Within the Middle East, why does slavery affect separate state economies differently?

Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett

The goal for this research is to unearth the precise sectors of economy that slavery has affected and compare it across states within the Middle Eastern region in order to highlight the differences between the impact of slavery from one state to another. Since slavery has been discouraged after its abolition, the trading and selling of people are hidden from the eyes of government and flourish the illicit market. With the increase in globalization, international crime prospers and creates channels for trafficking. This research will expose to what extent the state has become dependent on the labor of slaves and their cost-effectiveness.

Scholarly Overview

Currently there are 27 million slaves in the world, which is the “largest number of individuals ever enslaved at one time.” In this context, slavery can be defined as the social and economic exploitation of an individual. Slavery throughout the world has increased within the last thirty to forty years due to the increase of migration that is directly related to globalization. Globalization caused an increase in the economic gap between developed states and developing states. This correlates to slavery because “the rapid change in the global economy…has increased the poverty and vulnerability of large parts of the population of the developing world.” Additionally, the increased urbanization due to globalization causes those from the rural areas to flood to the urban areas to find work, sometimes causing them to look outside their country.

Within the Middle East, there is a contrast in economic prosperity. Some countries within the region are economically thriving while others are hanging by a thin thread. Slavery reaps its benefits more so through the local economy than for the global economy, which encourages individual countries to take advantage of the cost-effective labor. In Kuwait, two-thirds of its population are foreign workers and in the United Arab Emirates that number is even higher. And yet, migrant workers have no guaranteed rights because they are not considered citizens. Some of these workers are undocumented and therefore cannot advocate for their rights because they are afraid that they will be deported to their home countries, where conditions are much worse. The types of slavery exhibited within the Middle East that span a wide range of separate states are: debt bondage, contract slavery, sex slavery, child soldiers, child labors, and labor slavery.

Testing the Hypotheses

All the hypotheses listed below will be evaluated over a seventy-five-year time frame dating back to the end of World War II. There are twenty-two countries that are considered part of the Middle East, including states from Northern Africa and what are considered the Gulf states. For each hypothesis, there will be an explanation behind the hypothesis along with the specific ways in which it will be tested. The ideal information that would be obtained by this research would be finding a direct and prominent connection between the economic prosperity and social institutions in the Middle East and the enslavement of individuals.


Hypothesis #1: If states experienced a dramatic increase in revenue, then those countries will have experienced an increase in foreign workers and slaves in the unskilled sectors of their economy.

Logic: Due to globalization, states across the globe have become more economically unequal, which causes increased migration from lesser developed countries to more developed ones. The Middle East is known for having a plethora of natural resources. When the 1970’s oil boom occurred, that sector of the economy was suddenly lacking in workers. With the emigrational patterns of the new globalized world, “the Middle East become the most magnetic place for immigrants from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea.” These migrants, even if they may have travelled to their destination country legally, could not avoid enslavement. For example, Dubai has an extremely large migrant population and is known as the city built on the backs of slaves. The unskilled sectors such as factory, construction business, and oil production take this point further. It is “widely cited as a place with deep labor rights violations and gender inequality.” Foreign workers, especially those who do not model an Arab citizen are not extended certain rights. Therefore, they have no protection when it comes to labor exploitation. The Middle East generally favors contract labor so the foreign worker’s stay is only temporary.

Specific testing: There needs to be a collection of data on every country in the Middle East and their economies. A detailed graph on the specific GDP and GNP of each country since 1965 until 2018 will need to be drawn up. The data set should begin at least five years in advance of the oil boom that occurred in the 1970’s in order to see the baseline in the economies of those most affected. This data will aim to show the contrast between the states who gained the most from the oil revenues and those who did not. Then there needs to be data collected about the specific amount of people migrating to the oil-rich countries and the conditions in which they lived in while working in the unskilled labor sectors.

Hypothesis #2: If the state exhibits stricter religious laws observed in their formal institutions, then the likelihood of religious-related enslavement will increase.

Logic: With religion playing a major role within the Middle East, it causes one to wonder about its limitations. Countries within the Middle East have adopted religious-based governance while others have become more secular. Slavery, though most religions denounce it, has actually been used for religious purposes. Trokosi is a type of slavery that incorporates religious and cultural practices that has been used as a way to justify modern day slavery. It is unclear if some aspects of slavery within the Middle East is associated with this identification, but there have been cases of religious associated slavery. For example, “The slave market of Mecca was known for its size and diversity. In a sad joining of slavery and religion, people from across the Muslim world would bring a slave with them in their religious pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca and sell the slave there to help finance the trip.”

Specific testing: There will be a comparison between the Sunni and Shite governments across the region and will compare their migration policies. This will allow for data to be collected on the amount of illegal migration into these countries and to see if there is any major correlation between the religious institutions and the amount of illegal and/or enslaved persons within the country. Data will also have to be collected on the specific sectors of the economy slave labor is found. Then there needs to be a comparison between the number of enslaved persons within the religious based sectors to the migration patterns and government institution to look for any correlation. To take it a step further, to explore the conditions in which, and under which, certain religious practices affect the conditions of its slave and to specifically calculate their potential economic profit for the religious institution or ritual.

Hypothesis #3: If a state exhibits a high percentage of debt, then they experience more slavery than other states around it.

Logic: The debt within a country typically is directly related to their status as a postcolonial state, because “the Muslim Middle East has yet to recover from the trauma of European colonialism and Western imperialism.” States that do have high-debt, are more likely to use slaves due to their cost effectiveness. Forty-two-point-one percent of high-debt states have persistent or low level of slavery, 26.3 percent have slavery in some economic sectors, and 23.7 percent have slavery in many economic sectors. The table shown above demonstrates the existing comparison of slavery between high-debt countries and all others.


