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Western hypocrisy is real — and the Gulf benefits
The fact that Qatar and the UAE can put human rights critics on the defensive shows what a favored position they have.
Last week, Human Rights Watch put out a very reasonable and true article. It argues that criticizing Qatar’s human rights record is not racist. On the contrary, Qatar and the rest of the Persian Gulf monarchies rely on a “racialized labor governance system” that deserves to be criticized by antiracists.
The fact that such an article had to be written is shocking. Most of the time, the idea that human rights criticism is racist gets laughed out of the room. Yet the Gulf states have been able to argue that they are being targeted by Western hypocrites who don’t want to see a Muslim or Arab state succeed. This idea has caught on enough in the English-language press that respectable human rights organizations feel the need to defend themselves.
The World Cup in Qatar has brought a torrent of criticism for Qatar’s labor regime and lack of LGBT rights. Qatari leaders have lashed out, calling the criticism racist and even a form of “media terrorism.” The criticism has united the Gulf states in defense of petro-feudalism. For example, a mouthpiece of Qatari’s archrival, the United Arab Emirates:
The Western hypocrisy is real. It’s just that the Gulf states are ones who benefit.
Ever since American and European politicians started talking about “human rights,” governments facing criticism have shot back with accusations of bigotry and double standards. Why is it that you privileged do-gooders are looking at our faults so closely? Is it because you hate our skin color or our way of life?
For example, here’s a thread of old South African propaganda complaining that Apartheid is unfairly singled out, and the antiracists are the real racists:
When it comes to official enemies, such claims are not taken very seriously. Russia’s concerns about “Russophobia” and Iran’s anticolonial rhetoric are treated as laughable in the English-language press. Concerns about “Sinophobia” got a little more traction, but only because they coincided with very real domestic concern about racist anti-Asian violence.
In any case, Human Rights Watch didn’t feel the need to explain that its work on Ukrainian, Baluch, or Uyghur rights is non-racist.
When it comes to U.S. allies and partners, American decision-makers are much more sensitive. Even sitcom writers know it:
U.S. client states in the Middle East have spent a lot of money to make sure their concerns are respected. Because of their friendly relationship with Washington, they can hire lobbyists, fund academic institutions, and dangle cushy jobs in front of politicians and journalists. Those who have never taken money from Qatar or the UAE still have to maintain working relationships with the Serious and Respectable figures in the field who have.
Where does that friendly relationship come from? The fact that these states host tens of thousands of American troops and buy billions of dollars in American weapons. Why are those troops and weapons there? If you ask many American policymakers, the goal is to secure Israel’s position and protect the flow of trade through the Gulf.
In theory, it’s often talked about in terms of “deterring Iran.” In practice, this protection means helping bomb and arrest a lot of Arabs in the Gulf’s poorer neighbors. And it allows the Gulf states to exploit Muslims around the world, from Bangladeshi workers to Sudanese child soldiers.
By the way, the labor system in the Gulf has a lot to do with the U.S. military presence.
The U.S. Navy has long hired Filipino workers as cheap labor, a practice dating back to the American colonization of the Philippines a century ago. The combination of the post-1970s oil boom and growth of U.S. bases in the Middle East brought those old labor recruitment networks to Arab countries, where having a Filipina maid is now a major status symbol.
To put it bluntly: there is a colonial pyramid, and someone like Abdulkhaleq is sitting pretty damn near the top.