The Climate Expatriate Fight in the Middle East

The Climate Expatriate Fight in the Middle East



Climate change is already notorious for intensifying the frequency and onset of dangerous weather events. From mass flooding to drought, the phenomenon subsequently becomes affiliated with human-related grievances such as expatriation/immigration. As a response, many nations are striving to achieve a two-pronged approach of mitigation and adaptation to remedy the effects of climate change, and acquire the goal of developing their urban centers into icons of sustainability. The United Nations’s World Commission on Environment and Development hence describes sustainable development as having to satisfy, “…the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 By establishing a “triple-bottom line of development,”2 sustainable development would ideally tackle the environmental, social, and economic impacts on human activities caused by climate-related disasters. 

However, this definition of sustainable development is vulnerable to being vague by not clarifying which sectors require the most focus (i.e. environmental and social impacts). This thereby permits leeway for major stakeholders of climate-related causes (i.e. fossil fuel companies and developed nations of the West) to stall sustainability efforts on both mitigation and adaptation. Such stalling efforts manifest in the initiative to build “greener” buildings, communities, and spaces existing solely to maintain an impression of sustainability, while simultaneously upholding hegemonies of economic class. Marcella Durand’s letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, titled “East River Park Oak Tree,” is a striking example as to why the sustainability/adaptation efforts—in this case, the demolition of the park’s cherry trees to make way for a dam to prevent flooding—of urban stakeholders are damaging to the surrounding community that is tethered to the natural space. Durand notes how the park goers admire the trees, the natural space they provide, and the animals that inhabit and cohabitate with them, making the trees integral landmarks of the community. Furthermore, Durand criticizes Deblasio, stating that there’s “So much lack / in your plan: lack / of community input, / lack of “stakeholder/engagement” (stakeholders / being all of us neighbors here now).”3 Essentially, as a result of maintaining the image of NYC’s sustainability efforts, the mayor has consequently disregarded the proper community input on the importance of the park and its landmark trees. This form of urban sustainable development has fallen privy to “greenwashing”—sustainability as a means to appease an economic, politically driven quota, and not sustainability as a means to take into account commonplace human grievances resulting for environmental and social impacts. Durand’s poem hence begs the question of exactly what role sustainable [urban] development plays within green capitalism. Furthermore, how does it impact the human rights of migrant workers from the Global South, who are often moving in droves towards the Middle East? Furthermore, what measures should be taken in Middle Eastern legal systems in order to properly protect migrant rights while considering proper sustainable development?

This is most transparent when noting the treatment of climate-induced migration between “developed” and “developing” countries. The impact of climate change on the people of the Global South, often relating to displacement, is rarely addressed by scholars and major stakeholders alike when considering locations like the Middle East. For instance, Dubai, the UAE’s tourist hotspot, is currently attempting to build “green” villages and skyscrapers while maintaining a large population of low-income workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Furthermore, South Asian expatriates within Gulf countries like Oman—where Bangladeshi migrant workers (living legally) made up around 522,652 of the population in 20146 In this way, capitalism as an economic system is made contradictory to the ethical and logical approach to sustainability, causing neglect within efforts to properly implement and regulate sustainability. This contradiction is magnified when viewed through the lens of the environmental justice movement, which coalesces issues of the environment with, “…social justice goals such as economic equity, cultural liberation, and the political participation of people of color at all levels of decision making,”7 Therefore, sustainability would protect all natural ecosystems and human rights, and thus reject green capitalism.

Moreover, this research paper will advocate for legal solutions that would benefit migrant workers in a sustainably developing world. Terms such aspopular politics” and “knowledge sharing activities” will play integral roles for these solutionable keyframes. Within the migrant worker framework, “popular politics” is understood as, “…[revolving] around the ideas and practices of [legal] rights,” that are inherent.8In these instances, legal policies surrounding natural/human rights will be particularly favored. On the other hand, business practices when concerned with the treatment of migrant workers must place a vitality on “knowledge sharing activities,” which typically include the use of, “…database[s]; best practice workshops;…multifunctional collaboration groups,”9 that would equip workers, employers, and governments with the proper labor law frameworks. In such ways, efforts to maintain environmental sustainability can proudly coexist with sustainable workplace practices.

