Policing Labour in Empire: The Modern Origins of the Kafala Sponsorship System in the Gulf Arab States
This study traces the modern origins of the Kafala migrant labour sponsorship system in the Gulf Arab States. The sponsorship system was a product of the British colonial era, particularly the period from the 1920s until independence in the 1970s. Colonial administrators introduced sponsorship requirements in order to control labour migration in the pearl industry shortly before the discovery of oil in the region, and its use was further regularized and widely applied with the increasing migrant labour working in the oil companies. British officials viewed migrant labour as both a necessity and a problem that needed to be regulated and controlled, both from the viewpoint of economic growth and security. As jurisdiction over foreigners was retroceded back to the newly created states in the independence era, sponsorship of foreign labour was ultimately restricted and delegated to citizens or companies owned by citizens. As a particular example, the case of the “bachelor” worker is detailed as a legal-bureaucratic complex of sponsorship practices. Such practices are placed within a wider ensemble of British colonial policies for controlling labour and policing empire “on the cheap” across the Indian Ocean in the 19th and 20th centuries.