Dhows were used to transport goods and slaves.
Pearl divers in the Persian Gulf. At the time, the pearl industry was dominated by slave labor.

For most of its history, Qatar practiced slavery until its abolition in 1952. Many members of the Afro-Arabian minority are descendants of the former slaves. Chattel slavery was succeeded by the Kafala system. The kafala system has been abolished in Qatar since December 2016. However, concerns still remain about workers' rights and employers retaining considerable power over workers.[1][2]


Further information: History of slavery in the Muslim world

Slave trade

Omani route

See also: Indian Ocean slave trade

During the Omani Empire (1692–1856), Oman was a center of the Zanzibar slave trade. Slaves were trafficked from the Swahili coast of East Africa via Zanzibar to Oman. From Oman, the slaves were exported to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula and Persia, including the Trucial States, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Oman's optimal location between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf region positioned it as a key player in the Zanzibar slave trade. Serving as a pivotal navigation point, Oman gained significant importance in the history of the Arabian Gulf region. The economic impact of the slave trade persisted, becoming a substantial factor in shaping Oman's economy in the post-slave trade era.[3]

The Omani slave trade from Africa started to shrink in the late 19th century.

Hajj route

See also: Red Sea slave trade

A second route of slave trade existed, with people from both Africa and East Asia, who were smuggled to Jeddah in the Arabian Peninsula in connection to the Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj, to Mecca and Medina. Victims were tricked to perform the journey willingly in the belief that they were going on the Hajj pilgrimage, or employed as servants, and then sold upon arrival. These slaves were then exported from the Hejaz to Oman, the Trucial States, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Baluchi route

In the 1940s, a third slave trade route was noted, in which Balochis from Balochistan were shipped across the Persian Gulf, many of whom had sold themselves or their children to escape poverty.[4] In 1943, it was reported that Baloch girls were shipped via Oman and the Trucial States to Mecca, where they were popular as concubines (sex slaves), since Caucasian girls were no longer available, and were sold for $350–450.[5]

Function and conditions

See also: History of concubinage in the Muslim world, Islamic views on concubinage, Ma malakat aymanukum, Qiyan, Jarya, and Abd (Arabic)

Slavery was practiced by the House of Thani and the wealthy merchants, but also by ordinary villagers, who could own only one or two slaves.[6]

Female slaves

Female slaves were primarily used as either domestic servants, or as concubines (sex slaves). Male slaves were used in a number of tasks: as soldiers, pearl divers, farm labourers, cash crop workers, maritime sailors, dock workers, porters, irrigation canal workers, fishermen, and domestic servants, while women functioned as domestic servants or concubines.[7]

Female slaves were used as domestic servants and as concubines, while male slaves were primarily used within the pearl industry as pearl divers.[8] The PDQ Oil Company had 250 slave laborers during its first year of production in Qatar in 1949.[6]

Black African women were primarily used as domestic house slaves rather than exclusively for sexual services, while white Caucasian women (normally Circassian or Georgian) were preferred as concubines (sex slaves), and when the main slave route of white slave girls was reduced after Russia's conquest of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the mid 19th-century (reducing the Black Sea slave trade and the Kazakh Khanate slave trade), Baluchi and "Red" Ethiopian (Oromo and Sidamo) women became the preferred targets for sexual slavery. [9] Non-African female slaves were sold in the Persian Gulf where they were bought for marriage; these were fewer and often Armenian, Georgian, or from Baluchistan and India.[10]

Female slaves were often used for sexual services as concubines for a period of time, and then sold or married off to other slaves; the slave owners would arranged both marriages and divorce for their slaves, and the offspring of two slaves would become slaves in turn.[11] It was common for slave owners to claim sexual services of married female slaves when the slave husband was away for long periods of time, to hunt for pearls or fish or similar labor, and sexual abuse was a common reason given when female slaves applied for manumission at the British Agency.[11]

The number of female slaves in the Gulf was as high or higher than that of male slaves, but the number of female slaves who made applications for manumission at the British Agencies in the Gulf was significantly lower (only 280 of 950 documented cases in 1921–1946), likely because in the Islamic society of the Gulf, where women were excluded from wage labour and public life, it was impossible for a freedwoman to survive without a male protector.[12]

