Highly Skilled Migrants: The Gulf and Global Perspectives Working Group II

On January 29-30 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) hosted a working group on “Highly Skilled Migrants: The Gulf and Global Perspectives.” This working group took place under a broader joint research project on Highly Skilled Migrants in Qatar which was launched last year by Zahra Babar, CIRS Associate Director, and two co-collaborators, Nabil Khattab of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and Michael Ewers of Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute. A number of scholars with regional and global experience on the topic of skilled migration were invited to present their articles during the two-day meeting, and receive feedback from the group. The topics discussed in the working group included, among others: “involuntary immobility” of highly skilled migrants in Qatar; the impact of highly skilled migrants on GCC economies; structural factors and recruitment of highly skilled migrants in the GCC; transition from oil- to knowledge-based economies; categories, visa classes and visa programs of skilled migrants; integration in the workplace; and the global competition amongst different countries seeking to attract highly skilled migrants.

Zahra Babar, Michael Ewers and Nabil Khattab started the discussion by presenting their article on “Immobile Highly Skilled Migrants in Qatar.” In investigating the motivations and experiences of highly skilled migrants in Qatar, the authors analyze the results of a nationally representative survey of 300 high-skilled expatriates in Qatar, as well key-informant interviews with 32 individuals. During their presentation, the authors presented their data and suggested that given the research carried out, it could be argued that under certain circumstances highly skilled migrants might become “involuntarily immobile” in Qatar. The authors suggest that under the restrictive migration regulations present in Qatar, certain groups of highly-skilled migrants face conditions of involuntary immobility, as they are unable to switch jobs easily either for professional advancement or to escape unsatisfying work experiences. This research study also explores the relationship between highly skilled migrants’ countries of origin, and their experiences in Qatar, particularly their motivations for coming here and for staying. Some of the data collected demonstrate that instability, conflict, and insecurity at home for certain Arab communities of highly skilled workers in Qatar means that they are also made involuntarily immobile as they cannot return home or move to resettle in a third country.

Martin Hvidt led a discussion on the subject of the impact of highly skilled migrants on the economies of the Gulf States. Hividt’s paper addresses the actual and potential contribution of highly skilled migrants to the growth of the Gulf states. He explores the nexus between economic growth in the Gulf States and immigration of highly skilled migrants. While it is nearly impossible to document the actual impact on the economy of this group of migrants due to lack of data, Hividt analyzes and identifies not only the potential positive contributions the highly skilled migrants have, but focuses closely on the barriers embodied in the policies that manage the intake and labor market conditions of the migrants.

Francoise De Bel-Air presented her research article that focuses on the structural factors in the GCC which are spurring policy changes for highly skilled migrants. De Bel-Air shared data on the characteristics and backgrounds of highly skilled migrants working in the GCC, using available demographic and labor force surveys available for various states. De Bel-Air also reviewed the policy framework adopted for highly skilled workers in the region, and particularly certain reforms that have been implemented since the late 2000s. De Bel-Air stressed that policies have developed and been influenced along three pillars of economization, securitization, and management of migration. Del Bel Air concluded by suggesting that there are structural explanations for the reforms of migration policies and the way they directly impact or do not impact highly skilled professionals in the region.

Binod Khadria’s article shifted the discussions to “Transition from Oil- to Knowledge-Economies and Indian Student Mobilities to the Gulf: Education Cities in Three GCC Counties.” In his paper, Khadria examines the transition of GCC countries from oil-economies to knowledge-economies. He analyzes this transition by tracing the development of four educational cities in four GCC cities: Doha in Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in UAE and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Khadria argues that the transition economies of the three countries are trying to tackle their worsening balance of trade arising from the decline in export of oil and natural gas in recent years. In doing so, he analyzes two trends: expansion in the number of Indian students in foreign universities in the GCC countries; and deepening of the foreign direct investment (FDI) in the education sector in the aforementioned cities.

Building up on Khadria’s article, Payal Banerjee led a discussion on “Skilled Migration: Categories, Visa Classes and Visa Programs.” Banerjee offered an introductory analysis of the different visa classes and typologies, the skilled/unskilled dyad in particular, to investigate how the reification and normalization of “skilled immigration,” as a category, result in very troubling outcomes. She argued that once a motif classification gets cemented on the basis of the absence or presence to skills/education, immigrants’ entitlements, legitimacy, and success and failure get calibrated on the basis of individual characteristics. This obfuscates the salience of racially coded structural inequality that is evidenced in a number of recent studies, which document skilled immigrants’ downward occupational mobility and various forms of marginalization, despite educational qualification and language skills. Furthermore, Banerjee claimed that the skilled/unskilled binary detracts from analyzing the role of immigration/visa policies in the production of tenuous legal status, which results in immigrants’ exploitation and vulnerability, in the low-wage as well as skilled, high-wage sectors.

In her presentation, Micheline van Riemsdijk discussed “Integration of Highly Skilled Migrants in the Workplace: A Multi-Scalar Model.” She argued that skilled migrants are often expected to adapt easily to the host culture based on their social, cultural, and human capital. However, these migrants experience integration challenges that have been little addressed in the literature. Using a case study of foreign-born engineers in the Norwegian oil and gas industry, van Riemsdijk proposed a multi-scalar conceptual framework to examine the integration of skilled migrants in the workplace. She combined literature on immigrant integration and diversity management with data from interviews and a survey of foreign-born engineers. The framework van Riemsdijk developed serves as a tool to move beyond single-scale, unidirectional studies of immigrant integration toward a multi-scalar, inter-linked conceptualization of the integration of skilled migrants.

Finally, Lucie Cerna and Mathias Czaika’s article steered the discussion to investigate the “Rising Stars in the Global Race for Talent? A Comparative Analysis of Brazil, India, and Malaysia.” The article examines how emerging economies increase their attractiveness for international talent. In order to analyze the strategies of the “global South” to attract or retain high-skilled people, the authors focus on the three emerging economies: Brazil, India, and Malaysia. Based on 15 expert interviews in these countries, the authors describe the short-term practices and long-term strategies of these three countries in reversing the brain drain by recruiting and retaining highly skilled workers. They argue that while Malaysia has become an active player and innovator on the international talent recruitment market, the other two countries still consider themselves as “self-sufficient” by relying either on their domestic skill supply or on engaging with their skilled diaspora in the case of India. Finally, the authors argue that despite the rising demand for human capital in these three countries, which are at different stages in a “migration policy transition,” they still lack sufficient legal, administrative and economic provisions to bring in skilled foreign workers in significant numbers.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Babar, Ewers, and Khattab highlighted that the original contributions of the group’s articles to the existing literature would greatly expand the scholarly lens on highly skilled migrants, moving it outside the traditional focus on OECD countries. The articles are due to be published in a special issue of a journal in the near future.


  • See the working group agenda here
  • Read the participants' biographies here


Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Payal Banerjee, Smith College
  • Lucie Cerna, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  • Amanda Chisholm, Newcastle University
  • Françoise De Bel-Air, Gulf Research Center, Geneva, and the European University Institute
  • Michael Ewers, SESRI, Qatar University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Martin Hvidt, University of Southern Denmark
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nabil Khattab, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Micheline van Riemsdijk, University of Tennessee Knoxville
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS