Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC: Background

The Arabian Peninsula exhibits one of the highest ratios of migrants to nationals anywhere in the world. Currently almost half of the regional population is foreign. In several countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, non-nationals comprise nearly three-quarters of the population. Migration to the region is not a new phenomenon, beginning with the advent of the oil economy in the 1950s, and subsequently increasing exponentially over the decades to match the booming development trajectories of the six GCC states. The intensive development of the regional hydrocarbon industry led to a heightened need for labor that could not be met by the small local Gulf populations. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain all required a steady supply of foreign workers to meet their burgeoning labor demands. Research indicates that just before the 1991 Gulf war, the GCC was home to more than seven million migrants; by 2008 this figure had increased to almost sixteen million.

Much of the GCC’s demand for labor was initially drawn from neighboring Arab states. Regional inflows of workers from highly populated Arab countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq were a predominant feature of the migration landscape in the Gulf during the 1960s and 1970s. Palestinian refugees were also a visible presence in many of the six states, drawn to the economic opportunities provided in the GCC. Intra-GCC migration has been less significant over the decades, with the exception of Omanis and some Saudis who have sought and undertaken employment in the more affluent neighboring states. Over the last decade Bahraini nationals have also been more likely to move out of their home state for improved economic opportunities elsewhere within the region.

This phenomenon of Arab intra-regional migration appeared, at least in the beginning, to be a mutually beneficial, symbiotic arrangement, welcomed by Arab governments in both labor-receiving and labor-sending states. One sub-region of the Middle East was facing a desperate shortage of people to populate its labor market, while other states within the broader region struggling with lethargic economic development agendas and swelling populations, were eagerly in need of the pressure-valve provided by Gulf employment. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the receiving states of the GCC, while not engaged in bilateral agreements on migration with sending Arab countries, were certainly informally taking in greater numbers of Arab migrants than non Arab. During the 1970s the notion of an integrated Arab labor market was often raised, particularly by sending countries, as were calls for free circulation of workers.

But this was not to be a lasting arrangement. By the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a demographic shift in the GCC migrant population; the proportion of Arabs dropped substantially and the number of Asian migrants increased dramatically. Currently flows of labor migration into the region are predominantly from South and South-East Asia.

Arab migration to the Gulf has been informed by two features: economic pull factors related to the region’s hydrocarbon economy, as well as push-factors arising from regional conflicts, limited economic opportunities, and socio-economic and political instability. The Arab-Israeli conflicts, as well as the first, second, and third Gulf wars have all combined to account for the persistent waves of Arab migrants seeking employment security and greater prosperity within the GCC. Initially, GCC regimes and policy-makers showed a marked preference for Arab expatriate populations over other potential labor migrants. Given linguistic, ethnic, and religious affinities, it was assumed that the presence of Arab migrants would be less of a destabilizing factor, and place less pressure on the local socio-cultural milieu. Over the course of a few decades the oil-states’ governments views on this shifted dramatically. Gulf regimes became increasingly alarmed at the potential threat posed by Arab migrants.

Arab migrants posed a risk particularly due to their ability to more readily integrate within Gulf society. Speaking the same language and sharing similar customs meant greater blending-in capacity. Greater assimilation meant an enhanced ability to promote amongst nationals social and political concepts damaging to the local authoritarian monarchies. Regimes were particularly concerned about Arab migrants advancing pan-Arabist and Nasserist ideas, calling, for example, for the Gulf states’ greater integration into the Arab heartland, where Arabs ought to be allowed to circulate freely, borders ought to be eliminated, and oil-wealth shared more equitably among the Arab brethren. That the Arab transnational workforce might stake a claim to their share of Gulf oil wealth was considered by the Gulf states to be a legitimate political threat that could not be afforded.

Additionally, politicized non-Gulf Arabs could possibly transmit amongst nationals with pan-Arab revolutionary ideologies, and potentially offer political and material support to local dissidents. By the 1960s Arab migrants were already considered by the Gulf states to be a source of political activism and a latent threat to the ruling regimes. The threat rested in the transnational network of the Arab diasporas, and that radical ideologies could travel to the Peninsula and insert political action within the host states. The GCC states feared the risk that Arab migrants posed to their carefully-crafted national identity, emerging ruling bargains, and traditional sources of political patronage and legitimacy. By the mid-1970s, naturalization programs that had opened to Arab migrants a decade earlier began to be steadily phased out. Strict nationality and citizenship laws arose across the Peninsula, based on stringent criteria and proof of lineage, combined with the surge of an “authentic” Khaleeji identity that was crafted as something unique and distinct from the broader “Arab” identity.

