Non-Monetary Rent? Examining the Rentier Migration Diplomacy of the GCC States’ Relations with Countries of Origin

James Worrall, University of Leeds

 

The rentier Gulf States have long been reliant on cheap migrant labor for their economies to function (Thiollet, 2023). In more recent times, other Middle Eastern states have come to use their hosting of refugees as a means of generating rents from richer states, who are eager to keep refugees at arm’s length (Tsourapas, 2021). While in the first of these types the pre-existing rents generated by hydrocarbons create the demand for labor required by these rentier Gulf States, the second type uses the very presence of migrants and refugees to generate needed income from elsewhere.

These appear to be axiomatically different. The concept of “migration (or refugee) rentierism”, which has largely been used to refer to the use of migrants to generate income, is still quite recent and thus fluid.[i] Indeed, this is one of its strengths as a concept, in that it allows us to think about how states can use migration – not just as an economic lever but also as a tool of power and influence.

We know of the high-profile cases of the North Korean state sending citizens overseas for work under tight control, then taking their wages to fill gaps in the regime’s supply of hard currency (Park, 2009). Likewise, Cuba has regularly used its surplus of doctors as a tool of foreign policy to generate soft power benefits (Baggott and Lambie, 2019). These two radically different examples can, in fact, best be conceived as two ends of the same spectrum, that of states using their workforce internationally to their own advantage. But what of the receiving states?

In the Gulf, recent years have seen a significant diversification of the countries of origin of migrant workers. The relative numerical dominance of migrants from India, Pakistan and the Philippines has decreased, and many new countries have sent significant numbers of migrant workers, particularly places such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Kenya. A decade ago these countries hardly registered numerically in the data. This change is not accidental. A number of dynamics are behind it, from nervousness around large numbers of migrant workers from a single country, to economic diversification schemes – especially in tourism, which require large numbers of better educated and English speaking workers. The change is also related to a more activist stance on migrant workers’ rights from some countries of origin, especially the Philippines (Ruiz, 2020; Malit and Tsourapas, 2021b), which is uncomfortable for some Gulf States.

This diversification phenomenon has occurred alongside a bewildering array of changes to visa availability, types and processes. There have even recently been amendments to elements of the Kafala system itself in some states, such as Qatar. The very system which has been foundational in enabling rigid state control over migration. Ultimately it means that, now more than ever, visas are a product. They are a kind of (non-monetary) rent in their own right, which is created by the state to achieve an increasingly broad array of objectives – societal, political, diplomatic and economic – rather than a means of generating revenues alone.

By helping to illuminate these political and power elements, the concept of “non-monetary rent” as an additional category of analysis therefore goes beyond the usual economic dimensions of the relatively new concept of rentier migration. Furthermore, this paper argues that the recent phenomenon of structured diversification of migrant origin into the GCC states links to the potential for generation of these non-monetary rents. In doing so, it demonstrates how GCC states are beginning to use visas as non-monetary rent to achieve diplomatic and political outcomes that money alone cannot necessarily buy.

Given most GCC states’ increased activism in their foreign policies, the paper argues that one of the key uses of “rentier migration” is increasingly as a tool of diplomacy. Using access to their labor markets to influence the countries of origin of the migrants they host through increased remittance flows and reduction of unemployment, the GCC states can also use the supply of work visas in their relations with other states to elicit non-monetary benefits. This is, however, not as simple as it first appears. As these are complex nested processes within migration diplomacy and wider diplomatic relationships, they often take place through third parties and are influenced by domestic politics.

In putting forward the idea of migration control acting as a way of generating forms of non-monetary rent, this paper proposes a complementary approach to examining monetary forms of migration rent in the existing literature. It also offers a useful tool which opens up possibilities for research which can add to our understanding of authoritarian politics, migration and geopolitics, in both the Gulf and beyond.

 

Conceptualizing Non-Monetary Rent

Rent is a well-established concept in political economy. The word itself is of course intrinsically linked to economics. Since it is associated with essentially unearned—or low input yet high profit margin—monetary income from a natural resource, there is naturally a considerable bias toward studying it from a financial and economic angle (Ahumada, 2023). This has led, logically but also problematically, to a significant focus on the economic value of rent and only a generally narrow interpretation of its political consequences (Yamada and Hertog, 2020).

