefits in the medium term, looked like promoting the “right path” of Saudi society first, then of the entire Umma, i.e. the Muslim world community, after that. A programme that is best to start by emancipating women. The woman as guardian of traditions needed to be able to contribute and to do this, the first and most obvious idea: unveil it. The Saudi woman should live according to the Western model, the American style of preference, libertine, and more spendthrift. From this perspective, the concept of the two-parent family (father, mother, children) that is protective, and guardian of moral values should be banned. It is true that women in these Middle East countries still live under the dictates of an oppressive, repressive, and reductive secular mentality due mainly to pre-Islamic ancestral practices rather than to the religious fact as divine precepts.
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