The change in composition of Gulf migrants and the selective preference given to Asian migrants by the 1980s was an attempt by the state to reassert its control and define the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. The proportion of Arab labor slowly declined throughout the 1980s, and by 1995 Asian workers outnumbered Arab nationals by a vast proportion. Asian workers were far easier to segregate and to exclude from social interaction with GCC nationals. They presented little threat in terms of agitation, and certainly lacked the ethnic authenticity to stake a claim to citizenship rights. In a few decades the balance shifted as more Arabs were replaced by Asian workers, even though official policies do not explicitly state this as the intention. The kafala system as the main mechanism governing migration into the region enabled the GCC countries to control the inflow and composition of foreign workers. In addition to the sponsorship system, the short-term, two-year labor contracts created a rotational system of foreign labor, ensuring the impermanence of migrants’ duration of stay. Curbs on naturalization and the limitation of citizenship rights all bolstered the GCC states’ efforts to create a physically and economically marginalized, highly segregated, and thoroughly apolitical labor force.

Despite the increasing dominance of Asian migrants to the region, current estimates are that there are still somewhere around 4 million non-Gulf Arabs throughout the GCC states, or over 25 percent of the total migrant population. The Arab migrant community in the Gulf is predominantly composed of Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians. While the study of migration to the Gulf is increasingly garnering the attention from a number of academics and interested observers, the bulk of ongoing empirically-based research efforts are focused on non-Arab migrants. The Arab migrant communities present in the Gulf have been a neglected area and merit further scholarly discussion and focus. In line with this, CIRS is launching a new multi-disciplinary research initiative entitled “Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC”. Our goal is to explore questions related to the topic through funding empirically-grounded, theoretically informed research proposals. 

Areas of Inquiry:

• What is the impact of international tertiary educational institutions (like Education City in Qatar or NYU Abu Dhabi), in terms of drawing students from surrounding Arab countries? In earlier decades it was Cairo and Beirut which served as hubs of higher education drawing Gulf students, now the trend appears to be reversed and students are flowing in the other direction

• What type of work opportunities do most Arab migrant workers seek in the GCC states? Are working conditions any different from that of non-Arab migrant workers? Do most Arab migrant workers occupy medium or high skilled positions? Are there biases or preferential treatments towards Arab migrant workers as opposed to others?

• What does the “Arab Spring” mean to the Arab migrant communities currently residing in the GCC states? Will the Gulf States experience another round of forced outward Arab migration within the current situation (Arab Spring)? How does the push-factor of regional conflict translate in this scenario? Will the GCC states be more amenable to increasing the intake of Arab migrants, or will the politicization of the region cause further concerns that Arab migrants post a threat to host states?

• How have various labor nationalization programs (e.g. Qatarization, Saudization, Emiritization, etc.) impacted Arab migrants in the GCC states?

• What are the patterns of socio-cultural integration, or the lack there-of, for long term Arab migrants resident in the Gulf? Is inter-marriage between non-Gulf and Gulf Arabs a common phenomena? 

• What are the overall living, employment, and residential conditions and status of long term Arab migrant communities in Gulf states? The Yemeni, Egyptian and Palestinian communities are assumed to be into their third generation. Have there been naturalization tracks for these migrants? What is the form of citizenship access that they may benefit from?

• How do remittances by Arab migrants in the Gulf impact upon or contribute toward bridging financial deficits in their countries of origin? Do these remittances have a profound impact on development trajectories in the non-oil Arab countries? What is the value-added by migration to the standards of living in both the Arab sending and receiving countries?

• Are there any ‘brain-drain’ impacts felt in Arab sending countries, with high and medium skill migrants moving to the Gulf states for better economic opportunities?

Article by Zahra Babar, Assistant Director of Research at CIRS