Millions of expatriate workers facing maltreatment and injustice in the Middle East and the Gulf are a time bomb that could unleash riots like those rocking France, an Arab-American activist has warned.
"France and the rest of Europe are learning now that 'guest workers', in their third generation and still denied justice, are not only a shame that eats at the moral fibre of a society, they are also a time bomb waiting to explode," said James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, on Monday.
France has been shaken by 11 nights of urban violence, involving gangs of youths from low-income and often largely North African and sub-Saharan immigrant suburbs expressing discontent at what they say is their alienation from mainstream society.
"In this region, as well, in many places, workers, be they Palestinians or other Arabs or South Asians, are trapped in horrible conditions, denied justice and their basic humanity," Zogby told a meeting of Arab NGOs in Bahrain.
"It hurts not only them, but the image and the moral fibre of the countries which host them. We must do better. They clean your offices, build your cities and yet remain invisible. You must see them, incorporate their rights into your vision and defend them," he said.
Rights groups say the Gulf states'
sponsor system is akin to slavery
"Societies, even those claiming to be just societies, are often built on the backs of an underclass... What is happening in Paris now happened in the United States in the 1960s," Zogby said.
More than 10 million foreign workers and three million of their family members live in the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Over the past few months, thousands of low-paid Asian workers staged protests, some violent, in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai in UAE, for maltreatment and not receiving wages on time.
Foreigners in GCC states are bound by the sponsor system, a regulation that restricts the workers' movements and puts them at the mercy of their employers, cited as the main cause for their plight.
It is adopted by all Gulf states and has been blasted by human rights bodies as akin to slavery.