Corruption in resource rich states and the question of citizenship

By Ryan McCarrel, University College Dublin

Construction workers at the Burj Dubai construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Construction workers at the Burj Dubai construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Photo credit: LoverofDubai

A recent article in The Nation, by Ursula Lindsey, highlights the absurd double-standards confronting millions of migrant construction workers in the Gulf States, mostly from India and Nepal, and the predominantly western corporations and universities that stand to benefit from the completion of multi-billion dollar mega-projects they build (The Nation, 2015). As Ursula adroitly points out, one $27 billion geo-engineering project, in particular, is currently underway in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Abu Dhabi, where “the average monthly pay of one of the workers employed to build Saadiyat [the island] is $177,” while “the salary of Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was nearly $760,000.” The Guggenheim Foundation is just one of many western beneficiaries of the project that, when completed in 2020, will feature a 322,917 square foot branch of the museum and a New York University Abu Dhabi campus.

Abu Dhabi is by no means alone when it comes to the exploitation of workers and the construction of major projects financed almost exclusively from oil wealth. Host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, is spending nearly $200 billion in preparation for the sporting event (Guardian, 2015). There too, predominantly foreign workers suffer from poor pay and living conditions. Yet, despite reports of abuses and increasing pressure from non-profits and human rights organizations, the international community continues to widely perceive oil financed mega-projects like these throughout the in the Gulf States as legitimate, or at the very least, legal (Andrew, 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2015). In contrast, similar construction projects that dot the capitals of Central Asia are regularly cited as examples of high-level corruption by abusive state-oligarchs that use the projects to launder oil money and buy off state elites.

One question to ask, is what makes projects like those in the Gulf States seemingly legitimate in the eyes of the international community, while other projects in the capital cities of Central Asian states like Baku in Azerbaijan and Astana in Kazakhstan, are widely perceived as illegal and corrupt? This is precisely what Natalie Koch asks in a new article published in the journal Area, titled ‘Exploring divergences in comparative research: citizenship regimes and the spectacular cities if Central Asia and the GCC’ (Koch, 2015). In the article, she hypothesizes that the “discrepancy…can only be explained by considering the differences between Central Asian and the Gulf States’ demographic, territorial and political-economic configurations” and in particular, how “the concept of citizenship and its escorts, legality and illegality” influence the perception of legitimacy in the international community (Koch, 2015: 439).

Koch argues that the large influx of migrant workers in the Gulf States has led to the development of a clear class structure. One where a proportionally small number of citizens handsomely benefit resource wealth that oil has begot, while the same redistribution of wealth is explicitly denied to foreign workers through a variety of legal and social mechanisms – most important of which is citizenship itself. In contrast, citizens in Central Asian states with abundant oil wealth do not necessarily share in the spoils of natural resource abundance. Rather, in theses states, elites capture the wealth, only redistributing it to a select few through construction projects and monopolies, and do so only in order to maintain power.

“The most important point, though” is that the way the Gulf States redistribute oil rents is “deemed legal and appropriate because of the way they understand who is legally entitled to state resources on the basis of the official citizenship regime,” while, because access to wealth for citizens in Central Asian states is limited, there rents are deemed corrupt (Koch, 439). Koch concludes, that in resource-rich states, it is “of central importance to ask who is understood to have a legitimate and legal claim to natural resource revenues – and who is excluded” (Koch 2015: 441).

Questions like theses take on greater significance as resource rich states continue to seek international legitimacy by billing themselves as attractive tourist destinations and by hosting major world sporting events, like Azerbaijan’s European Games in 2015, the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the upcoming World Cups in 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar. It would seem that understanding wealth redistribution regimes  as ‘ legitimate’ or not based on citizenship alone is one way of exploiting workers while conspicuously avoiding international scrutiny.

60-world2 Qatar: New Reforms Won’t Protect Migrant Workers. Retrieved November 16, 2015.

60-world2 Booth, R. (2015, November 14). “We will be ready, inshallah”: inside Qatar’s $200bn World Cup. The Guardian.

books_icon Koch, N. (2015). Exploring divergences in comparative research: citizenship regimes and the spectacular cities of Central Asia and the GCC: Exploring divergences in comparative research. Area, 47(4), 436–442. http://doi.org/10.1111/area.12210

60-world2 Ross, A., & Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. (2015). The Gulf: high culture, hard labor.

60-world2 Standing Up for Migrant Workers in the Gulf, 1 Installation at a Time. (n.d.). The Nation.