While not usually understood in this way, it is however clear when conceptualized in this manner, that visas can thus be seen as a form of rent, which is, actually in many senses, cheaper to produce than oil and gas. Their immediate cost for the state itself, on a simplistic reading, is bureaucrats’ time and some stationery.[ii] For the Gulf States where the state sector has been broadly nationalized in terms of its labor force, salaries paid by the state itself largely remain in the country. Demand for migrant labor mostly comes from the private sector, which pays lower salaries and struggles to attract nationals to work there (Al-Asfour, Rajasekar and Charkasova, 2022). There is a divide between the richer and poorer Gulf States and those with larger populations than others, so the picture is nuanced. But, generally speaking, demand for migrant workers lies in the private sector, and thus the burden of paying migrants does not fall on the state itself.[iii]

Host states are also motivated to attract certain highly skilled or high-net-worth individuals. In these cases, visas are a direct product that can be sold in return either for high-value skills, or for what is essentially foreign direct investment (FDI) which boosts productivity and consumer and investment spending. These cases form a different category of rent that is less connected to forms of migration diplomacy, particularly given different levels of agency and power dynamics. In this paper focuses instead on migration for work by poorer people from the Global South in less skilled or unskilled roles. Often, these workers are recruited by powerful state or semi-state agencies – which have complex domestic lineages and deep connections with the state in sending countries (Malit and Tsourapas, 2021a; Malit, this volume). This reality makes non-monetary rent a complex element to study.

Beyond the Gulf, visas are increasingly seen as tools of economic statecraft. Just taking the most recent examples related to the UK and its attempts to strike complex free trade agreements with India and Australia highlights this fact. Visas have featured strongly in negotiations and are seen as a major stumbling block to a deal with India, which is demanding access for hundreds of thousands of its citizens to work in the UK in return for wider market access, especially in services (Anon, 2023). Meanwhile, in the UK’s completed deal with Australia, the visa rules between the two countries for professionals, business exchanges and young workers were relaxed significantly.[iv]

As such, visas are leverage for other economic concessions and thus remain intrinsically linked to economic gain. The usual associations with the concepts of rent and visas are wrapped up in the economic or financial domain – whether that be direct income, access to cheap labor, or leverage in market access negotiations. What, then, might the concept of non-monetary rent entail?

There are perhaps two possible forms of non-monetary rent. Firstly, there are goods exchanged in lieu of money as a kind of barter. Secondly, and far more interestingly, there is the issuance of visas as a form of rent that generates returns for the state which are not economic in nature. In this sense, smaller, weaker and poorer countries have a form of rent of their own which is in demand: their voice and vote in international fora, as well as in international relations more generally. In this case visas, which have a monetary value for the receiving state but cost nothing to produce, are exchanged for diplomatic and political support. Importantly, visas can also be used as tools of diplomacy and geo-strategy in combination with other tools of economic statecraft, such as trade concessions, FDI and development aid.[v]

Non-monetary rent does not necessarily mean that economic elements of the engagement are absent, but it might mean that they are secondary. Visas have clear monetary value for the state, as well as for the people that receive them. In addition to the cheap labor, which is generally an intrinsic part of the bargain for the visa-issuing country, there are other additional benefits, the value of which might outweigh the “main” part of the transaction. One might be able to buy this diplomatic and political support through other measures. However, this will often cost actual money rather than deriving from the direct creation of a form of rent which has a monetary value but costs nothing to produce. Importantly, this monetary value must also be supplemented by the utilization—and the political benefits—of this non-monetary or power value. In other words, while non-monetary rents can have monetary value, their generation of diplomatic and political outcomes is their primary importance and value.

It is clear therefore that from this conception of non-monetary rent we are led into a reality in which a kind of a hierarchy exists. The value of visas in diplomacy is very high in some contexts and very low, or perhaps non-existent, in other contexts. It is also a significant diplomatic and political challenge to know when and how to deploy the rent of visas to entice the type of non-monetary rent desired (i.e., diplomatic or other support). It depends on the context, value and the priority hierarchies of other actors. The specific transmission mechanisms of how migration processes function are likely to make the generation of non-monetary rents from visas more potent—especially how they tie into networks of patronage politics and the realities of economic vulnerability in the sending state.

Finally, one can also further conceptualize the idea of non-monetary rent as the direct, purposive extraction of concessions or support. This could be in terms of votes or a change of stance or position on an issue, which might be termed a “deliberate rent”, which could be linked to a particular deal or negotiation for visas. On the other hand, a more “implicit rent” is a longer-term tying together of two countries, which leads to implied or necessary changes in the way the state receiving visas behaves more broadly, making it less likely to want to disrupt visa issuance.[vi] Once again, this would depend on the nature of the hierarchy and what each state has to offer, which in turn links to global power dynamics, as well as to the domestic politics and priorities of sending and receiving states.

