Doha Letter: Museum of slavery casts light on plight of migrant workers everywhere

Qatar officially ended slavery in 1952 but there were accusations of modern-day enslavement in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup

Museums in the Arabian gulf tend to reflect well on the regimes that develop them: prestigious, housing important artworks, funded by massive oil and gas wealth.

Take Doha, the capital of Qatar. Its museum of Islamic Art was designed by IM Pei, seemingly inveigled out of retirement to design what is a stunning modern interpretation of Islamic heritage architecture. The French architect Jean Nouvel designed the magnificent National Museum in the shape of a giant desert rose. The new National Library, a bibliophilic paradise, was designed by the renowned Harvard architect from the Netherlands, Rem Koolhaas.

Art and museums are also inextricably part of Middle East politics. The painting Salvator Mundi, controversially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and the most expensive painting ever sold at a public auction at $450.3 million, was bought by a Saudi prince, initially for a Dubai museum, just so that Qatar could not acquire it as the Gulf states were then blockading Qatar.

Gulf states are autocratic, ruled by royal families with scant regard for human rights. They operate with varying degrees of liberalism; women have few restrictions in Qatar, for instance, while Saudi finds it difficult to loosen its controls, so it was an unexpected development when, in 2016, Qatar announced it was opening a museum to slavery. This came as Qatar was being accused of involvement in modern-day slavery with regards to foreign workers brought in to build the stadiums, the hotels and the metro for the 2022 World Cup.


Slavery officially ended only in 1952, which means there could be elderly people walking through the shopping malls, or even the museum itself, who were born into slavery. But Qatar was far from alone; it took Oman until 1970, and Saudi until 1962, to abolish slavery. Other Gulf states condoned slavery well into the 20th century. In the case of Qatar, it was pressure from British oil interests which were increasingly embarrassed using enslaved oil workers (oil companies were involved in compensating owners for freeing their enslaved workers).

Bin Jelmood House, a restored former slave trader’s house, became the first museum to focus on slavery in the Arab world when it opened in Msheireb, a stunningly designed new downtown area of luxury hotels, apartments, shops, restaurants and a number of museums, built, of course, by the migrant labour that makes up 88 per cent of the Qatari population. The museum explicitly speaks about Qatar’s role in the lucrative slave trade and highlights the ordeals of its victims: men forced to risk their lives pearl-diving or harvesting dates, and people brought by force from Africa to work on oil rigs after the second World War. It also examines the place of female slaves brought to Qatar as concubines and domestic workers.

“Development has been so fast in Qatar, we wanted to look at how things changed, how Qatar was affected by slavery and how slaves were integrated into society,” Hafiz Abdullah, the museum manager, told the Reuters news agency when it opened.

The museum unflinchingly links the slave trading of the past to human trafficking and bonded labour today. “The story of slavery did not end in 1952,” said Abdullah. “People need to focus on human exploitation today and how we can change that.”

The museum traces the history of enslavement using photographs, maps, archives and artifacts, through video and sound installations that imagine the violent experience of enslaved people. The curation, as in all Qatar’s museums, is impressive. The exhibits are presented in a series of small rooms off an enclosed courtyard, where slaves would have been sold. It follows the story from slavery in antiquity, then the Indian ocean slave trade, to Qatar, and on to contemporary slavery.

What then is a visitor to make of the museum’s approach to the history of exploitation, especially in the Gulf? While one cannot but be impressed by the willingness of the Qatari authorities to address the contentious issues of slavery, one is left with a feeling that it is spreading the blame. One of the last rooms links the plight of South Asian construction workers in Doha to that of migrant labour in Europe or the US.

It might be unfair to suggest that Qatar’s record today, what human rights groups call contractual enslavement, can be diminished through a comparison with the plight of migrant workers everywhere. Or to suggest that the museum is a cynical exercise in Qatar polishing its image, given that the museum does grapple with issues of enslavement, race and exploitation in the Arab world for the first time. The museum allows Qataris and those Qataris descended from enslaved people, as well as the thousands of migrant workers, to reflect on those same issues in their own lives.

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