Capitalism and Islam are twin parasites in the ‘Arab states’ – but workers are fighting back hard reports John Shute
The Gulf city-state of Dubai is, according to recent estimates, the fastest-growing city on earth, and is, after Shanghai, certainly the world’s biggest building site. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, a multibillionaire, intends Dubai to be a fantasy island catering to every taste - a hyper-Las Vegas, with underwater hotels, chains of theme parks and Burj Dubai, planned to be the world’s tallest building.
The Middle East is awash with money right now, as, post –9/11, Middle Eastern investors abandon the West and bring their dollars home. The Saudis have already repatriated one third of their trillion dollar overseas portfolio, with at least $7 billion invested in Dubai, and oil wealth from the United Arab Emirates is cast around the region in search of profit.
Dubai is, on one view, a stand-alone dreamworld in the Middle East, intended as an Arab Cayman Islands. Equally, though, in its attitude to labour rights and its super-exploitation of migrant labour, it has much in common with its neighbours. Trade unions and strike action are illegal and the majority of the workforce are South Asian contract labourers. In 2003, Human Rights Watch described the Emirates as “building prosperity from forced labour.” Asian workers have their passports and visas confiscated by recruitment agents and are crowded eight-to-twelve in squalid rooms in labour camps on the outskirts of cities. That pattern of exploitation is mirrored throughout the region.
There is an economic boom in Saudi Arabia, attracting foreign investment to the country. The fact that trade unions and strikes are prohibited doubtless increases the attraction for investors. Migrant workers constitute almost two-thirds of the workforce and hold over 90% of private sector jobs.
Migrants have to have a sponsor - an employer - to be allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, and have to hand over their passports to sponsors, and cannot change jobs. In Egypt a similar situation exists.
Most workers in Egypt have the right, in theory, to form and join a trade union, provided at least 50 workers in an enterprise request the right to organise. All trade unions are required to belong to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the sole legally recognised trade union centre. The ETUF is effectively the labour arm of the ruling National Democratic Party, hence independent trade unions are not able to organise legally in Egypt. The ETUF must approve a strike for it to be legal.
Strikes are prohibited in the “strategic or vital establishments where interrupting the work therein will result in disturbing national security or the basic services provided by them to the citizens.” It is up to the Prime Minister to define these establishments by means of a decree. The Egyptian state is not slow either to use the full force available to it to repress independent labour organisation. In March 2004 a thousand troops prevented an engineers’ protest about restrictions on union organising. In October 2004 the police besieged the Abou Tartour Phosphate Mines to force striking miners back to work.
It would be a mistake to believe that such repression is common only to those Middle Eastern states which are the regional clients of Western imperialism. The “Islamic Republic” of Iran, the product of a grassroots revolution in 1979, wasted no time in crushing independent labour and neighbourhood self-organisation.
The independent trade union movement had been suppressed by the Shah since the coup of 1953. In the years of the revolution Iran was alive with workers councils, neighbourhood co-ordinating groups, and organised squatter campaigns, with the oil workers to the fore. The Islamic leaders sought to portray their decapitation of the revolution as part of the inqilab-I-mustaz’afin –the revolution of the downtrodden. In fact the Islamic state has suppressed the independent organisation of the working class, and used the “defence of the Revolution” to deflect anger at its betrayals of the poor.
Thus, variously, Iraq and the “Satanic West” have been used to portray an external threat to the “Revolution” as a means of suppressing internal dissent. Despite consistent repression, the Committee in Pursuit of Free Labour Organisations continues to fight for working class self-organisation in Iran against the state-lackeys of the Islamic Labour Councils. Violent attacks on independent trade unions are commonplace in Iran, with the recent assaults and imprisonments of bus drivers in Tehran being only the most recent.
The wealth of the Middle East bourgeoisie is founded on both the resources of the region - principally oil - and the super-exploitation of both native and migrant labour. The region is a giant sweat-shop with basic trade union rights crushed into the sand.
It is worth noting that those “heralds of democracy” – the US/UK invaders in Iraq -have failed to include the right to workplace organisation as part of the “democratic” package.
The oil policy foisted on Iraq will hand control of oil development over to foreign companies through production sharing agreements. At least 64% of Iraq’s oil fields will be allocated for development by multinational oil companies, in the interests of international capital and US/UK energy security.
Meanwhile the Iraqi people are left without reliable water or electrical services, collapsing transport infrastructure and sanitation. For Iraqi workers, the labour laws of the B a’athist state have been replaced by complete deregulation - with those still in work left unpaid for weeks on end. Contractors working in Iraq, including Halliburton Corp, have brought tens of thousands of migrant workers to Iraq from impoverished countries such as Nepal, the Phillipines and Bangladesh to carry out menial jobs. The US military requires that contractors hire migrant workers to work at bases to avoid the possibility of insurgent infiltration.
All rhetoric aside, the situation of the Iraqi working-class shows a common class interest shared by the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish elites and the US/UK invaders. This is reflected across the region. Whether pro-Western or Islamic, the Middle East states function through the repression of working class self-organisation and exploitation of labour in the interests of both national and foreign capital.
The dawning recognition of this allows the possibility of organising class-based resistance both to imperialism and national capital. In Gaza, Independent Workers Commitees have formed to challenge the Palestinian Authority (PA) and demand the exemption from school registration fees for the children of workers and the unemployed; establishment of a social solidarity fund for the systematic payment of unemployment compensation; the cancellation of utility debts owed by the poor; free health insurance to workers and the unemployed; regulation of the Palestinian Authority’s distribution of temporary jobs; free elections to the General Union of Palestinian Workers.
The Independent Workers Committees have learned through the establishment of the PA and the use of PA police to suppress demonstrations by the unemployed that those who sacrificed the most during the intifada have gained the least from the PA. The fight for working class self-organisation should be seen as essential to the drive to remove the US/UK imperialists from the region - the national ruling classes have more to gain from the presence of foreign capital and foreign arms than from their departure.
Across the region, there is a coalition of interests which stretches from the Islamic Republic of Iran, via the Halliburton courtiers in Iraq to the playboys of the Emirates-focused on the exploitation and repression of the working class. James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute recently warned that the 10 million foreign workers in the region formed a “time bomb waiting to explode”.
Any struggle for working class self-organisation across the region has to extend to fighting for equal rights for the guest worker underclass, a network of solidarity and resistance which extends between all of the workers of the region-from oil workers in Iran to Sri Lankan maids in Dubai. For revolutionaries in the West, it is important to avoid getting sucked into the morass of debates around secularism vrs militant Islam, as if there were a pure legacy of the Enlightenment wherein individual rights and the separation of church and state were the products of bourgeois thought rather than gains of political struggle.
Political Islam is the form militant nationalism takes following the collapse of Stalinism and secular nationalism. The rhetoric of the mullahs serves to hide the inability of political Islam to either deliver social justice in the Islamic Republic of Iran or fight for it elsewhere. Our role is to deliver militant solidarity to those in the region who seek to combine the fight for social justice with the fight against imperialism, through the self-organisation of the working class in the Middle East.