 

The Changing and Unchanging (Migration) Environment of the Gulf

It is not just the nature, volume and type of migration to the Gulf that has been changing. The context in which migration to the Gulf takes place has also been evolving – in terms of the economic context of diversification, relatively high oil prices and the search for increased FDI, as well as the geo-strategic context. The rise of Iran in the region (Worrall and Saleh, 2020), uncertainty over United States commitments under both Obama and Trump (Lynch, 2015; Ahmadian, 2023), the shock of the Arab Spring and the rising ambitions of the rulers of the Gulf States have all combined in complex ways to make the region more volatile than ever before.

This has affected some Gulf States more than others, but there has been a step change in the confidence and willingness of states to leverage all tools at their disposal. This is particularly the case for Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, which have augmented and utilized their power across multiple domains to secure strategic advantages in ways that seemed inconceivable at the start of the century. These include military interventions in Yemen and Libya and large scale political and economic engagement across the Horn of Africa, as well as huge investments in sport, culture and education through the 2022 World Cup, Expo 2020, branch campuses and mass tourism.

These developments have created greater demand for migrant workers, considerable global attention on the plight of migrant workers in the region, and, in turn, significant change in the ways migration is managed.[vii] Much of this falls beyond the scope of this paper, but remains important contextually. Collectively these significant changes across the Gulf, and particularly for the three states in question, the intersection of these changes has driven a diversification of migrant countries of origin and a new utilization of visas as a different foreign policy tool, which can generate diplomatic and political benefits that reinforce the wider geo-strategic aims of these countries. These connections are not easy to untangle, but they are becoming increasingly visible, which helps us begin to define and utilize the concept of “non-monetary rent”.

 

The Diversification of Migrants by Origin

Since 2010, there has been an important change in the mosaic of migration across the Gulf that has mostly gone unnoticed. While the composition of the top 10 countries of origin has changed relatively little, and the traditional countries of origin such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines still make up the majority of migrants,[viii] this conceals a wider and important trend. Below the top 10, or even the top 5, there has been a considerable widening of both the numbers of countries of origin, as well as a very rapid expansion of actual numbers of migrants from a group of countries, especially those in East Africa. Rather than examining the Gulf as a whole, it makes sense to focus instead here on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. These countries have implemented the most activist foreign policies since the Arab Spring, they have the largest economies of the region, and thus they also have the largest markets for foreign labor.

There are many reasons for the expansion of the numbers of countries of origin and the scale of migration from them. These include the nature of the labor force in countries of origin, levels of education, English language capabilities, religious affinities, the price of labor itself, political sensitivities and, as this paper argues, the geopolitical ambitions of the receiving states.

The argument in this paper is not that non-monetary forms of rent are the primary reason for the expansion of the range of countries of origin and scale of migration. These forms of rent are, however, a useful additional product for the Gulf States, especially in the context of an increasingly activist and possibly even domineering foreign policy, particularly in East Africa and the Horn.

While there have been increases in the numbers of migrant workers from the traditional countries of origin (India, Pakistan and the Philippines), numbers have risen from new countries significantly across the Gulf. Given the pre-existing dominance of certain nationalities and their established pathways for migration, one would expect to see this, especially with the economic expansion and ambitions of the GCC states. It is, however, noticeable that the rise of migrants from new countries of origin has been swift, often from extremely low bases, leading to very significant percentage increases, and in many cases also substantial overall numbers.

From a diplomatic perspective, the expansion of the range of countries of origin has the added benefit, from a wider viewpoint, that the more countries are sending large numbers of migrants the more those complex chains of migration are established. The more path dependencies are established, the easier it is for some GCC states to credibly threaten those countries. Sending states know that the visa tap can be turned on and off and that there are other rivals who can fill gaps in the supply of migrant workers relatively quickly. This is a tool which is both directly related to the nature of migration to Gulf as a resource, which needs to remain cheap and quiescent, but can also relate to the wider foreign policy environment. Thus we saw very quickly, for example, in the aftermath of Yemen and Palestine’s support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, that the Gulf States punished those countries by expelling their citizens and cancelling visas, thereby curbing remittance flows. While this is an extreme example that was linked to existential security concerns, it does demonstrate that migration diplomacy through the control of the flow of visas can be used to affect diplomatic outcomes.

This also takes us into the domestic politics of the countries of origin and raises the need for country-specific examination of clientelist networks, power structures and the extent to which visa politics becomes a domestic tool of patronage. The more these migration paths and domestic migration-reliant clientelist networks become embedded, the more reliable the non-monetary rent benefits are likely to become.