Male slaves

During the flourishing period of the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, male slaves played a pivotal role in the burgeoning pearl industry of Qatar, particularly as pearl divers. The thriving pearl diving sector not only led to the establishment of coastal settlements but also triggered significant migration to Qatar. Subsequently, the nation witnessed a substantial economic upturn attributed to the prosperity of the pearl fishing industry. This economic boom facilitated Qatar's integration into the global economy and marked the initiation of globalization in the region. Predominantly of African descent, these slaves, constituting approximately a quarter to a third of Qatar's population, were prominently engaged in the cultivation and exploitation of pearls.[13]

It was common for Arab men to use the sexual services of enslaved African women, but a male African slave who had sexual relations with a local "pure blood" Arab woman would be executed to preserve tribal honor and social status, regardless if the couple had married or not. [14]

Activism against slave trade

The British Empire gained control of Qatar in the 1890s and signed the 1926 Slavery Convention to fight enslavement in all land under their control. However, they doubted their ability to stop Qataris from continuing slavery, so the British policy was therefore to assure the League of Nations that Qatar followed the same anti-slavery treaties signed by the British and prevent observation of the area that could disprove the claims.[15] In the 1940s, there were several suggestions made by the British to combat the slave trade and the slavery in the region, but none was considered enforceable on the Qataris.


After World War II, there was a growing international pressure from the United Nations to end the slave trade. In 1948, the United Nations declared slavery to be a crime against humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after which the Anti-Slavery Society pointed out that there were about one million slaves in the Arabian Peninsula, which was a crime against the 1926 Slavery Convention, and demanded that the UN form a committee to handle the issue.[16]

Slavery was finally abolished by the ruler of Qatar after British pressure in March 1952.[17] The Qatari government reimbursed formers slave owners financially and Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani personally contributed with 25 percent of the compensation money.[6] By May 1952, manumission money had been paid for 660 slaves, the average compensation sum being 1,500 rupees, but for some, such as one slave girl, as much as 2,000 rupees; the compensation has been referred to as the first big distribution of wealth in Qatar.[6] The former slaves in Qatar became citizens after manumission. Many members of the Afro-Arabian minority are descendants of the former slaves.

In 1957 the British pressured the Gulf rulers to accept the 1956 Supplementary Slavery Convention in accordance with the Colonial Application; this was accepted by Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, but the rulers of the Trucial Coast stated that such a law could not be enforced.[18]

However, slaves are mentioned in Qatar after the official abolition of 1952. Sheiks of Qatar are recorded to have included slaves in their retinues when attenting the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953, as well as during their visit in Britain in 1958.[19]

After the abolition of slavery, poor migrant workers were employed under the Kafala system, which have been compared to slavery.[20] In August 2020 Qatar abolished the Kafala system and introduced labor reforms. Under these reforms workers can change jobs without employer’s permission and are now paid a basic minimum wage regardless of their nationality. The basic minimum wage is set at 1,000 QAR. Allowances for food and accommodation must be provided by employers, which are 300 QAR and 500 QAR respectively.[21] Qatar introduced a wage protection system to ensure the employers are complying with the reforms. The wage protection system monitors the workers in the private sector. This new system has reduced wage abuses and disputes among migrant labours.[21]


In 2015, a museum about the slavery in Qatar was opened by the government in the Bin Jelmood house in Doha, which has been described as the first museum focused on slavery in the Arab world.[22] The Bin Jelmood Museum stands as a heritage residence dedicated to the examination and exploration of the historical subject of slavery in Qatar, delving into the broader history of the region. Viewed through the perspective of certain elder Qatari individuals, this museum is regarded as sensitive due to the relatively recent abolition of slavery. Many of the visitors sensitive to this place are individuals who lived through the corresponding historical era.[23]

Modern slavery

The Kafala system

Qatar has emerged as a highly desirable destination for immigrant labor due to comprehensive development across various sectors, encompassing infrastructure, economy, social services, urban planning, and more. Qatar held the highest percentage of expatriate labor globally in 2019, accounting for 89.5% of the workforce. This considerable foreign labor force is characterized by its diverse religious, cultural, and social backgrounds. The surge in expatriate workers can be traced back to the successful bid by the State of Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final in 2010. The preparation for this major event necessitated extensive infrastructure projects, including the construction of large stadiums, facilities, and hotels to accommodate international guests. A pivotal development in the 1960s was the introduction of the sponsorship system, known as "Kafala," aimed at regulating and controlling the entry and exit of expatriate labor.

