Golf and Slavery: an unholy alliance

Two images collided in a Sunday afternoon browse of the net.

One was of the closing moments of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. As a Holywood man I always hope Rory is going to win and he was leading into the last round. It wasn’t to be this time and Tyrell Hatton took home the first prize of over €1 million and Rory had to make to with third and €407, 158.14.

The other image was from Aeon Magazine and an article called ‘Gulf Slave Society’ written by Bernard Freamon, adjunct professor at New York School of Law and author of the book Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures.

Freamon’s argument is compelling, sobering and unsurprising. I’m not going to do it justice in what is necessarily a brief summary. Do read the essay for yourself. Here are some salient points:

  • Dubai and Abu Dabhi are two of six modern gulf city states, constructed on the back of unimaginable wealth generated by oil and gas and global financial capital. (The others are Kuwait City; Doha in Qatar where the 2022 football world cup is to be held; Manama in Bahrain; and Dammam in Saudi Arabia).
  • Abu Dhabi has 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one tenth of the planet’s oil’, are worth about $17 million each on average and have $1 trillion invested globally
  • Each of these 6 gulf states are an example of a ‘genuine slave society’
  • A ‘genuine slave society’ is one that depends on slaves – core functions of its economy and social fabric would not work without slavery
  • In the UAE migrant workers make up 90% of the population. They have very few rights, work in extremely dangerous conditions and are housed in ‘squalid dormitories’ akin to work camps
  • Passports are confiscated. All waking hours are spent working or being shipped to work
  • Domestic female migrant workers face similarly awful conditions. They are essentially property of their employers (the kafala or sponsorship system requires a worker to have their employers’ permission to leave or travel). They are underpaid, or not paid at all, have no access to health care and are frequently subject to sexual exploitation
  • Pretty well all such workers are brown skinned or darker – there is a systemic race issue at the heart of the gulf slave states’ economies
  • Such states, Freamon argues have profound parallels with ancient Greek city-states. The city dominates and the slaves are essential to make it function. To be a ‘genuine slave society:
    • slaves must contribute more than 20% of the population
    • slaves must be essential to the production of economic surpluses for the elites
    • slavery must be a central cultural and economic institution
  • In slave states the slaves will be ‘outsiders’ and considered inferior. Race and ethnicity mark out the lower status of slaves
  • Slavery depends on force and the use of or threat of violence. Freamon argues that both the race / ethnic markers and the role of violence are present in the Persian Gulf societies.
  • Yes, the migrant workers do not have all contacts cut off from their homelands and families but Freamon concludes this is not enough to overturn the overwhelming evidence that these 6 gulf city states are built on slavery

Freamon concludes

If there is to be true abolition in the Persian Gulf, all of the markers of slavery that I have identified, particularly the racialisation of labor and rampant worker abuse and exploitation, must be eliminated.

There are tiny steps beginning to be made but they are only scratching at the surface. Freamon is active in setting up a website Ijmāʿ on Slavery that is seeking to be a catalyst of reform within Islam – for this is an Islamic problem. Racism is not only white on black. Slavery should in theory be illegal under Islamic law.

Golf and Slavery

If Freamon is right – and there is little reason to doubt what he says – the actual courses they play and the opulence which golfers of the European Tour enjoy every time they visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are built on slavery.

The money which funds the European Tour’s season long Race to Dubai is tainted with slavery.

Indeed the strategic shift from Europe to the Middle East in the schedule and funding of the European Tour is all due to the attractive power of gulf states money. Quite simply the money on offer from UAE is unmatched anywhere else in Europe. The US Tour has enormous wealth, it doesn’t need Gulf money. The European Tour has fallen significantly behind the US Tour in pulling power. It needs all the money it can get – and seems to be willing to pay a high price.

Next week the Tour stays in UAE and moves to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The week after that it moves to King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia for the Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

The first tour event in Saudi Arabia was controversial, scheduled at it was during the political fallout of the abduction, murder and disposal of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in late 2018. Rory did not play but a whole host of top-ranked golfers from the US and Europe had no problem turning up.

Tour organisers, sponsors, players, TV rights and a host of other interests all have a common motive in not asking any questions about the morality of hosting and playing major international sporting events in slave states.

This is fantastically hypocritical.

Internationally golf tours and sponsors are desperate to promote inclusion and support anti-racist programmes. But that principled push for inclusion, equality and anti-racism seems to be at best selective – it does not seem to reach brown-skinned people from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, East Africa and elsewhere.

To be morally consistent, the European Tour – and its players – should refuse to host and play in sporting events in slave societies. Yes they depend on Gulf money, but it works both ways. Major international sporting events bring immense credibility and prestige to those slave states. Tour organisers and world famous players like Rory have real power to effect change that will not happen from within.

I pray to see the day when a famous golfer stands up and says ‘No’ to this unholy alliance between golf and slavery.

4 thoughts on “Golf and Slavery: an unholy alliance

  1. This is very much in line with why I plan to “boycott” the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (as much as I love the Word Cup).

    • Yes, it seems a profoundly questionable process and decision by FIFA, dogged as it is with allegations of corruption and Gulf money buying the world cup.

      I guess someone would say about my hope for a sportsperson to stand up and be counted or boycotting golf or football that it is naive or unrealistically ‘purist’. That human rights abuses are rife in China and Russia and elsewhere. Right across to critiques about the immorality of American and British arming of the Saudi regime and its brutal war in Yemen. If even liberal democracies are mired in murky morality, where do you stop in compiling a list of states to avoid in sport? And how can an individual sportsperson make such judgments?

  2. I am a Lisburn man and always interested in how Rory does. As a very amateur student of the American Civil War I have read a lot on slavery. Your article was very compelling.
    I wonder if I could give an Alberta, Canada slant to the “Gulf Slave Society”. Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world. 97% of it is located in Northern Alberta in what is known as the Oil Sands. Because the oil is heavy in nature it has been caricatured as the “Tar Sands” by radical enviromental groups. Consequently Alberta is having a terrible time getting its oils to market as demonstated by President Biden cancelling a major pipeline on his first day in office. Yet tankers from the Gulf freely sail the St. Lawrence encouraged by the Canadian government. Great environmental progress by Alberta based oil companies is ignored while countries that embrace a “slave society” export to Canada at will. The hypocrisy is sickening.

  3. Hello David. The West’s (uncritical) alliance with Saudi Arabia and other gulf states is predicated on oil for sure. I’m no expert on the specifics of the Canadian oil sands apart from knowing they are enormous and controversial. I appreciate you have much more of a personal interest in that Canadian angle, But it would seem to me that the best long term strategy for detaching from dependence on gulf oil and looking after our planet at the same time is to shift away from fossil fuels asap. And that will be profoundly difficult and painful.

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