Gulf slave society

Are the Persian Gulf city-states slave societies? | Aeon Essays
Migrant construction workers sleep on the floor in Dubai in 2012. Photo by Jonas Bendickson/Magnum

The glittering city-states of the Persian Gulf fit the classicist Moses Finley’s criteria of genuine slave societies

by Bernard Freamon, adjunct professor at New York University School of Law and emeritus professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. He is the organiser of a website on the Islamic law on slavery, His most recent book is Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures (2019). He lives in New York City.

Edited by Sam Haselby

The six city-states on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, each formerly a sleepy, pristine fishing village, are now all glitzy and futuristic wonderlands. In each of these city-states one finds large tracts of ultramodern architecture, gleaming skyscrapers, world-class air-conditioned retail markets and malls, buzzing highways, giant, busy and efficient airports and seaports, luxury tourist attractions, game parks, children’s playgrounds, museums, gorgeous beachfront hotels and vast, opulent villas housing fabulously affluent denizens. The six city-states ­– Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Manama in Bahrain, Dammam in Saudi Arabia, Doha in Qatar, and Kuwait City in Kuwait ­– grew into these luminous metropolises beginning in the 1970s, fuelled by the discovery of oil and gas, an oligarchic accumulation of wealth, and unconditional grants of political independence from the United Kingdom, the former colonial master of the region. Thereafter, the family-run polities that took control of these city-states began to attract huge amounts of financial capital from all over the world. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, has been described as ‘the richest city in the world’, with wealth rivalling that seen in Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai. Like those cities, Abu Dhabi is swimming in over-the-top affluence. According to a 2007 report in Fortune magazine, Abu Dhabi’s 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one-tenth of the planet’s oil and have almost $1 trillion invested abroad, are worth about $17 million apiece’.

The Persian Gulf has a venerable history, stretching back to ancient times. It has always been a cosmopolitan and diverse centre of wealth and commerce. For nearly 1,000 years, Dilmun, a Bronze Age Arabian polity based in what is today Bahrain, controlled the trading routes between ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus river valley. During the Abbasid caliphate, a 500-year-long Islamic empire based in Baghdad, mercantile entities in Basra and al-Ubulla, at the head of the Gulf, dominated trade and commercial links with East Africa, Egypt, India, Southeast Asia and China. One could buy anything in this trade, including giraffes, elephants, precious pearls, silk, spices, gemstones and very expensive Chinese porcelain. Omani Arabs, who periodically controlled the maritime entrance to the Gulf at the Strait of Hormuz, were known as the ‘Bedouins of the Sea’. They came to control the trading routes with East Africa, transporting spices, precious stones and many other luxury commodities.

Slavery and slave trading formed a major part of this commercial history, particularly after the advent of Islam. Africans, Baluchis, Iranians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Southeast Asians and others from the Indian Ocean littoral were steadily and involuntarily transported into the Gulf in increasingly large numbers, for work as domestic servants, date harvesters, seamen, stone masons, pearl divers, concubines, guards, agricultural workers, labourers, and caretakers of livestock. Historians have noted that there was a great upsurge of slave trading into the region in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the heyday of the Indian Ocean slave trade. Many Persian Gulf families became very wealthy as a result of this upsurge. This is the backdrop for what turns out to be a very ugly and sad aspect of the spectacular rise of contemporary social orders in the six Gulf city-states. Each is an example, and perhaps the only examples existing in the world today, of what the sociologist Moses Finley (1912-86) called a ‘genuine slave society’.

Finley is one of the most important scholars of slavery. His book Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980) has had a profound effect on how scholars across the social sciences understand and study slavery. He argued that the slave, in contrast with the ordinary labourer, is an income-producing commodity – a species of property to be bought, sold, traded, leased, mortgaged, gifted and even destroyed, like other commodities – and this special status permitted exploitation of the slave in ways that were unique and central features of many societies. He divided these societies into two categories: those societies that could be described as ‘societies with slaves’ and those that he described as ‘genuine slave societies’, that is, those where slavery was an essential aspect of the society’s self-definition…


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