The Kafala system establishes a legal relationship between the foreign worker and the employer, requiring every expatriate seeking employment in Qatar to have a sponsor, known as "Kafeel." The sponsor can be a Qatari citizen, an expatriate residing in Qatar, or a legal entity (company/institution) based in Qatar. The sponsor assumes responsibility for the expatriate's residency, facilitating the issuance and renewal of the professional visa every two years. Additionally, the sponsor provides accommodation, food, transportation, and health insurance to the workers. However, the Kafala system has been criticized for creating a power imbalance favoring local employers over migrant workers, exposing the latter to risks of human trafficking and forced labor.

In response to international labor standards, Qatar officially announced the abolition of the sponsorship system (Kafala) on December 12, 2016. This landmark decision aimed to replace the Kafala system with an employment contract, with the goal of improving the living conditions and safeguarding the rights of expatriate workers. The abolition of the sponsorship system was part of a broader reform package designed to enhance Qatar's labor market.[citation needed]

Unsolved problem

Officially, slavery in Qatar was abolished in the middle of the 20th century, but the conditions in which many workers who prepared the country for the FIFA World Cup lived and worked look almost like slavery. It was for long necessary for a migrant worker in Qatar to obtain an employer's permission to change the company worked for; this restriction was abolished in 2020.[24] In addition, a worker cannot leave the country without permission from their employer.

In some ways, it all resembles slavery, even at the official level, only with more correct formulations.[25]

According to the Global Slavery Index (created by the Walk Free Foundation, an international group of experts on combating slavery and human trafficking with the assistance of the Gallup research company), there are more than 30 thousand people in modern slavery in Qatar. This is one of the worst indicators in the world.[citation needed]

In 2016, Qatar officially announced the abolition of kafala, but introduced an alternative. The employer was left with the right to decide whether to let foreign employees go home. If the employee and the authorities cannot find a compromise, the case is considered by the appeals commission.[26]

Stadium construction

Qatar received the right to host the FIFA World Cup in December 2010. And already in 2012, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) began receiving complaints from workers employed in the construction of facilities. By the beginning of 2013, the number of applications exceeded several thousand, after which MCP appealed to the Ministry of Labor of Qatar with a demand to deal with six contractors.

In its appeal, the Confederation of Trade Unions emphasized four types of violations: the nature of work does not correspond to what is provided for in the labor agreement; employers do not fulfill their obligations to pay wages; employers withdraw passports from employees; employees are forced to live in overcrowded labor camps and are deprived of the right to form trade unions.

In response to these accusations, the Qatari authorities promised to increase the number of inspectors at the 2022 World Cup facilities by 25% (their number was supposed to exceed 300 people), and the then president of the International Football Federation (FIFA) Sepp Blatter said that the situation with labor rights will be discussed at a meeting of the executive committee of the organization in early October 2013.

Approximately 100 days after the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar came to an end, a significant number of construction workers involved in the stadium construction found themselves unemployed, impoverished, and struggling to meet basic needs. Aboubacar, a construction worker in Qatar who anticipated a more promising legacy for his future, lamented a dire situation wherein he had gone without food for two days and remained unsuccessful in securing employment post the World Cup event. Qatar has garnered substantial criticism for the harsh conditions endured by numerous low-wage workers, encompassing issues such as wage deprivation, illicit recruitment fees, and instances of injury and fatality during the construction of stadiums and infrastructure.[27] In response to these infractions, Qatar implemented substantial labor reforms, enabling migrant workers to switch jobs without requiring employer consent and establishing an elevated and unbiased minimum wage.[28]

