By Yasin Kakande
In my first home in Dubai, when I worked as a journalist, I shared accommodations in an apartment building, which had several brothels on the top floors, serving largely migrant workers who were trying to make ends meet on their low wages. In fact, many buildings in the neighborhood had apartments, which were rented as brothels. Every night, it seemed like a loud party with frequent brawls breaking out in the corridors. For those of us trying to sleep without interruptions, it was often impossible.
I shared the unit with ten other single men. Some of my roommates visited the brothels but they rarely spoke about it. One roommate in his fifties was the only one who bragged about his visits and he regularly threatened to publish the names of everyone he met at the “top flats,” as the brothels were called.
He developed a scheme where he would steal one shoe from any person he found at the brothel, as a signal that he knew they had lied in denying that they ever visited the “top floors.” He showed the shoe to everyone and soon others in the building picked up on his scheme. Any man who noticed that one of his shoes was missing knew that his secret had been disclosed.
It was not a surprise that once I landed my first job as a reporter for a local newspaper, my first piece would be about pimps and brothels, which included details about the walls of mosque toilets being covered with phone numbers connected to pimps.
I invited a photographer on a Friday evening, a time when nearly every worker flocked to Dubai from their labor camps, filling up buildings where female sex workers have flats. It was a pilgrimage to ease their sex-starved urges. There were dozens of queues leading to a specific door. As one worker left, another entered quickly. A friend tried to explain that he and the others were in line for women, and soon I noticed a woman coming out to pick the three workers and lead them inside. Most men coming out of the rooms looked down like guilty children who had been caught in some misdeed.
For background research, my editor specifically wanted me to visit Khalid bin Al Waled Street, the neighborhood location for many of the emirate’s nightclubs. It is a lively scene going until early morning, as there are many sex workers and escorts from all nationalities, races, and ethnicities turning up to enter the clubs or stand along the side of the road. Punters also roam the street in cars or as pedestrians, looking to make a bargain for a single-time sex stand. There are also oglers, who are single poor men who can’t afford even a bargain-priced encounter but nevertheless are grateful to be watching the women moving in and out of the club or the process of negotiating a deal.
The street is named after the Islamic warrior who fought and won many battles during the early Islamic days of Prophet Mohammed’s work. Today, it has all of the amenities of a red-light district similar to anywhere else in the world where sex is available for sale legally or illegally. It gets busier as the night progresses, with cars in long queues similar to those in morning rush hours. What slows vehicles on the road mostly are the punters who stop on the roadside to surf for women at the entrances of nightclubs and other locales to negotiate a bargain.
Taxis regularly picked up and dropped off young women with their clients, which also slowed and backed up street traffic. Police patrolled the street back and forth continuously and honked to alert cars to keep moving.
Ten years after being expelled from Dubai for my book The Ambitious Struggle, I moved to Doha in Qatar, where I noticed differences between the open display of sex workers in Dubai and secretive operations in Doha. The pimps in Qatar were mostly secluded in their brothels, which combined prostitution with the alcohol trade. Nearly every illegal alcohol dealer in old villa houses or apartments also had several women either at the house or on call for sexual activities.
The country’s policies on alcohol trading, which require a license to drink, have pushed the spirits business into the shadows, which then merged with prostitution. Despite these restrictions, alcohol is widely available in Doha and many drinkers easily find means of avoiding the law’s heavy arm. The law requires that anyone licensed to drink alcohol must be a non-Muslim and must be earning a sizable income, which, of course, immediately disqualifies many expatriate migrant workers.
Most brothels find eligible patrons, who act as intermediaries in selling crates of spirits, which are then sold in the brothels. Qatar brothels frequently held private parties with music and alcohol, drawing many single men away from the nightclubs, which always have been expensive and usually have restrictions on dress codes and other types of behavior and activities. Hotels operate on stricter standards than those in Dubai, demanding marriage certificates from their clients who turn up at the reception desk as a couple. Some residences also ban single women from entering residences to visit a male companion.
Even though most hotels ask for marriage certificates from couples, there are a few hotels that have circumvented the rule, but they also charge much higher room rates. Most prostitutes in the nightclubs and bars provide their clients with a list of hotels, which do not ask for a marriage certificate or where receptionists gladly accept bribes to bypass the rule.
The region is more dangerous to migrant women as punters automatically assumed every woman walking on the street is a prostitute and would approach propositioning them with the question of “how much?”
Ever since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, human rights organizations have criticized the country and Qatar’s neighbors for the systemic exploitation and abuses of migrant workers. All kinds of suffering for migrant workers have been mentioned but not the deliberate starvation of their opportunities to find romance and sexual intimacy. Migrant workers are starved for affection and love because they are prohibited from bringing their families or are not allowed to marry someone and start a family of their own in Qatar.
The region’s top airlines have even been pressured to fire employees who found romance and were married while they were employed by the airline. These tense scenes are common among Gulf region immigrants, where governments have denied them the rights to have a partner, spouse and family but meanwhile have unwittingly (or intentionally) opened their doors for sex workers. It is a profound social hypocrisy considering that the government has based its legal code and social mores on the restrictions and obligations of the Islamic faith. As the world turns its attention to Qatar and the forthcoming World Cup, more light will be shined on these circumstances. And, groups will be energized to pressure the emirate to loosen and ease such restrictions because of how migrant workers are relegated to a status even lower than second class.