The Sustainable Middle East vs. The Migrant Worker 

Migrant workers as a result of environmental disasters often fall into the dual categories of internal or external immigration. In Nigeria, for instance, droves of farmers are moving to urban centers in search of “white-collar jobs,” as their dependence on an agricultural economy in a region susceptible to extreme floods and droughts is reduced to impossibility. However, with their persistent internal migration from the rural unknown to the urban center, overcrowding, food shortages, disease outbreaks, and human rights abuses within the workplace become increasingly commonplace.10 Consequently, Nigeria’s status as a developing country puts it at risk of facing a, “…resource gap that has made it difficult…to tackle headlong challenges of climate change.”11 Due to the Nigerian government’s inability to regulate multinational activities and deflect the influence of major stakeholders within the oil industry, little importance is being placed on its citizenry’s wellbeing,12 allowing for the widening of the resource gap. Therefore, as their urban centers continue overpopulating, heat waves and droughts continue to ravage the country, and little to no aid is provided to those suffering. 

However, in the lens of external immigration, the stakes within the relationship between migrant workers and legal labor policy becomes suffocatingly discriminatory. Between 1976 and 2015, approximately 7.1 million migrant workers within the MENA area (Middle East and North Africa) were documented of Bangladeshi nationality.13 Typically, these workers hail from climate-ravaged areas susceptible to extreme flooding, erosion, and/or sea-level rise, where the economic system is reliant on agricultural and fishing practices similar to Nigeria’s. The Bangladeshi fishermen from Oman, for instance, come from the island of Hatiya in the Bay of Bengal, where the threat of erosion is imminent and poverty is ubiquitous. These fishermen collect large amounts of money from their communities in order to pay for visas advertised by Omani officials and “successful” Bangladeshi majis (captains on fishing ships) through the “Kafala System.”This recruitment has become so successful that thousands have left for Oman from Hatiya, where in some villages, “…there is no house where there is not at least one migrant there.”14 Their utmost goal to send back money to their families is dim, as the pay is temporary and debt to their recruiting officials is permanent. In fact, these fishermen find themselves solely reliant on a captain that has a fixed bonus between $1,000-2,000 USD, takes 50 percent of the initial pay and takes away money for utilities and the crew’s food from the remaining 50 percent. Percot notes that in Masira, “…a small Omani island, most of the crews had not even got any payment for more than 5 months.”15 Along with being deemed “illegal immigrants” and jailed if they choose to escape the country as a result, they are simultaneously physically and verbally abused throughout their employment process.16

It is this status as an “illegal…alien” within many Middle Eastern nations’ immigration systems17 that permit the unjust treatment of migrant workers, as it is widely accepted that, “…political rights are a function of national citizenship.”18 Therefore, through legal frameworks, the migrant worker in the Middle East is hindered and systematically enforced as an unprotected class. Neither a citizen by birthright nor paperwork, the migrant worker is deemed foreign, expendable, and cheap, easy labor. Already, the notion of Middle Eastern nations to become “greener” and more “sustainable” has become contradictory according to the traditional definition of sustainable urban development, as they have placed more of an emphasis on capitalizing on the economy rather than improving the socio-environmental impacts of climate-related disasters. These disasters include the migration of and subsequent employment of these individuals, who are repeatedly recruited and discarded for money. Consequently, this immorality clearly displays that such efforts of “sustainability” are merely extended forms of greenwashing and green capitalism.

