Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

ICTUR provides in-depth country profiles for all countries in Trade Unions of the World. Summary overviews are also published online (accesssible below) when ICTUR responds to violations, publishes relevant features in International Union Rights, or presents comments to international human rights monitoring procedures.

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

In the mid-late 20th Century many of the countries in the region emerged from imperialist occupation under a secular nationalism, lapsing into authoritarian one-party rule. Political control was retained not through winning open elections, but by repressing political opponents, and denying independent avenues for collective organisation, such as trade unions. Monopolistic trade union centres were granted certain privileges. In return they were relied upon to deliver stability to the regime. Throughout the region, ruling parties relied on the loyalty of these union monopolies, giving no room to independent union organisers. In Algeria independent unions are an organised movement, but lack legal recognition and face harassment and persecution.

Over recent decades ‘political Islam’ has grown as a challenge to the liberation-era movements. It remains a complex and divided political force, but its rise can nonetheless be clearly contrasted with the fading power of the post-colonial one-party regimes. In Algeria no party was permitted to challenge the nationalist liberation party the FLN in elections, until 1991, when Islamists took double the vote of the FLN. The FLN responded by cancelling the elections, imposing a state of emergency, banning opposition parties, and imprisoning leaders. A bloody and protracted civil war followed, ending only in 1999, with political Islam effectively subdued. In Syria genuine political challenge was impossible. Armed Islamist uprisings in the 1970s (and since 2012) were bloodily repressed. Egypt’s authoritarian deep State violently reasserted itself after Islamists won elections there in 2012. And similar trends can be traced though Libya and Tunisia and into Turkey, where support for Islamists has been surging since the mid- 1990s, despite bans. In Palestine, Morocco and Lebanon the influence of political Islam can be seen in recent years. Where Islamists have power, there is a mirror image, meaning that nationalists and leftists have faced repression: in an extreme form in Iran and Sudan, but there are echoes in ‘moderate’ Turkey.

Four of the region’s monarchies have no democratic political representation. They are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the UAE. Other than Oman (which has, at least, formal trade union structures), these countries have no real trade unions. They rely on a vast migrant labour force excluded from even the tame freedom of association rights granted to citizens. Distinct again is the situation of Israel, where conflict with Palestine remains one of the world’s most intractable political problems. And at the far west of the region, Mauritania experienced post-colonial one-party rule, and a series of military coups in the recent democratic period. It is also still the site of a substantial ‘traditional’ forced labour practices.

Imperialist intervention in the region remains pervasive: from western oil interests to military interventions in Iraq and Libya, and missile strikes against Syria, each dubiously subverting the UN Charter. Meanwhile, the relentless bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia is harming countless civilians. And the region is plagued by severe State suppression of protest. The mass killing of Palestinian protesters on the border by Israeli soldiers in 2018 a recent example of these appalling cases. The 2013 mass killing of pro-Morsi demonstrators by Egyptian forces another jarring episode.

Violence has blighted the region for many decades. Pulling these diverse strands together the latest edition of the ITUC’s Global Rights Index pulled no punches in its assessment: ‘the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the world’s worst region when it comes to fundamental rights at work’.

Full details for all countries in the region, including political history, the development of trade unionism, and contact and affiliation details for all national trade union centres can be found in ICTUR's in-depth global reference book: Trade Unions of the World.

Link to reportFull country profiles: Trade Unions of the World (2016)


Link to reportIUR journal: Focus on Trade Union Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (2018)

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

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based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.
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