The situation could be likened to an ancient french Maison Close (bordellos) where prostitutes were wittingly driven to abysmal indebtedness by their mesdames in order to keep them slaving away to pay off their debts with huge interests until their bitter end.
I began by asking some of the COP shuttle drivers about their day- transporting some of the 17 000 delegates from one place to another. The first driver, a Nepalese, informed me with a crooked smile and stilted English, that it was probably against the law for him to have any thoughts. Like the prostitutes of bordellos, the body of the bus drivers represented bank accounts.
The latest UNFCCC COP summit, hosted in Doha, Qatar - a leading oil and gas haven in the Gulf - could not have been a better location. For once, the politics and political economy of the geographic terrain perfectly matched the agenda of those shaping the outcome: protecting the interests of developed governments and multinationals.
They have an allergy to themselves... In this country, Arabs are like the 'amperbaas'
The details are well known and the basic theme well understood: what has been neutrally-termed climate change, aka the dying earth, is the last in a series of lethal consequences borne from severe political and economic injustice. The layers of harm are plain to see, alluvial as ever.
Leaving aside known gender struggles, Doha's deep class divide between Arabs and the invisibles is an even better illustration of its treatment towards those who do not form part of the oil-rich power structure. Qataris – numbering around 260 000, are outnumbered by foreigners.
There exists no minimum wage. These invisibles, made up of mostly immigrant bus and taxi drivers, waiters and cleaners, construction workers, cooks... are paid just 1500-1800 riyals per month, with 900 riyals taken for food (30 riyals per day, or 900 riyals per month), about 300-500 riyals for laundry, medical and other expenses, and hundreds of riyals taken for accidents and damages, mysteriously conjured up.
And probably because labor unions are not allowed to exist, bus drivers, among others, end up in severe debt, without their passports, without any legal recourse, without any protection from unions. If those invisibilised by deliberate legislation complain, they could remain indebted and their employment terminated immediately.
His story was not unique: every bus driver told the same story about the state-owned bus company Mowasallat - official COP18 shuttle providers, with an inventory, we were told, of 500 buses.
"But these drivers are not doing anything unique. They are expendable," said a kindly Arab man to me, overhearing our conversation. "They could be replaced tomorrow." Foreigners are not allowed to change their employment. If they leave, employers can report them to the police for "absconding work" and they can be denied permission to leave the country without permission.
The man admitted the Qatari government could easily pay them a basic living wage, but that such would not be "market related because supply far outweighed demand." In his mind, the logic, though sad, was justified on an economic basis.
As every turn begged for answers to the many unavoidable questions, Mowasallat, probably one of the most legitimate entities that could help provide answers to the plight of the drivers, failed to respond to interview requests.
In a recently released report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported much the same state of affairs for workers contracted to feed labor demands for Qatar's 2022 World Cup.
The Ministry of Labor responded: "The Ministry has received no complaint of forced labor and it is inconceivable that such a thing exists in Qatar as the worker may break his contract and return to his country whenever he wishes and the employer cannot force him to remain in the country against his will."
While the Ministry has only recorded six deaths in the past three years, the Tibetan embassy recorded almost 200, alongside other embassies. Some were reported to have died from cardiac arrest.
The situation of destitution and deprivation, is even harder on the soul given the world surrounding them: each day, laborers are confronted with immense opulence as well as the vast imported fast food culture lining the streets: from McDonalds, Popeyes, Dairy Queen, among others, to the Versaces of the world. While all countries have such elements, in Doha, it acts as a skin bleach, a desperate attempt to morph into something new and flashy but that something just won't take shape.
Animals at the Souq
"They accept anything," said a South African business executive. "No, not the foreign workers, but the Arabs." We were looking at a menu where a 'real US beef burger' was propositioned for around 70 riyals; Atlantic salmon for almost 100 riyals; and Greek salad for 55 riyals.
"They have an allergy to themselves... In this country, Arabs are like the 'amperbaas' ... like those coloreds who could pass for white in South Africa, during apartheid and really wanted to be white, not just for the benefits, but psychologically. Many would do anything to be white. Here, they want to be as close to Americanness as they can..."
And yet the tension was deeply apparent, not simply in the architecture of Qatari buildings – brown, square, without pretensions; juxtaposed against the shiny US- neon and glass imported culture. Like most Gulf monarchs in the Middle East, oil exploitation privileges an Arab elite, and is supplied à la carte to the US, whose major oil user is the Pentagon.
The genesis of this culture can be traced to colonial ambitions on the part of British colonialism, following the partition of the Ottoman empire. In exchange for recognising the Thani tribe, under Sheikh Abdullah Thani, as the leader of the bantustan or protectorate, similar to other oil kingdoms, Sheikh Abdullah agreed not to enter into agreements with governments outside Britain.
British security would accompany the 75 year oil concession allocated to the Qatar Petroleum Company, ultimately owned by Anglo-Dutch, US and UK investors. The colonial recipe of creating artificial divides through false monarchies headed by those handpicked as subservient (and savvy) enough to be trusted has not systemically changed.
And as one further explores the landscape, the deepened layers of exploitation become yet more apparent particularly when it came to those even more disempowered: the animals at the Souq. Dogs and cats, one piled atop the other, housed in cages so tiny, they could barely turn around. But the fragility of their body language, life and future was much the same as the resigned and teary-eyed bus drivers: entirely dependent on the whims of their buyers.
But what can be said when the major promoter of democracy globally single-handedly backs the Gulf's absolute monarchs.
"The polluters spent $1.7 trillion on military budget in 2011. And yet they quibble over $100 bn per year by 2020 for those that will suffer the consequences of their actions. It is not about lack of money. It is about power. It is about baiting ...like with beads, mirrors and whisky...only that this time they ain't giving no one nothing," said Nnimmo Bassey, head of Nigeria's Earth Rights Action (ERA).
Of course, the Qatari government-monarchy has no interest in breaking this formula that has worked so well. Nor does the US and others of their ilk.
As for the UNFCCC COP18, chaired by Qatar, as every business journalist knows, it was business as usual. The conflict in corridors of power was never whether the most vulnerable should genuinely receive reparations from those who caused the problem, but rather to what extent the current kings of pollution (and poverty) should cede over partial access to those fighting for the chance to do the same.
The UN Security Council, controlled by the primary polluters, cannot be voted. Their power is absolute and filters down to every decision-making organ. What value is there to a UN that is designed to elide accountability and justice? Not much.
But that is, again, the purpose of 'eventising' tragedy, and other related realities. It gives the illusion that change will come. It will. But only after we delegitimise systems sustaining it.