Labor of Faith: Migrant Work and Exploitation in Makkah



On average, Saudi Arabia deported 2,000 people every day for five months in 2015. It targeted Yemeni workers, while simultaneously leading a military campaign against Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. Using internationally-banned cluster munitions, it attacked hospitals and schools, killing over 2,100 people between March and July 2015 alone.

I returned to Makkah during this period. Born in Sri Lanka, I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia. My childhood had been filled weekends in Makkah, cowed by the poverty that so thickly ringed its lush central mosque. Now, the beggars were gone, but I had not forgotten how the street cleaners, gaunt inside their uniforms, had also used to beg for food, money, water. I returned to a city whose streets overflowed with construction workers, their backs wizened under the weight of Makkah’s explosive gentrification.

And no one was begging. I wondered how the state had managed to disappear all the city’s most indigent residents. Pilgrims gave the silent workers money anyway, their burnt eyes and leathering skin speaking loudly enough about their working conditions. The workers would receive the paper bills with little comment, as though knowing they, like the city’s swelling broods of pigeons, were the rightful recipients of the worshippers’ charity, quietly accepting the pilgrims’ unspoken prayer that these small charities, smilingly given and in passing, might compensate for the monstrosity of the city’s extreme contradictions.

Migrant work here is about as old as the country itself: Saudi Arabia was just six years old when the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company hit oil in 1938. Now Saudi-owned and called Aramco, it is the world’s most valuable company (an estimated $10 trillion USD). By 2013, migrant workers accounted for roughly two thirds of kingdom’s working population.
Despite the country’s reliance on them — or because of it — migrant workers from the Global South, particularly domestic workers and laborers, are deeply oppressed.

Much of this exploitation is established in law: foreign workers are permitted to reside in Saudi Arabia only when sponsored by a Saudi employer. Workers cannot change their jobs or leave the country without written approval from their employers. Otherwise, they can be imprisoned, fined, or deported.

This, the kafala system, is not unique. Countries with similar programs include Qatar, where mass workplace deaths led to global outcry over FIFA’s decision to host the 2022 World Cup there. Western analogues include Canada, with its controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a “North-South” parallel that remains under-studied.

In these labor systems, it is easy for employers to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force work. Workers globally have described this as indentured labor, replete with food deprivation, sexual abuse, torture, and death.

With this labor, Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, has mushroomed, while its surrounding neighborhoods have thickened with skyscraper hotels and designer malls, looking like a crescent-topped homage to that other famous neon desert city, Las Vegas. Meanwhile, though the king who holds the honorific title, “Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques” (he conducts a ceremonial cleansing of the Ka’abah twice a year), the job of the actual custodians of the mosque, both male and female, is considerably more arduous: construction rages around the mosque, debris and flotsam afloat in the air, caught in our lungs, trailing our robes.

The mosque’s most recent expansion commenced in 2015, so that on my return, we shared the mosque with the machineries of construction as much as we did with other worshippers. Whole zones had been cordoned off, the air heavy with the din and the dust of the cranes that curved high over us at every turn. A few months after my trip, one of those cranes would kill over a hundred people and send thousands of others on strike.

Worker strikes are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia, but because of violent state suppression of local worker organizing when it was first emergent, it is migrants who now carry the mantle of worker resistance. Saudi Arabia saw its first documented strike in Ramadan 1942, when 2,000 Saudi construction workers gathered to demand a shorter work day: they were fasting, but had been made to work 10 to 11 hours a day. In response, 25 leaders were beaten and imprisoned for a year.

As described in Robert Vitalis’ ground-breaking historiography, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, the next 15 years marked a critical epoch in Saudi worker resistance. Non-white workers at Aramco led the charge with their protests of Aramco’s Jim Crow-derived employment policies. Aramco’s racial hierarchy found Saudi workers at the very bottom and white Americans at top (Aramco did not hire Black Americans), with a segregated gradation of international workers in between. While Americans enjoyed pools, Saudi workers were denied equal pay or clean housing. Their resistance was sustained, furious, and in crucial ways, multifaceted: in 1956, Saudi workers demanded the closure of the American Air Force base in Dhahran.

But the nascent movement was neither internationalist nor cross-racial. Those strike leaders who could be deported, were. They faced forcible returned to Iran, Egypt, Sudan, and the many other countries from which they hailed. In any event, Saudi workers implicated themselves in the same racist logics they protested. This was evident even in the last large labor strike by Saudi workers in Saudi history. On June 14, 1956, Saudi workers convened to protest that Pakistani and Palestinian workers had recently been given cinema privileges, previously available only to Americans. Chanting “Down with Pakistanis! They are Jews and friends of Jews,” Saudi workers demanded entry.

But a few days earlier, a smaller Saudi demonstration had briefly intercepted King Saud on his way to an Aramco banquet. Enraged that he had been embarrassed in front of Westerners, the king had passed a royal decree forbidding all strikes and demonstrations, punishable by two years in prison. The men amassed outside the theatre did not know about the very new law. There were hundreds of them, hopeful that access to a theatre might mean access to schools and buses. Police were deployed, and they fought until the small hours of the night. Dawn broke on a Friday. After jummah prayers, ten alleged strike leaders were dragged out, whipped 100 times each, and jailed, where they were tortured, some to death. One was 13 years old.

The brutality marked the end of an era in Saudi activism. The resurgence of popular movements since then has been stymied by, among other things, Western states knowingly supporting Saudi state repression of domestic dissent. Canada’s “sunny” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who denounced previous PM Stephen Harper for a pending $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia — approved the sale when elected to power in 2015. Trudeau defended the deal even after Saudi activists managed to leak footage of the Saudi regime using identical arms (vehicles equipped with machine guns) to crush internal civilian dissent.

Meanwhile, on the 15th anniversary of that other 9/11, one of the cranes arching over the Grand Mosque, weighing 1,350 tons, toppled over. With a death toll of 111 people, it was the deadliest crane collapse in modern history. (The world’s last deadly crane accident killed seven people in New York in 2008.) In response to sanctions by Saudi officials, the Binladin Group, the overseeing construction company and one of the biggest in the Middle East, fired as many as 77,000 migrant workers, rendering them deportable.

During trial, it was revealed the Binladin Group had known how dangerous it was to have so many cranes so close to the crowded mosque. In May 2016, workers staged protests in both Makkah and Jeddah over the layoffs and months of unpaid wages, even setting seven company buses on fire. Their demands echoed those of so many other migrants working in so many other sectors in Saudi Arabia: pay, safety, dignity, justice.

In October 2016, Saudi Arabia released $1 billion in to Bin Laden to honor the unpaid wages, as other protests by other workers raged elsewhere in the country. Race and poverty are the mortar that holds together the marble and gold of the Muslim world’s holiest city. It is these migrants and these workers, often illegalized and like of us all struggling with the messy politics of solidarity, who maintain the fire of resistance in that country. Any account of Saudi history has to be an account of their bravery and their subjugation, and a rallying call to their support.