After a Kuwaiti actress called for migrants with Covid-19 to be thrown into the desert, an Emirati poet defended her by saying she meant Asians and not Arab migrants, sparking outrage across the region.
A series of public outbursts by Arab celebrities in the Gulf has sparked debate about the treatment of expatriate workers in the region.
The scandal began early in April when Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al Fahad launched an angry tirade targeted at workers in the country who might be suffering from the disease.
Telling a TV show that she was “fed up”, Fahad argued that migrants who get the virus should be “put into the desert” to free up hospital spaces for Kuwaiti nationals, who make up 1.3 million of the country’s 4.5 million strong population.
Kuwait was one of the first countries to respond to the emerging pandemic in early March, suspending flights into the state and restricting its border. It currently has just over 1,500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which have resulted in three deaths.
Fahad’s tirade was heavily criticised on Twitter, including by fellow Kuwaitis.
“Wow... Hayat Al Fahad needs to have a word with herself. What a moronic and heartless thing to say. Kuwait pretty much runs on expatriate labour,” wrote one Twitter user.
Nevertheless, not content to let the controversy peter out, an Emirati poet came to her defense.
In a video post seeking to clarify Fahad’s comments, Tariq al Mehyas said: “Do you expect us in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or the Emirates to equate a Bengali worker with an Egyptian worker? God forbid.”
The video created an even larger controversy than Fahad’s original clip, sparking widespread condemnation including from fellow Emiratis.
Mehyas sought to further clarify that he was not a racist by explaining that his maid was Asian.
The incident led to Emirati authorities issuing an arrest order for Mehyas, later detaining him for “racist comments”.
The country’s state run news agency, WAM, quoted an Emirati official who “asked people not to sow seeds of division among people in the name of ethnicity, religion, language or gender.”
Built on expatriate labour
Kuwait and the UAE, like the rest of the Gulf region owe their development to the efforts of expatriate workers, mainly from South Asia.
With the exception of Saudi Arabia and Oman, migrants make up the majority of the population in Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
While the migrant population ranges from billionaires to street sanitation workers, the region has earned notoriety for its treatment of workers.
Many are poorly paid, work long hours in excruciatingly high temperatures, have no access to labour unions, and are restricted by the kafala system, through which their status in a country is tied to their employer thereby giving managers a massive level of control over their movement in and out of the country.
Some countries such as the UAE and Qatar are working towards abolishing or reforming the kafala system, to allow greater flexibility for expatriates.
Many Filipina workers in the Gulf say they're suffering inhumane living conditions from working 21 hours straight to sleeping in a room without windows to being prevented from calling home. Philippine President Duterte has vowed to take action pic.twitter.com/LcNEBXWWac— TRT World (@trtworld) March 4, 2018
Amnesty accusations against Qatar
Besides the scandal stemming from Fahad’s comments, the other major controversy in the Gulf has been over the deportation of Nepali workers by Qatar earlier in March.
Rights group Amnesty accuses Doha of using the offer of a Covid-19 test as the pretext to detain and deport hundreds of workers from Nepal.
“None of the men we spoke to had received any explanation for why they were treated this way, nor were they able to challenge their detention or expulsion,” said Amnesty’s Steve Cockburn.
Qatar vehemently rejected the accusation, explaining that the men were instead deported for participation in ‘illegal activity’.
“Qatar made clear to Amnesty International why certain workers were repatriated: During routine inspections as part of the government’s Coronavirus control measures, officials uncovered individuals engaged in illegal and illicit activity,” a statement by the country’s foreign ministry said, explaining further that:
“This included the manufacture and sale of banned and prohibited substances, along with the sale of dangerous food goods that could seriously threaten the health of people if consumed.”