Irfan Ahmed Nazir, Jawaharlal Nehru University
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19, a rapidly spreading deadly coronavirus, as a “pandemic.” The virus, first reported in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, was detected in more than 114 countries when the WHO made the announcement. Many countries sealed their borders and imposed lockdowns to contain the further spread of the virus. As a result, global human mobility came to a standstill.
The COVID-19 pandemic, a health crisis, soon became a migrant crisis. The migrants across the globe faced several challenges due to the “Great Lockdown,” especially in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The pandemic “exacerbated existing health vulnerabilities” of the migrant population in the GCC countries and “worsened their economic conditions.” The migrant workers, mainly those in the precarious low-wage sectors, were at an increased risk of exposure to the virus due to the crowded living spaces and inadequate access to health care facilities. In addition, many migrants also lost their jobs or faced financial constraints to various degrees as the economic activities came to a halt due to the lockdown. The situation was more difficult for the undocumented migrants as they could not access the healthcare facilities “without facing any potential legal arrests, deportations and other sanctions.”
These migrant workers had no other choice but to return to their home countries. However, to make matters worse, many migrant-sending countries, fearing a surge in COVID-19 cases, were hesitant to open the borders for their citizens who wished to return from the GCC countries. It created tensions between the migrant-receiving countries of the GCC and the migrant-sending countries, especially those in South and Southeast Asia. The GCC countries demanded immediate repatriation of all migrant workers who wished to return to their home countries. In April 2020, the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization warned that they would reconsider labour relations with those countries refusing to take back their citizens. A much more stringent measure came from Kuwait in July 2020. The Kuwaiti legislators introduced a bill in the National Assembly to bring a quota system to limit the number of migrant workers by 2025 and rectify Kuwait’s “demographic imbalances.”
The migrant-sending countries eventually opened the borders, paving the way for a mass exodus of migrants from the Gulf region to their home countries. Given the precarious circumstances, it is unlikely that these migrants will return to the GCC countries soon. In the light of these events, a prominent Indian daily wrote an editorial titled “End of a Dream,”  referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of the migrants as the culminating point of the end of the so-called ‘Gulf Dream’ – the Gulf region as the prime destination for migrants to build their fortunes. Many others, especially in India, have also predicted that the Gulf Dream is in a downfall. Is the COVID-19 pandemic the final nail on the coffin? This paper examines whether this argument holds strong two years since the pandemic.
Fading Gulf Dream
In the 1960s, the Gulf region’s ruling elites had to address a question concerning their newfound petrodollar wealth – how to use the abundant wealth to build their countries without disrupting the existing power structure? There was a broader consensus to use the wealth to develop their countries’ social and economic infrastructure. However, the most challenging part was who would build them. The local population in the Gulf region “lacked formal education and specific skills to work in the oil and gas industry or the ancillary infrastructure developments.” Finally, they devised the strategy of importing foreign labour on a contractual basis to facilitate the development activities. In the spirit of Arab solidarity in the 1970s, the GCC countries prioritized migrant workers from Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Yemen. However, this preferential treatment was short-lived, and the migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia occupied much of the GCC workforce by the mid-1980s.
The migrant workers soon became a predominant component in the GCC demographics. In 2020, the migrants comprised more than fifty per cent of the total population in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. In Saudi Arabia and Oman, more than one-third of the total population are migrants. Meanwhile, the GCC countries turned to a ‘dream’ destination for the young and skilled people of the migrant-sending countries to build their fortunes. The Gulf Dream addressed the issues of chronic unemployment and familial poverty in many of these countries. Moreover, countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines developed labour export as a strategy to boost their economy through remittances.
However, there are several downward trends in the Gulf Dream. The foremost reason is the institutional mechanisms to manage migration flows that are not favourable to migrant workers. The GCC countries have adopted the kafala (sponsorship) system that ties each migrant worker with a kafeel (local sponsor). The idea of the kafala system originates from the Bedouin traditions where the tribal members take the responsibility of the outsiders as local hosts. The migrants enter the country as contractual workers, and the kafeel has absolute control of the work and mobility of migrant workers. After the contract period ends, the kafeel may renew the contract or repatriate the migrant worker to the country of origin. This system ensures that the stay of the migrant workers in the country is temporary, and they are not entitled to citizenship or any political rights in the future.
The kafala system has privatized migration governance in the GCC countries. In addition to the local sponsors, recruitment agencies and consultancy firms are involved in the migration flows to the GCC countries. In such a scenario, the propensity for labour exploitation is higher as they do not enjoy direct protection from the state. Many migrants face poor living and working environments, inadequate access to healthcare, delays in salary disbursement, and physical and sexual abuse. The low-wage workers, especially women, are more prone to these exploitations. Such instances accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as the lockdowns left migrant workers stranded with abusive local sponsors.
Many GCC countries have adopted reforms to discard the problematic elements in the kafala system. It intensified in the last decade as their labour laws came under scrutiny as the venues for international events such as Expo 2020 in Dubai and FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha. The most significant one is to give rights to migrant workers to switch their jobs without the consent or prior approval of their local sponsor. The other measures include the wage protection system to disburse salaries on time, digital registration of contracts to protect the migrants from fraudulent recruiters, prohibiting illegal confiscation of passports by the local sponsors and banning mid-day outdoor work during summers. Nevertheless, there are few signs that the GCC countries are willing to do away entirely with the kafala system.
