Zahra Babar on Arab Migrants in Qatar

Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at CIRS, delivered a CIRSMonthly Dialogue ‎lecture titled “Working for the Neighbors: Arab Migrants in Qatar” on December 11, 2013. Babar ‎proposed to examine some of the trends in Qatar’s dramatic population increase over the past ‎few decades, paying particular attention to the demographic patterns of non-GCC Arab migrant ‎populations. “The migrant population in the Gulf in general, and in Qatar in particular, has ‎increased significantly over the past few decades,” she said. In the 1990s, the total population of ‎Qatar was about 500,000 people, and has increased threefold to almost 2 million in 2013. ‎

Giving some background to her research, Babar explained that “although we all are aware of this ‎large demographic presence of foreigners in Qatar, surprisingly enough, we actually do not know ‎very much about them.” Reliable data on who these people are, where they come from, how they ‎are integrated in the labor market, and how they experience life in Qatar is scant. “Obtaining data ‎in Qatar on national and ethnic compositions of the migrant population is a huge challenge. Any ‎researcher trying to work on some aspect of labor migration in Qatar finds that the data ‎availability, data accessibility, and data reliability is very scarce,” she noted. With Qatar’s hosting ‎of the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaching, critical attention has focused on Qatar’s labor ‎practices with several high-profile and defamatory exposés in the international media. Babar ‎warned, however, that people should be wary of those who claim to have solid facts and figures ‎regarding migration and labor conditions in Qatar. “I hope you would remain skeptical when any ‎one of these articles proceeds to give you particular figures,” she said. ‎

Guiding her research, Babar explained, was the question: “why is it important to talk about ‎nationality?” Nationality, she said, has a direct impact on one’s life in Qatar as a migrant, ‎including how it determines salary structures, benefits and prospects, and how one experiences ‎life and work in the country. Thus, “nationality has a strong correlation with how one is ‎integrated into Qatar’s labor market,” she surmised. ‎

Tracing nationality trajectories in Qatar over the past few decades, she argued that ethnic and ‎national compositions of the expatriate presence have gone through a complete transformation. ‎Focusing on changes to the non-GCC Arab migrant populations in Qatar, Babar highlighted the ‎significant decrease in numbers from 70 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to less than 20 percent ‎currently. Babar reported recent figures obtained from the Qatari Ministry of Labor, which ‎placed non-GCC Arab expatriates in Qatar at 146, 000, or 13 percent of the total workforce. Of ‎these, Egyptians comprise the largest percentage in terms of national composition, closely ‎followed by Sudanese and Syrians. Together, these three nationalities comprise 65 percent of the ‎total non-GCC Arab expatriate population in Qatar and 72 percent of the non-GCC Arab ‎workforce.‎

Situating these demographic changes historically, Babar argued that the GCC states, with their ‎burgeoning hydrocarbon industries and small populations, were obliged to employ foreign ‎workers. Initially, in the early days of the industry, the logical choice was to employ workers ‎from neighboring Arab countries, given the geographic, linguistic, religious, and cultural ‎affinities, and the ease of Arab integration into existing Gulf societies. However, as these ‎massive hydrocarbon industries grew and globalized and as political economic imperatives ‎surpassed these initial sociocultural considerations, there were dramatic shifts in the policies, ‎practices, and patterns of the Qatari labor market. ‎

Effectively, non-GCC Arab migrants in Qatar have, since the 1970s, integrated into society by ‎maintaining their traditional family structures. Of the total non-GCC Arab residents in Qatar, ‎only 52 percent are active in the labor force and contribute to the economy, while 48 percent are ‎dependents—children and housewives. If this is compared to corresponding data from other ‎nationalities, there is a significant and noticeable difference. There are only 17 percent non-‎working dependents in the Indian community and only 1 percent in the Nepalese community. ‎Further, the discrepancy in these figures also reveals that non-GCC Arab migrants presumably ‎earn higher salaries to be able to maintain a dependent household in Qatar. Thus, Babar argued, it ‎is easy to see why Qatari policymakers would be more inclined to import cheaper and more ‎manageable labor from Asia. ‎

In sum, Babar concluded that, “in Qatar, the state and society are extremely concerned about the ‎demographic imbalance and the increasing presence of foreigners outnumbering them, and so ‎really what they are looking for is to have their labor market needs met without any incremental ‎increase to the population.” ‎

Zahra Babar is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), Georgetown University-Qatar. Previously, she worked in the international aid, community development, and poverty alleviation sector. Babar has served with the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme. She also spent several years working in Pakistan with the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, one of Pakistan’s large multisectoral rural development organizations. She has edited, with Mehran Kamrava, Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf, and with Suzi Mirgani, Food Security in the Middle East. Babar received her BA in Government from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and her MA from the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.