An OCN for the Day

= Other Country Nationals (formally known as TCNs or Third country nationals – other country nationals was deemed more PC).


Picture: OCN worker in Iraq courtesy of

OCNs are the backbone of the workforce in Qatar, and for much of the wealthy Middle East (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.). Qatari’s do not fight in their own military, drive their own cars, do their own laundry or cook their own food. They have an infinite stream of people (mostly men) pouring into the country looking for opportunities to make living (all of which is sent back to support their families in varies developing nations in the orient).
This workforce is not limited to the country of Qatar, it also exists on nearly every military installation in the Middle East. Varying in scope, Al Udeid (a large Air Force base in Qatar) has one of the largest populations of contracted outside workers. With the sheer size of military operations, the government contracts out a significant portion of its support services as it cannot sustain regular ops of that magnitude for things like food, construction, cleaning, MWR and other basic services.
Many have heard of the controversial deaths incurred while building the massive stadiums for the upcoming World Cup games. In fact the Qatari government has made marked improvements to help improve the conditions of the workers sweating in unbearable heat on top of sky scrappers. Even with some of these improvements, however, treatment of workers in Qatar that are either non-western or non-Arab are still sub-par at best.
Qatari law dictates that in order for a company to sponsor you over to Qatar to work, they must also provide housing. This is not a bad deal except that those same rules do not provide standards for housing conditions. Nearly all the OCN workers live in large compounds with 4 or more to a room (dubbed ‘man camps’ by the US military). They work at least 6 days a week (many of the workers I spoke with work a month before getting 1 day off) and make a minuscule amount of money, summing somewhere around $300 a month depending on the job.
Probably the most shocking practice is the confiscation of passports by the contract owner. The company gives generic reasons for doing this, but I cannot think of any other reason than power over their work pool. By doing this, they control when (if) they can leave the country. They also control contract hoping for better wages. While I use the word ‘worker’ to describe many of these laborers the translation in Arabic is closer to servant or slave. In restaurants you will also see signs that bar these same people from entering, which is clear and even expected, discrimination (not that they could afford to eat out or have a drink in a western hotel). This practice is known, has been written about and still remained largely unchanged despite protests from the international community.
Yet the stream of workers continues to flow. Many of the workers I met on the base were highly educated in their home country including lawyers and doctors. Regardless of their education, they still made more money working in the Middle East than they did practicing their trade in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.

Unlike the US there is also no path to citizenship. You could be born in Qatar, have lived in Qatar for 30 years and established your entire life in the country, but you will still never be Qatari. You will also not enjoy the same rights, privileges and social status of a Qatari. You will be treated differently depending on what nation you are originally from (UK/US seem to be at the top of the tier with Nepal, Sri Lanka & Filipino being some of the lowest). You could speak fluent Arabic, be Muslim and wear an abaya – but it is does not matter. To be Qatari means you descend from a certain bloodline that can be traced back a few hundred years.

I had the pleasure of meeting a few University students who originally were from Sudan. Although they grew up in Doha, went to Qatar university and spoke fluent Arabic they did not consider themselves Qatari and were in fact very critical of the country and the native born Qataris. They reinforced the believe that immigrant workers are in fact the only thing propping up the wealthy country.

Learning the conditions that these people lived and worked in completely shocked me, especially when I learned it didn’t matter if they were contracted by the US government or the Qatari government. There is a  clear divide between the extreme rich and poor. The two groups of people live and work in two totally different worlds with the differences being so starkly obvious: one with Dior sunglasses, red bottom shoes and a land cruiser with driver – and the other – soiled work suits in mass buses with no air conditioning (provided by their employer only to bus their workers to and from work). There were so many workers hitchhiking on the side of the roads trying to get to A to B or running walking across the five lane highway system.

The western world is not without its issues, however, this kind of extreme exclusivity to wealth is still hard for me to accept as ‘simply part of the culture’. When it is so institutionalized as it is in both overseas military operations and in Middle Eastern countries, and you have a limited amount of time and resources, how do you change it?

2 thoughts on “An OCN for the Day

  1. Staggering hearing the treatment of people simply trying to make a living or better their family. Fascinating insight into something I knew little of. Thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s