Specific testing: States that have high-debt are ones within the realm of developing and underdeveloped states. There needs to be a determination between what is considered developed and developing within the Middle East and ranked against only themselves. Also, there needs to be a comparison of migration policy between developed and developing states within the Middle East. In order to see this comparison, there needs to be data collected on the GDP and the GNP of each state dating before their independence from colonial powers. Additionally, there needs to be a collection of records displaying how much of a Middle Eastern state’s income was diverted to its colonizer and whether this had an effect on the state’s economic status will emerge out from under colonial rule. This will allow the data to show the difference of economic prosperity before and after colonialization and how that has effected a state’s economic status within the region, which then in turn determines their need for cheap, cost-effective labor as a high-debt country.

Hypothesis #4:If a state has terrorist and/or rebel groups within its borders, the state will experience a dependence on an illegal mean of income involving the enslavement of individuals that would then deflect profit from a state’s formal economy.

Logic: Terrorists use humans as expendable products and often use them for sex slavery, free labor, and child soldiers. The profitability of the state can only be accounted for by money that goes back to the state. Countries that are occupied by terrorist groups typically represent a fractured state with the terrorists acting independently from—and against—the state. “Slavery grows quickly when the rule of law breaks down. Conflict and disaster open the door to criminals who use violence and trickery to enslave people.” Terrorists are considered structured, non-state actors whose income could be counted as independent from the state and therefore diverting profit from the state. This structural violence hinders the growth of a “decent society.” Additionally, since terrorist groups apply labor trafficking to profit, that “labor trafficking not only exploits those enslaved but also depresses the wages of workers in the legitimate economy.”

Specifically testing: Data will be collected to compare states who have a terrorist actor with states who do not. There will be an evaluation of all illicit economies within each state, which will demonstrate if there is a drastic difference between regular criminal economies and informal economies that are instigated by terrorists. The amount of money circulating within the informal economies need to be compared with the revenue of the formal economies. Then there needs to a diagram that displays the amount of money that is being deflected from the formal economy by the illicit one and then examine the ways in which terrorist groups influence and perpetuate this difference. Additionally, there will be data collected on the different types of revenue terrorist groups employ along with how and why they enslave individuals and to what degree this influences their amount of income.

Hypothesis #5: If a state has stricter migration laws than those surrounding its borders, then there will be an increase in enslaved persons within the state with stricter migration laws, whom of which contribute economically in the unskilled and lesser known sectors of the economy.

Logic: There is an inherit conflict between the establishment of states, borders, and legal entities and the mass migration simulated by globalization. Though, the act of migrating itself has been made more difficult. Developed countries have stricter migration policies due to their ability to be self-sustaining and economically stable;therefore, they do not need a large amount of imported labor. It becomes increasingly challenging to enter a country with strict migration laws, which only deters the migrator from entering legally. This leaves the migrant susceptible to vulnerability and potential indebtedness to smugglers. Some states within the Middle East have an interesting policy pertaining to the definition of what they consider foreign. States will have stricter policy towards migrants coming from outside the region—either voluntarily or involuntarily—as a whole and are more susceptible to violations of their rights because they are not considered Arab. Additionally, those who do end up migrating from a rural area to an urban area typically are obtaining their first job in the informal sectors of the economy such as construction, waste disposal, sweatshops, and domestic service.

Specific testing: Within the entire region of the Middle East, there needs to be a collection of data of every state’s migration policies and how they have either changed, remained the same, or are discriminatory to certain migrants. This data collection must begin after World War II in the year of 1945 in order to include the increased migration rates observed throughout the world due to globalization. This data will continue on until the present day. There also needs to be a comparison between the states with strict migration policy and those that do not. There needs to be a recording of the flows in and out of each country, whether those flows are legal or not. Also, there needs to be an observation drawn between the strictness of a migration policy, the inflows of illegals into that country, and where exactly they end up working in the informal economy. 

Hypothesis #6: If the state portrays a corrupt government along with corrupt police, then slavery within the state is likely to be much higher than a non-corrupted state.

Logic: In order for a state to properly take care of its citizens, it must avoid state and police corruption. If a state fails to do so, then the “corruption also supports slavery…especially police corruption.” For example, local police throughout various regions of the world “have been involved in either maintaining the existence of the prostitution establishments, either for money or complimentary visits, or facilitating the trafficking of women.”

Specific testing: There needs to be a collection of data that pertains to the ways in which police within each country have contributed to slavery. There needs to be an observation showing the level of corruption that a particular government and/or police agency may have compared to other states within the Middle East. Also, there needs to be an observation between the level of corruption and the amount of illicit activity produced by slaves occur within each country. After collecting this data, a graph will need to be drawn showing the relationship between corruption and the likelihood of slavery to occur within each state. 

Evaluation of Hypotheses

Although all these hypotheses vary, there seems to be two common underlying factors that contribute to most, if not all, of them—post-colonialism and globalization. A states current status within the Middle East is largely based on the effects of colonialism. The debt of a country, corruption, and emphasis on religious practices could all be linked to colonialism. Additionally, a state’s issues with illegal migration and employment of slaves can be linked to the effects of globalization. Therefore, the hypotheses that incorporate the deep evaluation of these ties, sometimes overlapping, may exhibit the most successfully obtained evidence.


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Child labourer Photo credit: Alexander Montuschi (Flickr) Creative Commons