This sort of deprivation which affects many Gulf region migrant workers is a truly torturous practice. It deprives them of any meaningful, productive concentration in life and makes their living painful — socially, culturally, spiritually, economically and emotionally. They work so hard to provide a living to send to their spouses thousands of miles away, without the returns of intimacy and pleasures other partners are able to enjoy.
Common sense would dictate that a relationship with a spouse is more special and comforting than any involving casual, anonymous relations. Even in enlightened Western societies where sex outside of long-term relationships is accepted and tolerated, individuals still cherish the freedom and the right to be able to have a long-term relationship with an individual without having to risk or worry about their livelihood.
But this is not only a torture for men working in Qatar or Dubai but also a torture to the wives they have left behind and the children who might never know the love of their father. The only connection comes from the money wired back home. For men who come to the Gulf region to work, they might have only a month or two at most out of every two years to see their families. There always is the possibility of disappointment in any long-distance relationship but the pain seems to be more acute here. If a couple relies on trust to keep going, one or both partners in the relationship may no longer be able to withstand the weight of absence or loneliness and one or both will be tempted to break this trust.
It would be next to impossible to get any official in any Gulf country to admit that in the process of restricting the freedom of most migrant workers to marry, the government policies in these Muslim holy lands essentially opened the doors to prostitution. They have indirectly supported the influx of young women of barely legal age into their countries to meet the spiraling sexual demands of their workers. Though some tourists would appreciate this venture, not a single worker in any of the labor camps or bachelor-designated accommodations would ever think the government’s actions were being kind and considerate to their needs. Those who have once had families and had lived with their wives in their poverty-stricken home countries would tell how their encounters with prostitutes simply exacerbated their emotional distress.
But even a few roommates who freely talked about their encounters with prostitutes mentioned how it did not bring comfort to their lives but instead simply increased tension and stress. Roommates frowned upon abiding by the rules of “first pay, don’t touch here or there” and “hurry up to get over with it.” One roommate once described that from between the curtains separating the beds in the brothels, one could easily hear the familiar line: “Have you finished, my friend; another customer waiting.”
This reinforced the sense of isolation for the migrant worker who sought out some form of intimate release. It’s just human nature for someone to make the encounter as gratifying and meaningful as possible but even the idea of foreplay was impossible because that was not part of the negotiated transaction. And, the purpose was to keep the queue moving so longer sessions were out of the question.
And, there were many stories of men being thrown out of the brothels for not consummating the deal quickly enough. The biggest embarrassment for brothel visitors occurred when they left the room, too shy or ashamed to look into the eyes of other men still in the queue waiting to carry on from where they had finished or didn’t finish. The guilt of what he had just done would be so intense to lock one’s gaze onto another, not because of jealousy that the next man would have more success while he had experienced a nightmare but instead because he was embarrassed to be amongst them, sharing a woman. And, despite how widespread the practice was, the stigma of being found at it was self-defeating and demoralizing.
I once queried a roommate about what it felt like seeing a friend or acquaintance at the brothel. His answer intrigued me. “I just stop hiding and reach out to shake his hand and ask him to be discreet with my secret in return for my being discreet with his secret as well.” Still this secret would not be the basis for two men to become closer friends or even acquaintances who would hang out together, just as they had visited the same prostitute. What it actually did was aggravate the intensity of their guilt and shame, enough to make both of them too embarrassed to pursue a friendship. At a certain point one could blackmail the other and leak the secret to a friend or a group and once the other one learned of the betrayal, he would get his revenge likewise.
All of this seems especially incongruous for a Gulf emirate like Qatar who has merited the opportunity to host a global event on the scale of the World Cup. Or, Dubai, often recognized for its humanitarian efforts to aid starving communities in Asia and Africa or locations struck by disasters including earthquakes, storms and tornadoes, even in developed countries such as the U.S. But the fact that the majority of its residents living in the outskirts of its shining cities or even its own citizens who call themselves “locals” endure starvation of another kind is disturbing on many levels.
Should there be other communities willing to help? But help for sexual or emotional starvation is much more complicated than the shipment of food-related items the emirate has offered its less fortunate friends. It is complicated – certainly from every sense of moral and ethical propriety– and no community is going to send thousands of its people, women or men, as a rescue package to Qatar or Dubai. The rich emirates with all their abundant resources cannot start distributing to each bachelor-worker a woman or to each local woman a man.
However, still there is something the government of Qatar and its neighboring Gulf states can do to ease the situation. The governments could remove the restrictions in Kafala law so that immigrants can bring their wives and families. Otherwise, the Kafala system is no different than slavery, as it has been manifested throughout history, where the greed of the employer is paramount. On the surface, the government wears its humanitarian face for the global media and public. But, to their own workers who have come from afar because of the promise of prosperity and stable economic livelihood, they are hardly humanitarian but instead stone-faced cruel overlords.
Yasin Kakande is a Ugandan Journalist and Author of Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in Gulf Arab Region