The rise of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is a now-familiar tale. Tiny societies of pearl divers, coastal merchants, and nomadic Bedouin were transformed in the last half of the 20th century by oil and natural-gas wealth. Sparkling office towers and hotels sprang into the muggy air, the monarchs that rule these tiny emirates became bywords for financial excess, and newspapers described the region's economic "miracle."
Now, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to polish all that glitter, spending hundreds of millions on universities in association with the likes of Harvard and on museums with organizations like France's famed Louvre.
But as they do so, one fact about their astonishing economic success has remained largely unchanged: The vast majority of the workers who have built these states are foreigners who are often exploited, rarely protected by local laws, and frequently return home after years of work as poor as when they got here. Promises have been made in recent years to protect the migrants, but labor advocates say millions are still being abused.
"It's breathtaking hypocrisy," says Azfar Khan, with the International Labor Organization (ILO). "They flout the most basic laws protecting the rights of workers."
Tiny Qatar is just one of the examples. The leading exporter of liquid natural gas is smaller than Connecticut, but state-funded Al Jazeera News is a powerful regional voice, and Education City, built in association with Georgetown, Northwestern, and four other US universities, is seen as a beacon of progress for the Arab world.
But not far from the futuristic campus, Rajan Sapkota and many like him are working in conditions that activists liken to indentured servitude.
The young Nepali shares a room with nine of his countrymen. More than 140 Nepali laborers have died in Qatar this year, according to the Safety Awareness Center, which tracks deaths among Nepalis. And in a country where the average wage for citizens is $83,000 per year, the world's highest, according to the International Monetary Fund, he is paid about 60 cents an hour. Mr. Sapkota can't quit or leave as his boss has taken his passport. "Work here is not so good," said Sapkota, his eyes heavy-lidded after a 12-hour workday in 116-degree F. heat. "Sometimes we get tired and thirsty; it is very hot here."
Because it is illegal in these countries to consume food or water in public during daylight hours during Ramadan, construction workers are compelled to fast, to a certain extent.
The number of expatriate workers in the Gulf has nearly doubled, from close to 9 million in 1990 to 17 million today. In Qatar and the UAE, foreign workers are more than 90 percent of the workforce.
In recent years, workers in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE have protested conditions, with many complaints stemming from the system of kafallah: Foreign workers are often sponsored by an employer and are barred from changing jobs, leaving the country, or renting a home without his approval. A 2009 State Department report said the law leads to "forced labor activities and slave-like conditions."
Qatar has created the National Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons and boosted labor camp inspections. The UAE moved to improve conditions and Kuwait announced a reform of labor laws. Yet Kuwait's new minimum wage for laborers of about $209 per month excludes 500,000-plus domestic workers.
"Reforms often encounter stiff resistance from employers fearing higher costs and fewer entitlements, labor brokers profiting off a poorly regulated system, and government officials who view migrants as a security threat," Human Rights Watch wrote in May.
"We must ensure that the laws are enforced strictly and fairly," says Hasan al-Mohannadi, head of Qatar's Permanent Population Committee. Yet Qatari sponsors still hold workers' passports, despite a prohibition, and laborers regularly work more than the legal limit of 10 hours a day.
"The UAE and Qatar have definitely regressed," says the ILO's Mr. Khan.
For Nepalis in Qatar, the situation is bleak. Most take high-interest loans to pay a recruiter $2,000 for a visa and a job. For Bharat Bika, a father of four, his $216 monthly salary is inadequate. "It is so difficult to pay my loan," said Bika, who still owes more than $1,400 after a year. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it."
Thousands of workers in the UAE have gone unpaid for six months or more because indebted employers fled the country. In Kuwait, activists say worker suicides are common. In Qatar, activists say deaths among the migrant Nepali workforce are rising. "They do not have enough doctors and the health care is extremely poor," said Radha Krishna Deo, president of the Safety Awareness Center.
Qatar says it plans to build three clinics and two health centers for male laborers. "They have health problems that are difficult to address and they impose problems with their huge demand on hospitals here," said Jamal Khanji, of the Supreme Council of Health. Yet Qatar's progressive reputation may suffer as abuses continue and the worker population grows. "The world community has to bring pressure on the governments to redress the situation," said Khan.
"You can only fool people so many times."