Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC Working Group II

On March 15, 16 2014, The final working group of CIRS’ research project Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC was held in Doha. Grant recipients of this research grant cycle gathered with an additional cohort of migration experts and scholars to discuss their research findings and to solicit feedback on their draft paper submissions. The topics investigated ranged from broad migration policies in the GCC and their respective implications on the distribution of nationalities within the population, to specific ethnographic case-studies highlighting the experiences of Arab expatriates in the Gulf.

From the onset of the Gulf oil economy in the 1950s to the present era, the ebbs and flows of Arab emigration to the GCC have largely been attributed to the Middle East’s regional geopolitical context and its influence on national migration policies. While Arab migrants formed a large component of the expatriate community up until the 1980s, their presence in the Gulf has dwindled as Asian migrants from the East currently significantly outnumber non-GCC Arabs. The participants explained that although much of the literature attributes this shift to the geo-political context, rapid development, the ensuing change in Gulf economies and the aggregate increase in demand for low-skilled labor by the private sector has also contributed to the shift in the composition of the expatriate workforce. Labor data from Qatar indicates that non-national Arabs in the Qatari labor force predominantly feature in managerial and administrative sectors, in professional, scientific and technical activities, and in services. Within particular occupations—such as teaching—Arab nationals have continued to have a steady and dominating presence primarily due to the shared linguistic and cultural affinities with nationals, and as such, demand for Arab teachers in the region shows no signs of abating. These tied porous identities coupled with the integral role of Arab migrants in teaching and children’s development, has led to what some have dubbed as the “Egyptianization” of the education field and of local culture and dialects. Thus, while GCC governments may source labor for low-skilled segments of the economy from various geographic regions, Arab migrants will continue to have a dominant presence within sectors that require certain shared cultural, linguistic, and religious affinities.

Concomitant with the rise in import of low-skilled labor has been the increased demand for high-skilled migrants as GCC states strive to develop knowledge-based economies. Participants additionally discussed Arab high-skilled migrants, particularly those emanating from emigration-prone countries such as Lebanon. Within this cohort, there is a significant presence of highly skilled female migrants that challenge the commonly perceived notion that Arab migrants to the Gulf are predominantly male. Moreover, studies within Lebanon indicate that a substantial proportion of Lebanese females migrating to the Gulf are not married, thereby also undermining the conception that female migrants are only present in their capacity as “sponsored - dependents” within the Gulf countries.

Beyond demographics and economic stratification, Working Group members discussed issues of identity, transnationalism, social inclusion and exclusion, and every-day experiences of Arab expatriates. Interviews with highly-skilled Lebanese in Kuwait have indicated that while the Gulf continues to be an attractive destination for employment, interaction and integration with nationals remains limited; this is largely attributed to the lack of provision of pathways to citizenship in the Gulf as compared to other popular destinations such as the USA or Europe. These sentiments of exclusion were also echoed by Egyptians residing in Kuwait that have characterized their stay as transitory and fleeting. While the long-standing presence of Egyptian communities in the Gulf has physically manifested itself in the areas of Khaitan and Farwaniya—labeled by some as “Cairo in Kuwait”—it is not uncommon to hear of feelings reflecting a transitory existence and fleeting relationships in Kuwait by Egyptian migrants.

However, these sentiments of lack of integration and limited inclusion do not reveal themselves uniformly across Arab communities; the decades-long presence of Arabs in the region has exhibited varying generational experiences and attitudes of migrants in the Gulf. A study of Palestinians in the UAE indicates that second-generation migrants tend to socialize with Emiratis much more than the first generation, and as such feel more integrated. Other migrants reveal intergenerational tensions between their families and their Gulf sponsors, as exhibited by the study of second-generation domestic-service Hadrami immigrants in Kuwait. While first generation Hadramis perceive success and dependency on the houses they serve as positively intertwined, the second generation views this relation as a problematic one that impedes their economic and social mobility.

The participants also discussed outlooks and perceptions of second-generation Arab migrants in comparison to other expatriate nationalities and to GCC nationals within a university setting. Given that the geopolitical context of the region will continue to play a significant role in migratory practices, student perceptions of the Arab uprisings and their socioeconomic impact on the region as a whole is vital. For instance, one study indicates that outlooks on the future of the Middle East are not overly hopeful amongst students; surprisingly however, for both GCC nationals and Arab expatriates alike, unemployment remains a significant concern for youth. Thus, the extent to which GCC labor markets will continue to absorb Arab migrants despite insecurities of national unemployment will have significant implications on regional migratory practices in the Middle East and the Gulf.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Abdullah M. Alajmi, Arab Open University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Matt Buehler, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Françoise De Bel-Air, Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO)
  • Ismail H. Genc, American University of Sharjah
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Manal A. Jamal, James Madison University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Susan Kippels, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research
  • Garret Maher, Gulf University for Science and Technology
  • Susan Martin, ISIM – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
  • David Mednicoff, University of Massachusetts – Amherst
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • George Naufal, American University of Sharjah
  • Michael Newson, International Organization for Migration
  • Gerd Nonneman, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Natasha Ridge, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research
  • Nada Soudy, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar
  • Paul Tacon, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia
  • Abbie Taylor, ISIM - Georgetown University
  • Carlos Vargas-Silva, University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS