Slave Markets in Islamic Qatar- Legal Until 1952

Qatar’s New Slavery Museum

The museum’s second wing narrows from the broader Gulf to slavery in Qatar. Though sparsely populated and poor, Qatar’s coastal waters held some of the Gulf’s richest pearl beds, which formed the mainstay of the local economy. Through text and short films, the exhibit traces the source of the slaves (East African, mostly), their perilous transport by sea or (worse) overland, and the types of work they endured as domestic servants and pearl divers.

It is particularly courageous to speak honestly about the realities of pearling—an industry that, throughout the region, is shrouded in a sentimental, nostalgic narrative that nearly always neglects to mention the black bodies working on the boats.

The second wing of the exhibit closes with a powerful display on the path to abolition, the “Underground Railroad” to Bahrain, the formal end of slavery in 1952, and the integration of freed slaves into Qatari society. Particularly powerful is the collection of manumission documents issued by the British mission in Bahrain, providing first-person slave testimonies rich in historical detail.

QATAR IS A SMALL COUNTRY dominated by the Persian Gulf’s largest ruling family, the Al Thani. The amir, Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad Al Thani, is the country’s ruler, but his son, Shaykh Hamad ibn Khalifa Al Thani, in addition to being the heir apparent and minister of defense, wields considerable power in the day-to-day running of the country. The Al Thani regime tolerates no political opposition. The social mores of the country are shaped by a somewhat milder version of Wahhabi Islam than is found in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Women are permitted to drive if they obtain permits, for example, and non-Qatari women need not veil in public.

Qatar is a transit and destination country for men and women trafficked for the purposes of involuntary servitude and, to a lesser extent, commercial sexual exploitation. Men and women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and China voluntarily travel to Qatar as laborers and domestic servants, but some subsequently face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude. These conditions include threats of serious harm, including financial harm; job switching; withholding of pay; charging workers for benefits for which the employer is responsible; restrictions on freedom of movement, including the confiscation of passports and travel documents and the withholding of exit permits; arbitrary detention; threats of legal action and deportation; false charges; and physical, mental and sexual abuse. – U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2009

Qatar has a population of 800,000, the majority of whom are expatriate low-income workers in the energy and construction sectors.   Indian nationals represent the largest foreign community, followed by Filipinos and Nepalese. The three communities together total more than 400,000 people, according to unofficial estimates provided by the diplomatic missions here.

Qatar and Gulf immigration and labour policies require that migrants work under local sponsors, a measure which Qatari Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jabr Al Thani just two weeks ago compared to a form of slavery raising concerns in the local business community.






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