Meena Alexander, an Indian born poet, paints a picture of this experience of the climate migrant scapegoat for classist systems of labor and legal policy in her book Birthplace with Buried Stones: Poems. In “Water Crossing,” for instance, Alexander notes that the disaster of mass flooding and extreme hurricanes is like that of an “earthly music,” that has, “Swallowed what I could remember/…Amma was with me but I was all alone,/We had each other but our life was lost.”19 Alexander extrapolates that the destruction of mass flooding and extreme earthquakes was not just physically destructive to the ground, houses and hills of her village, but to that of her memory and familial relationships as well. In essence, to be a climate refugee is to face a trauma that scars both the physical body and the emotional soul. In a foreign land where the climate refugee only has themselves and their colleagues—whether their mothers or fellow coworkers of the same ethnicity—is not enough, as the previous home has been decimated both in heart and memory. 

In a similar fashion, Meena notes that the new, foreign host country/place treats the climate migrant worker as if they are indispensable and the lowest of the classist hierarchy. In “Autobiography,” she notes that the men and women out on decks drinking alcohol and clad in chiffon saris laugh at the accented poor, who are, “…Trapped in the holds with their tiny cooking stoves/And hunks of burlap to sleep in.”20 This observation of human interactions clarifies that the climate refugee laborer is inferior to that of the rich citizenry of that city/nation, from the extravagance of the deck to the desperate living conditions of the dirty hold. They therefore hold no legal rights of citizenship, as would be expected out of popular politics, and thus cannot demand the same treatment as their citizen counterparts. The inescapability of their status—legally, socially, and economically—is further developed by Alexander’s observation that, “Between sari hems and polished toes,/The child sees flying fish/Vomited by the sea–/…Tiny bodies twisting in heaps/…The sea has no custom, no ceremony./…Drunken migrations of the soul./No compass to the sea. The sea is memory.”21 Alexander, in entrancing poetics, showcases that the climate migrant is as expendable within their host country as the writhing, dying fish vomited from the sea. In heaps, they recollect their migration journeys as they are forced to do exhausting work, and rewarded with no regulations or “customs” or “ceremonies.” To be a climate migrant is to be at a perpetual disadvantage within the law.

While Bangladeshi workers are favored for cheaper labor practices, Indian migrant workers are similarly exploited within their working fields, and are thus reacting through discrete rebellion. According to a study by Velan and Mohanty, Indians before and after migration worked five hours a day to eight hours a day for men, respectively, and 2.12 hours a day to eight hours a day for women.22 These increases in working hours are a clear indicator of the grueling, cruel labor expected out of the expatriate in host countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. In an effort to resist, Indian migrant workers in the UAE have become politically driven through passive demonstrations of advocacy. However, these acts of rebellion not only occur in hushed manners (such as political meetings in common shops) but also hope to achieve very little in terms of “minor policy changes.”23 In essence, the resistance is less to demand access to citizenship rights and more to demand limited labor protections. This may be the only option available, as resistance is met with brutality by many legal policies within Gulf countries like the UAE. However, through the employment of popular politics, and by extension popular sovereignty, the rebellion has exposed and thereby threatened the authority of the legal frameworks already imposed. It is due to these political meetings, however discrete, that the migrant worker population is mobilizing policies that would evidently “…[stand] in conflict with the notions of procedural and institutional politics.”24

When considering these coalesced factors, the simultaneous injustices masked within and by green capitalism becomes increasingly transparent. Due to a lack of governmental regulation, businesses are free to fill a discriminatory and exploitative labor quota where migrant workers are sought out and placed into a perpetually abusive, inescapable, and financially unstable position. Consequently, migrant workers are also left in a position where education in labor and citizenship rights is non-existent. Even with protest (such as seeking “minor policy changes”), there is in actuality a lack of change in citizenry statuses and resource access, hence clarifying a power imbalance being perpetuated by the legal system. Therefore, it is imperative that the demand to prevent wage theft is made a protected policy for the migrant worker. The argument to prevent incarceration as a result of escaping, however, is made improbable when there is no demand for citizenry rights and equal access to proper resources. 

