Category Archives: Letters

A Boycott Does Not An Anti-Semite Make Or Unmake

We want to begin this statement by asserting that Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) categorically refuses and resists all forms of racism and discrimination, including anti-Semitism and condemns the recent attacks on synagogues in New Zealand, the US and in Germany.

We feel compelled to write this statement in response to recent attempts to criminalize and label as anti-Semitic, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and in light of the recent attempt by the German city of Aachen, to pressure the Ludwig Museum into withdrawing the Art Prize Aachen to Lebanese artist Walid Raad.

Raad, who is one of the members of GLC steering committee, is not an isolated case. The German parliament’s adoption of a non-binding resolution to condemn the BDS movement in May 2019, along with similar steps taken in France and the UK, has grave and far reaching consequences. It sends a clear statement that the rights of Palestinians in the face of well documented systemic and daily abuse by Israeli governments is of no moral concern for Germany, and that anyone who expresses support for Palestinian rights is considered an anti-Semite. The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum Peter Schäfer, was forced to resign for sharing an article about a letter signed by 240 Israeli and Jewish scholars, condemning the Bundestag proposition on the grounds that it undermines the fight against real anti-Semitism. 

More recently the city of Dortmund withdrew its award of the Nelly Sachs Prize for British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie over her support for BDS, even though the award citation recognized that her writing  “builds bridges between societies.” Other artists recently punished and banned for their support of BDS include Talib Kweli, Young Fathers, and Khaled Barakat. The interior minister of Berlin, Andreas Geisel, has publicly stated that he would take action to hunt supporters of the BDS, to raise “alarm bells” before the fire spreads. In parallel, the US Federal Government is “investigating” all Middle East Studies departments at American Universities. Efforts to criminalize BDS in all of the EU are underway in Brussels, and separate efforts are ongoing in France.

As members of Gulf Labor Coalition, we have been involved in a protracted struggle for the rights of migrant workers in the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and other cultural entities on Saadiyat island, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. When we confronted intransigence on the part of the museum and UAE authorities, we called for  a Cultural Boycott as a peaceful means of calling attention to an urgent concern and resistance. As much as we are familiar with the tactic of cultural boycott, we are also familiar with tactics to discredit it.

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law. The BDS commitment to nonviolence is reflected in Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz, which published Hanan Ashrawi’s op-ed “Boycott Is Our Palestinian Non-violent Resistance.” 

No one participating in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the systematic injustices perpetrated by the South African government in the time of apartheid could be accused of being anti-white; only those who sought to deligitimize that struggle would take such a position. Similarly, any entity who determines that the treatment of Palestinians under the authority of the state of Israel to be unjust, cannot be labeled anti-Semitic. Actions under the BDS movement are not directed toward the Jewish faith or the Jewish people. They are explicitly aimed against a government and its military that carries out systematic human rights violations against the Palestinian people. Those who attempt to stigmatize this ethical position by brandishing the false label of ‘anti-Semitism’ deliberately obfuscate and misrepresent the intentions of those who take part in the boycott, diverting focus from the demands of those boycotting and from actual incidents of anti-Semitism, such as mass shooting by white neo-nazi gunmen at synagogues in America– Pittsburgh (2018), Los Angeles (2018), and Poway (2019) and just this week in Germany in Halle (2019).

Boycott is a strategy which consists in withdrawing one’s engagement with, support of and participation in an entity or enterprise one has a grievance towards. It is usually conducted on a collective basis and is called on by an individual, a group or association, when all other paths to address a problem, or hold an entity accountable for ongoing injustice have failed to yield change.

Historically some of the most effective and peaceful means of resistance have been withdrawal, non-engagement, non-participation. In the realm of labor or corporate relations, this is referred to as a strike. When a strike is socialized to a level of a people, we know it as a general strike. Similar to the ontological matrix of a strike, the boycott assembles a collection of individuals who were previously isolated from power. A counter power is created to the dominant one..

Gulf Labor Coalition offers an example of boycott in the cultural realm. The coalition came together to address the conditions and welfare of workers who would be building the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. Members of GLC felt that they could as artists collect signatures from other artists who shared this concern, approach the museum’s administrators, express its wishes for securing the welfare of the museum’s workers and find a solution together. GLC concluded that the conversations with the museum were not having the desired effect and therefore called for a Boycott of sales and participation with the museum until they would meet the demands. GLC has never stopped seeking new avenues for negotiation and finding resolution, but the boycott was one means for GLC to withdraw support or consent until the demands are met.

Certainly, some attempted to tarnish GLC by claiming that it has some agenda against the Guggenheim, when in fact from GLC’s perspective what was asked of the museum could only be in their best long-term interests. After all, who could respect a museum built on the backs of exploited and ill-treated workers? We were highly sensitive that our boycott not embolden those with anti-Arab or anti-Muslim agendas or perpetuate racist stereotypes. One could imagine in a similar vein that the boycott could be labelled by those who resist the changes we have advocated for as anti-Arab or having an  anti-UAE agenda when if the GLC remedies would be heeded, they could only put the UAE on the very path of nourishment and respect for the culture it has been espousing and invested heavily in. 

Just as groups and individuals debated the merits of various political tactics throughout history, we can and should openly debate approaches to effecting change today. We know that boycotts, like strikes, can be difficult processes: they draw a line and clearly identify sides to be taken. As with individual  experiences, sometimes, you may find a friend taking the opposite side. Paradoxically, you may also find people on your side whose views you do not agree with, or find reprehensible. Regardless of how meticulously you clarify your views, there are no guarantees that your ethical position will not be appropriated by other agendas. We can only do the work to repeatedly call out such appropriations and stay vigilant against it. Thus, while there is no way to fully prevent someone with an anti-Semitic agenda from supporting BDS, the boycott itself does not an anti-Semite make or unmake. Nor does unconditional support for Israel exempt one from having anti-Semitic and racist attitudes. This is true both historically as well as within our contemporary politics, when some of the most xenophobic and racist politicians also claim to be defenders of the Israeli state.

Those who boycott exercise a critical democratic form of political resistance. Possessing no power or authority over a situation, they collectivize their capacity to withdraw their cooperation, participation and engagement. They take this action in solidarity with those yet more precarious – people who have been invisiblized or whose voices often remain unheard.

There is today a very dangerous trend to enact laws which silence dissent and critique of state conduct. We write this letter to urge all cultural workers to strongly refuse such concerted attempts to stifle critique, or collective action, against any abusive state or unjust entity.


Gulf Labor Coalition

A Letter to the Louvre

Image: Saadiyat Island, courtesy Gulf Labor

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is addressed in several recent letters from the international art community to UAE-based institutions.  In an attempt to establish direct contact,  get a response from the Louvre on a growing list of points of worry, and extend our concerns and solidarities regarding ongoing activity on Saadiyat Island to France,  Gulf Labor sends the below open letter to the Louvre.

__________ (In French, and English below)
Continue reading A Letter to the Louvre

Letter from Six Documenta Curators to Institutions in the UAE

July 2, 2015

HE Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, New York, NY, USA.
William Mack, Chairman, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, NY, USA.
John Sexton, President, New York University, New York, NY, USA.
Al Bloom, Vice Chancellor, New York University Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Carol Brandt, Associate Vice Chancellor, New York University Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Manuel Rabaté, Directeur Général, Agence France-Muséums, Paris, France.
Jean-François Charnier, Directeur Scientifique, Agence France-Muséums, Paris, France.
Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, London, UK.
Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, President, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

We write to you today as the current and former Artistic Directors of Documenta, the most widely visited and respected periodic exhibition of contemporary art, held since the end of World War II in the German City of Kassel. Documenta has marked the most significant moments in the history of Modern and Contemporary Art since the mid twentieth century, and prides itself for its research-oriented approach and for having a particular focus on the relations between art and society at large. It has contributed to processes of civil society building and democratization around the world through its presentation of great and concerned works of art. Continue reading Letter from Six Documenta Curators to Institutions in the UAE

March & April: Letters to Guggenheim

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Nancy Spector, Deputy Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

April 18, 2015

Dear Richard and Nancy,

We sent a letter to you on March 16, 2015, with three specific proposals. Namely –
the reimbursement of workers recruitment fees by creation of a Debt Settlement Fund, the establishment of a fair wage based on published and ongoing scholarly research, and the guarantee of workers rights to collectively address grievances, on Saadiyat Island. We stated that a positive response could lead us in the direction of the boycott being lifted.

We also asked for a clear and transparent response to these proposals by April 15. Despite the assurance that you would get back “after Richard’s return from Abu Dhabi, where he is currently meeting about labor issues” we have not heard back from you.

Yesterday, Nardello and Co’s report on the construction of NYU Abu Dhabi was published. It makes clear that the protection of workers against abuse failed on several counts, for about 10,000 workers, on the grounds of Saadiyat Island over the past five years. Many of their findings are consistent with what we and other reporters have been saying is wrong on Saadiyat Island.