The GCC countries also have stringent visa rules for migrant workers to bring their families. It is to prevent migrants from settling down with their families permanently. For instance, in the UAE, a male migrant worker must earn a minimum salary of AED 4,000 or AED 3,000 plus accommodation per month to sponsor their spouse and children. The minimum income is AED 10,000 or AED 8,000 plus accommodation per month for female migrant workers. Moreover, the parents can only sponsor their sons until they are 18 and their daughters until marriage. Such rigid residency rules compel many migrant workers to return to their home country or migrate to a third country that offers the option of permanent settlement.
The nationalization policies in the GCC countries are another hindrance to the Gulf Dream. These policies aim to increase Gulf nationals’ participation in the workforce, especially in the private sector. Saudi Arabia is at the forefront with Saudization or Nitaqat laws. As indicated earlier, Kuwait has also harshened its Kuwaitization initiatives with the National Assembly giving a green signal to the quota system. There are two reasons for such policies: to protect their distinct khaleeji identity from foreign influence; to meet the aspirations of the native youth and female population, and give them prominence in the job market, especially after the Arab Spring uprisings. The nationalization policies are increasing the plight of migrant workers. For instance, the recent expatriate quota bill in Kuwait’s National Assembly may force approximately 800,000 Indian migrants to leave the country.
There were also no good signs on the economic fronts in the last decade. The plummeting oil prices in the global market concern the GCC countries as they primarily rely on petrodollars for revenues. The rise of alternative energy sources globally, such as nuclear power and oil-bearing shale deposits, is the root cause. The GCC countries are working to diversify their oil-dominant economies and shift the focus towards non-oil sectors. They also introduced taxation, increasing the living expenses for many migrant workers. The COVID-19 pandemic came as a heavy blow to the crashing Gulf economies. The three vital non-oil sectors – tourism, aviation and hospitality, collapsed due to the lockdown. These circumstances made many believe that the Gulf is no longer a viable destination for migrant workers.
Some recent trends also indicate that it is not yet the time for the migrant workers to discard their Gulf Dream. The GCC countries have laid down their ambitious development plans to diversify their oil-dominant economies. Under King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has launched the ‘Vision 2030’ to reduce Saudi dependence on oil and increase investment in the non-oil sector. Other GCC countries have also released similar strategic plans, majorly aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Last year, the UAE came up with the ‘Principles of the 50’ strategic document setting the country’s agenda for the next fifty years as a successive plan to the ‘Vision 2021.’ These documents have opened new possibilities for labour migration to the Gulf.
At the same time, the GCC economies are bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic. The UAE has successfully hosted Expo 2020 in Dubai, and Qatar is in the final stage of its preparation for the World Cup 2022 in Doha. Moreover, the GCC countries are in an advantageous position after the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent surge in oil prices. After many countries have imposed an embargo on Russian oil and gas, they have urged the GCC countries to increase their production. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to secure more oil from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In a similar move, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck visited Doha and signed a deal with Qatar for liquified natural gas supplies to reduce Germany’s reliance on Russian energy.
The GCC countries have realized that they cannot go ahead with their ambitious diversification and development plans without specialized talent. They need to attract and retain talent, especially the ‘foreign talent,’ to materialize their vision documents and make their respective countries the cultural and commercial hub of the region and the world. The kafala system and nationalization policies have hindered competition in the domestic labour market, impacting economic efficiency. Though these policies came to safeguard local ethos, the GCC countries are now devising ways to uphold them without compromising their ambitious development goals. Besides, the urge for diversification and creating a robust economy intensified with the severe challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most GCC countries have recently introduced a new set of visas, paving the way for permanent residency to lure foreign talent. The visa validity ranges from five to ten years, issued depending on the individual’s specialization or investment in the country. The visa holders are also independent of the local sponsors. Moreover, in a significant move, the UAE government approved amendments to the citizenship and passport laws in January 2021, allowing specific categories of foreigners, their spouses and children to acquire Emirati citizenship. Saudi Arabia also followed the Emirati footsteps by issuing a royal decree to grant citizenship to “experts and exceptional global talents” in November 2021. These developments are an indication that the need for migrant workers in the GCC countries is not fading away soon. However, the migrant-sending countries will have to upskill or reskill their workforce to cater to the new demands of the GCC labour market, such as artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, and remain a preferred source for specialized talent. They also need to devise mechanisms to integrate the Gulf returnees into their domestic labour market and utilize their skills and expertise, as all migrant workers may not be able to return to the Gulf.
The Gulf Dream is over for some, but not for all. For instance, the dream may end for a builder with the construction activities coming to a halt after Dubai Expo 2020 and FIFA World Cup 2022. While for a computer programmer, the Gulf region would be an oasis of opportunities. In other words, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a recalibration in the demand and supply sides of the GCC labour market. How the migrant workers respond to these developments will determine their fate in the GCC countries.
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