Prospective Solutionable Frameworks 

Accordingly, in order to properly implement and advertise the sustainable development of their urban centers, nations within the Middle East (and internationally) must first develop legal policy aimed to protect their crucial migrant labor force. With an incessant consensus, scholars underscore the vitality of “proactive measures” that would include grassroots efforts within government and migrant worker activist organizations.25 These proactive measures require that the responsibility to change policy be placed on both the federal and the individual level. As such, activist migrant groups like the Indian workers in the UAE must extend their demands into legal policy that demands their status as citizens granted, and thus demand popular politics of citizenship rights, in order to gain the equal access they would require to prevent workplace abuses and jail time for leaving the country. These acts of rebellion must also become widespread shows of dissent such as protests and not the current discrete methodology of political group meetings.

While this focus is noteworthy, it is equally imperative for labor businesses themselves to seek internal policy changes when concerned with migrant worker rights, and on extension, for governments to regulate such policies. For instance, within their study, Pham & Le mention that Vietnamese businesses are often “ill-equipped” for “knowledge-sharing activities” leading to “weak access to information” and “short awareness of current legal policies.”26 Hence, these businesses are unaware of what is appropriate regarding the treatment of their workers, permitting the onset and continuation of labor abuses. Therefore, the government must establish a set of regulations that not only follows popular politics by making the migrant worker a legal citizen, but also clearly indicating how a business must treat the recruitment, employment, and fixed hourly pay of that migrant worker. In this way, the grievances of the migrant worker are thoroughly met and properly implemented within federal policy aiming to benefit and not hinder. Proper regulations against wage theft must be made permanent through the promise of fixed wages and fixed hours by making employers particularly liable. No longer should the captain of the ship take away more than 50 percent of the earnings. Additionally, the workers must be allowed to sell as well as produce as in the case of the Bangladeshi fishermen in Oman. Hence, businesses employing climate expatriates must place an emphasis on creating a work environment that is built on trust and knowledge sharing activities27 that not only mobilize for proper funding of the workplace but also stimulates proper etiquette. In this way, proper workplace treatment is regulated and enforced, and the physical and verbal abuse of employees is made illegal.


Migrant, climate refugees in host countries located in the Middle East often find themselves alienated and exploited in their workplace environments. Yet these countries perpetually advertise their sustainability efforts to build greener spaces while neglecting their human rights abuses of these expatriate workers. Consequently, this form of sustainable urban development is simply another form of greenwashing and green capitalism, as sustainability of environments and ecosystems cannot coexist with immoral practices of labor and social treatment. The triple-bottom line of development coined to promote the economic, social, and environmental impacts on human activities is neglected when considering that the economic sector exploiting cheap labor is positioned as superior to the other two aspects. The socio-environmental effects of treating migrant workers as inferiors simply contradicts the true existence of sustainable urban development.

In order to rectify this dilemma, efforts must be made by governments and businesses to properly regulate their treatment of migrant workers—from providing access to citizenship rights, to implementing proper workplace etiquette, recruitment, and employment/pay practices through knowledge sharing activities. Additionally, expatriates must advocate for citizenship and labor policy aligning with popular politics and human rights through protests and grassroots efforts. By doing so, the notion of urban sustainability cherishes both the environment and the people within it.

  1. J.A. Elliott, “Sustainable Development,” International Encyclopedia of Human Geography,
    edited by Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, Elsevier Ltd., 2009. ScienceDirect, p. 117,
  2. Antony Funnell, host, “Should we really aim for sustainable development?” ABC Podcasts, 25 September 2021, 03:32-03:48,
  3. Marcella Durand, “East River Park Oak Tree,”6-8, PDF.
  4. Marie Percot, “Bangladeshi Fishermen in Oman: Migration as a Gamble,” Asianization of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries, edited by S. Irudaya Rajan, and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, Springer Singapore Pte. Limited, 2019, ProQuest Ebook Central, 178,—often find themselves working for unlivable, abusive wages and environments despite their large standing within the labor force. Therefore, due to the discriminatory, exploitative recruitment and employment practices enforced on migrant workers within the Middle East, the efforts to establish  “sustainable urban environments” are made disingenuous through a susceptibility to greenwashing. To rectify this dilemma, these governments must develop a human rights centered approach within socioeconomic policy in order to ensure that proper migrant labor laws are being implemented—from the process of recruitment to wage requirements and even to granting citizenship status. 

    This research paper will thus explore and analyze the methodologies in which sustainable development is used as a form of greenwashing, particularly within a human and labor rights perspective in the Middle East. As such, the terms “greenwashing” and “green capitalism” will underscore a mode of capitalism seeking profit out of “sustainable” initiatives, thereby “…remorselessly [intensifying] the contradictions, the natural destruction, and human suffering associated with ecocide.”5Ashley Dawson, “Climate Justice: The Emerging Movement against Green Capitalism” South Atlantic Quarterly (2010): 314.

  5. Dawson, “Climate Justice: The Emerging Movement against Green Capitalism,” 326.
  6. M.H. Ilias, “South Asian Labour Unrests and Non-Citizenry Aspects of Popular Politics in the Gulf,” Asianization of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries, edited by S. Irudaya Rajan, and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, Springer Singapore Pte. Limited, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, 55,
  7. Dung Tien Pham & Binh Dinh Le, “The Strategy of Vietnamese Business Associations in Knowledge Sharing for the Sustainable Development of Vietnam Business Community,” Global Changes and Sustainable Development in Asian Emerging Market Economies Vol. 1 : Proceedings of EDESUS 2019, edited by An Thinh Nguyen, and Luc Hens, Springer International Publishing AG, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central, 431,
  8. Ighodalo Bassey Akhakpe, “Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Nigeria: Limitations and Opportunities,” Research Anthology on Environmental and Societal Impacts of Climate Change, edited by Information Resources Management Association, IGI Global, 2022, 149-150,
  9. Akhakpe, “Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Nigeria: Limitations and Opportunities,” 151.
  10. Akhakpe, “Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Nigeria: Limitations and Opportunities,” 152.
  11. Percot, “Bangladeshi Fishermen in Oman: Migration as a Gamble,” 178,
  12. Percot, “Bangladeshi Fishermen in Oman: Migration as a Gamble,” 180,
  13. Percot,“Bangladeshi Fishermen in Oman: Migration as a Gamble,” 183,
  14. Percot,“Bangladeshi Fishermen in Oman: Migration as a Gamble,” 177-186,
  15. Aziz Choudry & Mondli Hlatshwayo, “Just Work? Migrant Workers, Capitalist Globalisation and Resistance,” in Just Work?: Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today, edited by Aziz Choudry and Mondli Hlatshwayo (Pluto Press, 2015), 1-12.
  16. lias, “South Asian Labour Unrests and Non-Citizenry Aspects of Popular Politics in the Gulf,”65.
  17. Meena Alexander, “Autobiography,” Birthplace with Buried Stones: Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2013), Project MUSE, 77-78,
  18. Alexander, “Autobiography,” 76.
  19. Alexander, “Autobiography,” 76.
  20. Nirmala Velan & Ranjan Kumar Mohanty, “Gender-Wise Rural-To-Urban Migration in Orissa, India: An Adaptation Strategy to Climate Change,” Inequality and Climate Change: Perspectives from the South, edited by Carlo Delgado-Ramos, CODESRIA (Conseil pour le Développement de la Recherche Economique et Sociale en Afrique), 2015, ProQuest Ebook Central, 159.
  21. Ilias, “South Asian Labour Unrests and Non-Citizenry Aspects of Popular Politics in the Gulf,” 55-67.
  22. Ilias, “South Asian Labour Unrests and Non-Citizenry Aspects of Popular Politics in the Gulf,” 66.
  23. Akhape, 152-3; Choudry & Hlatshwayo, 1-12.
  24. Pham & Le, “The Strategy of Vietnamese Business Associations in Knowledge Sharing for the Sustainable Development of Vietnam Business Community,” 428-29.
  25. Pham & Le, “The Strategy of Vietnamese Business Associations in Knowledge Sharing for the Sustainable Development of Vietnam Business Community,” 428-29.
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