From Pearl Traders to Saadiyat Construction Workers: A History of Labor in the UAE

The Arabian Gulf and the UAE in particular have a diverse workforce that predates the modern resource-based economy. Connections with India in the ...

Mar 15, 2014

The Arabian Gulf and the UAE in particular have a diverse workforce that predates the modern resource-based economy. Connections with India in the East, the Arab world in the North and Arica in the West have been important in developing a multinational labor force.
Immigration to what is now the UAE can be viewed in three significant waves. The pearl trade was the initial pull, followed by the development of Dubai as the premier trading port in the southeast of the Arabian Gulf. Due to geopolitical factors such as the influence of Russia on Persia, British control over sea trade in the region and the greater cost of trading through Iran, Dubai was able to become wealthy, capitalizing on trade to and from India. The final wave of immigrant workers is connected to the current oil boom and the rapid expansion of the cities in the UAE.
The initial influx of workers included Arabs living in Persia and merchants from India. Similar to today, many of these migrants came to the UAE with little money, hoping to catch some of the wealth that was being created through the pearling and its related industries. These migrants often filled jobs that the indigenous Bedouin tribes were unwilling or unable to do. These sideline occupations included blacksmithing, clerical work and trading. Most of the boats used for pearl diving were owned by local families who were more interested in maintaining their date palm plantations in the oases in the interior of the UAE. With such a focus on the geographical interior, coastal life, where most money was being made, was largely made up of migrant workers from the surrounding region.
Another similarity with the contemporary labor market was the delineation of professions by ethnicity. Persian Arabs from across the Gulf were involved in semi-professional work. In Abu Dhabi’s souq, for example, this group owned 40 out of the 70 stalls. Merchants from India were more often traders, buying the pearls and selling them to the rest of the world while importing sugar, cloth, rice and coffee. Slaves from Africa made up the majority of the pearl divers. These roles shifted somewhat after the collapse of the pearl market. Merchants traders shifted their focus to the entrepôt trade, and Dubai in particular became an import-export hub.
Socially, the separation of migrant groups in the past was somewhat more accentuated than it is today. The status accorded to different groups still depended on their nationality. Many of the Indian merchants in the pearling era came from a very particular region and thus developed an inward-looking community. What also separated the Indian population from the immigrant-Arab and indigenous populations was the fact that they continued to be British subjects; the mere suggestion of a threat to this group was enough to bring a British man-of-war into the port. The connections that these merchants had with wider communities also allowed them to lend money more easily; however, they had little leverage to exert when debts were not being paid back.
Religion was another factor to account for the difference between groups. Indian merchants, being Hindu, were not integrated into the other groups because of their religion. Additionally, differences among Muslims, for example between Sunni and Shiite, were less divisive than they are today. Furthermore, despite being economically integrated, migrants were not only socially but also legally excluded. The perpetration of crimes, or even the plotting of crimes, would be enough for rulers to expel them.
While many similarities remain between the pre- and post-oil periods, the global reach of the UAE in recruiting individuals to make up its labor force has extended. According to Frauke Heard-Bey in “From Trucial States to the United Arab Emirates,” instead of drawing from the immediate region, the UAE is now comprised of individuals from almost all countries.
Connor Pearce is the opinion editor. Email him at
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