Forty people were injured after a fight broke out between Kazakh employees and workers from several different Arab countries at a petrol deposit in Tengiz, a town in northern Kazakhstan on June 29. The violence was sparked by a suggestive photo of a Lebanese man and his Kazakh colleague. Photos of the attacks on Arab employees spread rapidly across the Arab world, sparking a diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and several other countries including Jordan and Lebanon.
The story began with a photo of a Lebanese man named Elie Daoud, who works for Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), which is one of the main exploiters of petrol in the region.
In the photo, Daoud is posing with a female Kazakh colleague. He’s holding a walkie-talkie and the angle makes it look like the antenna is in the young woman’s mouth. Daoud didn’t post the photo publicly, but he did make it his WhatsApp profile picture.
As more and more people shared the photo of Daoud and his colleague, others began to circulate several erotic videos, which they claimed showed Daoud and his colleague.
The appearance of these videos ratcheted up the anti-Lebanese rhetoric already poisoning Kazakh social media.
It turns out, however, that none of the videos actually show Daoud and his colleague the actors bear no resemblance to the pair. Moreover, our team spoke to one of the actresses who appears in one of the videos a Kazakh Instagram model. She told our team that Daoud doesn’t feature in the clip.Meanwhile, Daoud took to Facebook to apologise for offending the Kazakh people. In the end he was taken away by Kazakh authorities, though the reaction did not prevent other reprisals.
Three hours of attacks
On June 29, a group of Kazakh employees of CCC (the company that employs Daoud) started to attack any workers who seemed to be from an Arab country. The violence lasted nearly three hours. When the Kazakh police finally intervened, they ended up evacuating 40 wounded people. Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese men all figured among the victims.
Due to the shocking nature of these images, our team has decided to only post screengrabs.
On June 30, the head of the Tengiz CCC site, Hishal Kawash, posted a video to say that Daoud was no longer working with the company and that things were back to normal at the site. There was no information about the young woman in the photo, her health or her safety in the Kazakh media.
However, the incident resulted in diplomatic ripples. Both Jordan and Lebanon called on the Kazakh government to insure the safety of their citizens and to open an investigation into the violence. The Kazakh government, in turn, promised to carry out a thorough investigation.
Our team carried out its own investigation, speaking with journalists, Arab expats and Kazakh people who work for the CCC. Many of them said that the photo of Daoud and the pornographic videos were only the final straw to a long-simmering animosity brewing amongst workers in Tengiz.
"It was like the photo was meant to say: ‘Hey, stupid Kazakhs. We already have your money. Now we want your women, too!"
A 26-year-old Kazakh man, whom we are calling Dauran, works for the CCC. He says he didn’t participate in the violence, though he was witness to it.
"The videos speak for themselves. It’s important to understand the frustrations of the employees. They feel like the CCC is under the control of Arab expats [The CCC, which is one of the most important companies in the Middle East, was founded by Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen.] They also think that these Arab expats don’t treat the Kazakhs well. Most of the Kazakh employees of this company work menial jobs, most are poor and uneducated. There are a few Kazakh engineers who are paid well, but they are few and far between.
One of the things that outrages the Kazakhs who work for the CCC is the massive salary gap between foreign employees and local workers. For example, a Kazakh construction worker employed by the CCC might make between 230,000 and 300,000 tenge per rotation (between €543 and €696). Each rotation lasts 28 days and then the worker is then off for the next 28 days, which means he isn’t paid. That means that the average salary for a Kazakh employee at the CCC is between 115,000 and 150,000 tenge per month (between €267 and €348).
Most of the employees from Arab countries work rotations lasting 60 to 90 days and then they have 15 days off. They earn between $5,000 and $20,000 USD per rotation (between €4,500 and €18,000). Even the Kazakh engineers make less money than their Arab counterparts.
The Kazakh employees are also angered by their poor working conditions. They have little time to eat or rest during working days. They also face job insecurity and many get let go, often with no good explanation from the company.
But after the whole scandal around Elie Daoud, the situation got even worse for Kazakh workers. Our higher ups informed us that any small infraction like being late or taking too much time to eat lunch would result in us losing our jobs. That announcement, understandably, added fuel to the fire and led to the outbreaks of violence the next day.
In the wake of the violence, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev told the CCC that they needed to change their practice.
"You can’t pay domestic and foreign workers differently for the same work," he said.
Daraun, the 26-year-old Kazakh who works for CCC said that, considering this back drop, the photo of Daoud and his colleague added insult to injury.
"As I said earlier, it was as if the message was "hey, stupid Kazakhs. We have your money, now we want your women." That's just too much for a conservative country like Kazakhstan. Many people also expressed anger at the woman in the photo, who they thought had acted inappropriately.
"The rules are the same for everyone"
France 24 also spoke with Hady (not his real name), a Lebanese man who works for the CCC in Tengiz. He says he knows Daoud well.
Everyone knows that the photo was just an excuse to attack the company. I heard that a lot of Kazakh people were angry about the way they were being treated in Tengiz. That said, these salaries are legal under Kazakh law. The expat workers are paid more because they have international experience and they work far from home. That’s how it works all over the world. At the CCC, the rules are the same for everyone, including both expats and locals.
This isn’t the first time that clashes broke out between locals and expats at the site in Tengiz. Back in 2006, a similarly violent incident occurred when a group of Turkish employees made fun of their Kazakh colleagues. It was a joke that ended up landing 115 Turks in the hospital and resulted in massive damage to the site.