There are some differences in the scale of migration by countries of origin to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the broad pattern across all three countries is consistent: there is significant diversification, with a dramatic rise in numbers from some countries, often from very low levels a decade ago.

The benefits of diversification are manifest and numerous, but in terms of the specific focus of this paper on rentier migration diplomacy, the concept also makes real sense. The more countries that send significant numbers of migrants to the Gulf States, the more opportunities there are for the creation of non-monetary diplomatic and political rents. What is the sense in having all of your migrants coming from just a few countries when they could instead come from many more, and thus offer more opportunities for influence? Especially in a world where the Gulf States are much more engaged and activist in their foreign policies.

To illustrate the dramatic change in the range of countries of origin, the significant percentage increases over the past decade and the absolute numbers involved, the following graphs and tables take a range of countries of origin which have sent more migrants to the Gulf between 2010 and 2023. The data is collected from International Labour Organisation sources, triangulated with data from the GLMM, national data (where available) and a range of other academic sources. As with all Gulf data, it has flaws and is not fully reliable. Nevertheless, the trends are important for the argument of this paper rather than the exact numbers, and those trends are stark and clear.

This diversification in the range of migrants from specific countries of origin has some differentiation across the three states. The following tables and graphs examine migrant arrivals from five non-traditional countries of origin, namely: Somalia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Indonesia. Data for other countries, such as Burma, Uganda, and Ethiopia, were also examined, but are not included here because they were either patchier in nature and/or unavailable from the same sources. However, the trends were generally similar in these other cases, exhibiting similar trajectories.

 

Table 1: Somali Migrants in the UAE

Year Number of Somali migrants in the UAE (thousands) Number of Somali migrants in Qatar (thousands) Number of Somali migrants in Saudi Arabia (thousands)
2010 8.8 16.4 269.6
2011 11.2 21.7 314.3
2012 13.6 27 359
2013 16 32.3 403.7
2014 18.4 37.6 448.4
2015 20.8 42.9 493.1
2016 23.2 48.2 537.8
2017 25.6 53.5 582.5
2018 28 58.8 627.2
2019 30.4 64.1 671.9
2020 32.8 69.4 716.6
2021 35.2 74.7 761.3
2022 37.6 80 806
2023 39.9 85.3 850.7

 

Graph 1: Somali Migrants in the UAE

 

While the absolute increases in Somali migrants in the UAE and Qatar are relatively minor, especially in comparison with the absolute numbers of other migrants, they still represent a 353% and 420% increase respectively. In Saudi Arabia, a smaller 215% increase is actually a numerical increase of almost 600,000 workers in a little over a decade. This would, by most estimates, now place Somalis within the top 10 migrant nationalities in Saudi Arabia (De Bel Air, 2018).

 

Table 2: Nepali Migrants in the UAE

Year Number of Nepali migrants in the UAE (thousands) Number of Nepali migrants in Qatar (thousands) Number of Nepali migrants in Saudi Arabia (thousands)
2010 8 88 274.8
2011 32 112 319.1
2012 56 136 363.4
2013 80 160 407.7
2014 104 184 452
2015 128 208 496.3
2016 152 232 540.6
2017 176 256 584.9
2018 200 280 629.2
2019 224 304 673.5
2020 248 328 717.8
2021 272 352 762.1
2022 296 376 806.4
2023 320 400 850.7

 

Graph 2: Nepali Migrants in the UAE

The data for Nepalese migrants shows a similar pattern, a tripling of numbers in both the UAE and Qatar, and a doubling of these numbers in Saudi Arabia. The difference here is that the actual numbers across all three cases are substantial. Again, the numbers of Nepalese migrants in Saudi Arabia now probably puts them close to being a top 10 nation. In both Qatar and the UAE Nepalese migrants now sit inside that marker, representing a huge change, especially given that the UAE started with very few Nepalese migrants in 2010.

 

Table 3: Sri Lankan Migrants in the UAE

Year Number of Sri Lankan migrants in the UAE (thousands) Number of Sri Lankan migrants in Qatar (thousands) Number of Sri Lankan migrants in Saudi Arabia (thousands)
2010 40 50 8
2011 72 60 20
2012 104 70 32
2013 136 80 44
2014 168 90 56
2015 200 100 68
2016 232 110 80
2017 264 120 92
2018 296 130 104
2019 328 140 116
2020 360 150 128
2021 392 160 140
2022 424 170 152
2023 456 180 164

 

Graph 3: Sri Lankan Migrants in the UAE

There were low numbers of Sri Lankan migrants across all three states in 2010, but since then these numbers have increased steadily in absolute number both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These increases are more significant in percentage terms – rising by 260% in Qatar and 1,950% in Saudi Arabia. However, in the UAE, numbers of Sri Lankan migrants have risen dramatically in both absolute and percentage terms, from below 50,000 to 450,000 migrants in just over a decade. To put this in context, Sri Lankans now make up around 5% of the UAE population, which is a similar proportion as the long-established Iranian community (Anon, 2024).