For example on the issue of reimbursement of “1,000 to 3,000 USD” recruitment fees paid by practically all workers, and on the fact that only 20 out of 30,000 workers were actually reimbursed, the report states:
If the intention of the Labor Guidelines concerning recruitment fees was to release workers from the debt that effectively bound them to their UAE employers, then reimbursement should have been provided under guidelines that reflected the complexities of the situation, rather than interpretations that effectively disqualified all workers from reimbursement. In practice, this would have involved providing a lump sum amount – without requiring proof of payment – to all workers on the Main Campus Project.”

On the matter of workers right to express and resolve grievances collectively, the report found that the NYU Statement of Labor Values’ “edict that ‘no worker shall be subject to harassment, intimidation, or retaliation in their efforts to resolve work disputes’ is at odds with UAE’s criminalization of striking, the most powerful tool workers have to address grievances.” The report recommends that “It is essential that workers have a confidential reporting channel to the compliance monitor that allows them to address grievances without the employer’s knowledge”.

If all this seems like familiar language, it is because so little has effectively changed on Saadiyat Island. For example on the longstanding matter of passport confiscation which seems far from satisfactorily resolved, the report acknowledges that workers do not have sufficient control over their own passports, and should be provided with “access to fireproof and easily accessible lock boxes”.

There is by now an inescapable body of facts about labor conditions on Saadiyat Island, which have been essentially reiterated by report after report, whether issued by corporate, human rights or media agencies, over the past decade. Gulf Labor’s three proposals address recruitment debt, poor wages and the workers right to collective negotiation, all of which have NOT improved over all these years. The NYU Abu Dhabi example shows us again that merely drafting a policy and hoping for a better monitoring process has not worked, and proactive steps have to be taken, or else the abuse continues. NYU today stated that they will retroactively compensate thousands of affected workers who worked on their Saadiyat campus. Gulf Labor has outlined clearly what some more proactive steps can be, concretely. What does the Guggenheim intend to do, concretely?

In the hope of receiving a long-overdue response to this rather straightforward question, we are now making this and our original letter, reproduced below, public.


Gulf Labor Working Group


Letter dated March 16, 2015

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Nancy Spector, Deputy Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Dear Richard and Nancy,

With this letter, Gulf Labor is asking that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi take independent action to ensure that the workers who are building the museum are not exploited. It seems clear to us that such action must be taken before construction begins.

Gulf Labor proposes that:

1. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi create a Debt Settlement Fund (DSF) to compensate every worker who is building its museum on Saadiyat Island an additional $2,000 on top of wages earned (or, assuming an aggregate workforce of 7500—as in the case of the Louvre — around $15 million in additional total payments to workers). The DSF will address one of the most intractable labor problems in the UAE: recruitment debt. Independent investigators have established that the average recruitment debt burden per worker is $2000. (1)

2. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi ensures a fair wage for all workers employed on its construction site. Recent scholarly analysis of the UAE migrant labor market has demonstrated that wages are depressed by at least 25% relative to previous levels of compensation. (2) Moreover, our own research has found great disparities among workers, based on the place of origin, caste and community and terms of contract, even for the same work. We will work with the museum to establish a living wage for all workers on the site. This living wage will compensate both for the 25% wage depression and for the disparities cited above.

3. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will work to guarantee workers have the freedom to associate and the right to collectively address grievances. This will prevent the growing cycle of intimidation and violence, imprisonment and deportation that has taken place, especially since 2013.

Gulf Labor remains dedicated to thinking creatively about solutions for insuring fair conditions for the workers on Saadiyat Island. We are open to constructive negotiations, including the possibility of lifting the boycott.

Gulf Labor believes that this proposal is in the interests of all parties concerned: the workers, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority, and the Tourism Development Investment Corporation (TDIC).

In the hopes of keeping the doors open to further negotiations, Gulf Labor strongly urges the Guggenheim to provide a clear, proactive and transparent answer to this proposal by April 15, 2015. Time is of the essence.


Gulf Labor Working Group







Gulf Labor Letter to Guggenheim (June 2014)

To the Director, Deputy Director, Abu Dhabi Project Manager, and Abu Dhabi Curator of the Guggenheim Museum:

It was good to meet together last Friday. As we emphasized in the meeting, now that the construction tenders have gone out, the situation of the workers absolutely must be prioritized immediately, or the Guggenheim will find itself in the same position as NYU. Continue reading Gulf Labor Letter to Guggenheim (June 2014)