For the first time, The Guardian newspaper reported not just about rights violations, but also about deaths on construction sites for the World Cup in February 2014. The article claimed that in three years out of 2 million migrant workers, up to 4,000 workers could die from unbearable conditions and insecurity. The publication also reported which workers from which countries most often stay to work in Qatar—for example, immigrants from India make up 22% of the total number of people employed at the World Cup facilities, a similar share falls on Pakistan. About 16% of the workers are from Nepal, 13% from Iran, 11% from the Philippines, 8% from Egypt and 8% from Sri Lanka.[29]

See also


  1. ^ "Still Slaving Away". The Economist. 2015-06-06. pp. 38–39.
  2. ^ "evidence of forced labour on the Qatar 2022 World Cup infrastructure project". ESPN. Archived from the original on 26 September 2013.
  3. ^ As-Saadi, Asst Prof Dr Bushra Nasser Hashim (2020-10-01). "THE IMPACT OF THE ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE ON OMAN IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY (1856-1913)". PalArch's Journal of Archaeology of Egypt / Egyptology. 17 (6): 16687–16697. ISSN 1567-214X.
  4. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 304–06
  5. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 304–07
  6. ^ a b c d Tusiani, M. D. (2023). From Black Gold to Frozen Gas: How Qatar Became an Energy Superpower. USA: Columbia University Press.
  7. ^ Zdanowski J. Slavery in the Gulf in the First Half of the 20th Century : A Study Based on Records from the British Archives. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Askon; 2008
  8. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 265-66
  9. ^ Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean world, and the medieval north Atlantic. (2007). Grekland: Ohio University Press. p. 13
  10. ^ ZDANOWSKI, J. The Manumission Movement in the Gulf in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Middle Eastern Studies, 47:6, 2011, p. 871.
  11. ^ a b ZDANOWSKI, J. The Manumission Movement in the Gulf in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Middle Eastern Studies, 47:6, 2011, p. 864.
  12. ^ Kloss, Magdalena Moorthy (2015). "Jerzy Zdanowski, Speaking with their Own Voices. The stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century". Chroniques Yéménites (5). doi:10.4000/cy.2971.
  13. ^ Pearls, People, and Power: Pearling and Indian Ocean Worlds (1 ed.). Ohio University Press. 2019. doi:10.2307/j.ctv224tw78. ISBN 978-0-8214-2402-5. JSTOR j.ctv224tw78. S2CID 240458582.
  14. ^ THESIGER, W. The Marsh Arabs. Penguin Classics, London, 2007, p. 69.
  15. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 164–66
  16. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 310
  17. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 340–42
  18. ^ Suzanne Miers: Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem, p. 344
  19. ^ The Anti-slavery Reporter and Aborigines' Friend. (1952). Storbritannien: L. Wild. p.17
  20. ^ "The Kafala System: An Issue of Modern Slavery". 19 August 2022.
  21. ^ a b "Qatar: Significant Labor and Kafala Reforms". Human Rights Watch. 2020-09-24. Retrieved 2023-01-25.
  22. ^ Finn, Tom (2015-11-18). "Qatar slavery museum aims to address modern exploitation". Reuters. Retrieved 2023-10-22.
  23. ^ "al-Thani, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa". International Year Book and Statesmen's Who's Who. doi:10.1163/1570-6664_iyb_sim_person_53063. Retrieved 2023-11-21.
  24. ^ Newspaper, The Peninsula (2020-08-30). "Qatar sets minimum wage, removes NOC for changing jobs". thepeninsulaqatar.com. Retrieved 2023-11-03.
  25. ^ "Почти как рабство: как в Катаре на самом деле живут гастарбайтеры". Ридус. Retrieved 2023-03-16.
  26. ^ "На стройках ЧМ в Катаре погибло более 1200 человек. Как это вообще?". Sports.ru. June 2018. Retrieved 2023-03-16.
  27. ^ Pattisson, Pete (2023-03-27). "'I haven't earned a single rial': Qatar migrant labourers left stranded and jobless after the World Cup". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2023-11-23.
  28. ^ "Qatar | Country Page | World | Human Rights Watch". www.hrw.org. Retrieved 2023-11-23.
  29. ^ "На стройках ЧМ в Катаре уже 10 лет фиксируют нарушения прав рабочих. Как решается эта проблема". Ведомости.Спорт (in Russian). 15 April 2022. Retrieved 2023-03-16.