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Employment and Labor Relations in the MENA

Panel I-25, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • How does Israeli capitalism’s need for cheap, exploitable labor conflict with the state’s settler-colonial drive to create a homogenous ethno-state? Much of current scholarship on the history and nature of settler colonialism has tended to emphasize the “eliminationist” nature of settler-colonial projects, arguing that, whereas extractive colonial regimes have sought to control and exploit a captive colonial labor force, settler-colonial regimes have sought to eliminate and replace indigenous populations, freeing up land for settler occupation and labor. The experiences of the Palestinian citizens of Israel from the village of Jisr al-Zarqa complicate this neat typology, forcing us to re-consider our understanding of the relationship between capitalism and colonialism in settler-colonial contexts. Jisr al-Zarqa is the last remaining Palestinian fishing village within the Israeli state. Its survival is no accident: while the Alexandroni brigade was systematically ethnically cleansing the central Israeli coastline between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the leaders of the Jewish Zichron Yaakov settlement intervened to spare Jisr al-Zarqa and the nearby village of Fureidis from destruction. This was done not out of mere sympathetic altruism but to preserve the availability of low wage village laborers for settler capital. These laborers had both drained the nearby swamps in the early twentieth century (freeing up land for Jewish agricultural settlements) and provided necessary labor in settler farms. While the land surrounding Jisr al-Zarqa – once populated by other Palestinian villages – has been converted into wealthy Jewish kibbutzim and suburbs, the village itself remains one of the poorest municipalities in the country, with villagers continuing to play a dependent economic role for nearby Jewish communities as custodians, clerks, line chefs, sanitation workers, security guards, and other forms of precarious labor. My paper analyzes how these villagers’ lives have been shaped by the intersection between the Israeli state’s imperative for ethno-nationalist exclusion and the Israeli economy’s imperative for racial capitalist labor exploitation. I draw on a combination of archival research, oral history interviews, ethnographic observations, and political-economic mapping of Jisr al-Zarqa and the surrounding areas gathered during seventeen months of dissertation fieldwork between 2021 and 2023. I argue for more class-based analyses of Palestinian life within Israeli society in order for us to better understand not only how Palestinians are economically exploited under Israeli settler-colonialism but also how, given this exploitation, they continue to survive and strive for improved rights and living conditions.
  • The Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] region is the largest regional destination for temporary migrant workers across the Global South. Yet, despite over a half-century of temporary cross-border mobility and expansive bilateral and multilateral migration diplomacy engagements, GCC states have not become a major source of knowledge production on labor migration. In fact, researchers face a long-standing paucity of information on demographic, statistical, as well as legal and policy data on GCC labor migration. In this paper, we seek to understand how, and why, GCC states control knowledge production on migration. We draw on evidence from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including semi-structured interviews (N=20) with diverse stakeholders (state officials, GCC migration specialists, and international organization experts) as well as printed primary and secondary sources in Arabic and English. We identify a three-pronged strategy that GCC states have adopted to control knowledge production on labor migration, targeting the politics of terminology, the availability of information, and the financing of state and sub-state institutions. We rely on Foucauldian understandings of knowledge as operating through power networks in order to analyze how tight controls over knowledge production on cross-border mobility is not merely linked to GCC states’ securitization of labor migration; rather, it becomes part and parcel of a region-wide process of ensuring regime survival. Our paper marks a first attempt at linking labor migration and knowledge production in Middle East politics, as we seek to uncover the workings of the power/knowledge nexus in shaping labor migration across the GCC states.
  • Government employment is often assumed to be one of the pillars of state largess that perpetuates the rentier bargain in the petrol-rich Gulf states. However, recent reforms and attempts to transition to more sustainable models of economic growth have necessitated revisions to citizen expectations of near-universal job availability. Compared to their parents, university students graduating in today’s rentier state face steeper competition for jobs both from well-educated expatriates and an expanding pool of educated nationals. However, less is known about how young adults navigate these changing conditions and its implications for the stability of the broader “rentier bargain”. This paper examines the employment expectations and experiences of university students and recent graduates in the United Arab Emirates using in-depth qualitative interviews and survey experiments. It elucidates the relationship between joblessness and perceived inequality in order to better understand evolving state-society relations. Employment is discussed in relation to other state benefits in order to consider whether and how the extensive package of social welfare benefits afforded to citizens is adapting to compensate for employment uncertainty among youth, and how, in turn, such changes are affecting the perceived legitimacy of state leadership. The paper first uses qualitative research methods to provide an in-depth description of the complexities of state welfare system of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the perspective of young adults. In so doing, it pays attention to the difficulties faced by youth in accessing state welfare and their level of information about government benefits. In considering the lived experiences of youth and their relationship to the state, it moves the discussion of rentierism beyond the realm of political tautologies about taxation and representation to better understand mechanisms of autocratic cooptation. Secondly, drawing on Gengler et al 2021, the project uses a survey experiment to explore income- and class-based differences in young adult welfare preferences and expectations with respect to excludable and non-excludable government benefits. It focuses on employment as the state benefit that is arguably most relevant young adults. Fieldwork is scheduled for the spring 2023 semester. Thus, the paper will address a notable lacuna in the literature on authoritarian resilience using a multi-method approach to the understudied case of the UAE.
  • While the Oslo Accords did not lead to Palestinian independence, the establishment in 1994 of a Palestinian National Authority generated social processes that transformed Palestinian society in the OPT. In the absence of sovereignty and territorial continuity, and in the face of the perpetuation of Israeli military control and critical dependence on international donor assistance, the PNA could not have possibly turned the economic structure that persisted throughout the preceding epoch over its head. However, the formation of a government public sector and its emergence as prime employer, and the massive investment in the development of secondary and higher education considerably altered educational and occupational attributes of the population within a short time and opened channels for upper social mobility, which were denied to the residents of the OPT in the years 1967-1994. The formation of a public sector created a new category of government employees, comprising members of the security forces, professionals, and bureaucrats. They were recruited from two major pools: graduates of the fast-growing system of higher education and leaders from the OPT-based wing of the national movement, predominantly former political prisoners. These employees became the backbone of a nascent middle class. Indeed, the focus is on a new middle class because the conditions necessary for the realization of such class transformation did not exist in the first 27 years of the Israeli occupation, when a systematic policy of dispossession, non-development of infrastructure and services, and denial of civil and political rights all but blocked possibilities for upper mobility. However, the consolidation and further expansion of the emergent middle class were critically affected in the wake of Israel’s total retreat – since the collapse of the Oslo scheme in 2000 - from its onetime commitment to end the occupation, and the array of measures it implemented to thwart the feasibility of Palestinian statehood. My paper examines the contribution of the PNA to the emergence of a new middle class by focusing on major channels for upper mobility it advanced and assessing its changing capacity to maintain them over two distinct political eras: the Oslo years and the post-Oslo era up to 2017. It is based on findings from two research projects that engaged me over the past 15 years: a study of the expansion of higher education and the employment situation of university graduates in the OPT, and a socio-historical study on the movement of Palestinian political prisoners.