 

Table 4: Kenyan Migrants in the UAE

Year Number of Kenyan migrants in the UAE (thousands) Number of Kenyan migrants in Qatar (thousands) Number of Kenyan migrants in Saudi Arabia (thousands)
2010 40 50 8
2011 72 60 20
2012 104 70 32
2013 136 80 44
2014 168 90 56
2015 200 100 68
2016 232 110 80
2017 264 120 92
2018 296 130 104
2019 328 140 116
2020 360 150 128
2021 392 160 140
2022 424 170 152
2023 456 180 164

 

Graph 4: Kenyan Migrants in the UAE

 

Table 5: Indonesian Migrants in the UAE

Year Number of Indonesian migrants in the UAE (thousands) Number of Indonesian migrants in Qatar (thousands) Number of Indonesian migrants in Saudi Arabia (thousands)
2010 36 20 16
2011 54 30 24
2012 72 40 32
2013 90 50 40
2014 108 60 48
2015 126 70 56
2016 144 80 64
2017 162 90 72
2018 180 100 80
2019 198 110 88
2020 216 120 96
2021 234 130 104
2022 252 140 112
2023 270 150 120

 

Graph 5: Indonesian Migrants in the UAE

Across all five cases, there have been significant increases in both absolute and percentage terms of migrants entering the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, often from a negligible base. There are interesting patterns in terms of some nationalities heading to specific countries in very large numbers, such as Somalis to Saudi Arabia, and Indonesians and Sri Lankans to the UAE. Nepalis, meanwhile, are more evenly spread.

These dramatic rises are the result of a strategic desire for diversification on the part of the Gulf States and a desire to exploit opportunities by sending states. The Ugandan government, for instance, has a Strategic Labour Externalisation Programme (Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, 2017).

 

Conclusion: Disentangling Relations of Dominance

One of the key problems in tracking back non-monetary forms of rent is that the foreign policies pursued by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE over the past 15 years have been highly activist on a number of fronts (Clausen, 2019; Mansour, 2016). As we can see from the data above, there has been a very significant increase in the numbers of migrants from East Africa to these states. Simultaneously, these states have made a range of other significant diplomatic moves into the region. Additionally, a large number of investments and partnerships led by parastatal or state-owned companies have also been made (Donelli and Dentice, 2020). The UAE in particular has also been very active in recent years through offering wider market access, free trade agreements, or deeper Comprehensive Economic Agreements. All of these investments and economic carrots have foreign policy linkages. Alongside these, rentier migration diplomacy can act as a further tool in the state’s foreign policy toolbox, because it offers a form of non-monetary rent which can supplement other tools of economic statecraft and offers multiple tangible benefits. For example, 16 treaties have been signed between Kenya and the UAE since 2010, with the majority signed post-2015. This is a significant flurry of diplomatic activity compared with prior decades and includes a recent agreement on extending visit visas for Kenyans to have more time to find work in the Emirates (Anon, 2022).

This paper has highlighted the growing diversification of countries of origin of migrants to the Gulf States and has also advanced the idea of “non-monetary rents” as a useful additional conceptual tool with which to analyze the foreign and security policies of the Gulf States. It offered an initial conceptual development of these non-monetary rents, so that rentier migration diplomacy can be better understood and conceptualized, in order to understand the changing nature of dynamics within migration flows more broadly. There is, however, further work to be done in exploring specific dynamics and disentangling these processes to understand the exact transmission pathways, political logics and the impacts of this phenomenon.

The next step in this process is to map the ways in which visas are allocated to different third states and the extent to which there are any correlations with changes in foreign policy stances of sending states. This could include examining changes in current and historic voting patterns at, for example, the United Nations General Assembly, the International Labour Organisation and the UN Human Rights Council. It is also important to track complicating variables, namely FDI deals and land purchases. Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that the collection of non-monetary rent through rentier migration diplomacy might often form part of a “package deal” of incentives and threats within a wider relationship, involving both deliberate and implicit forms of non-monetary rent generation.

 

 

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[i] As the rich contributions in this volume attest, see: Lynch and Tsourapas (2024).

[ii] There are of course potential social and political costs as well, hence all Gulf states “isation” schemes to secure jobs for citizens at the expense of migrants in some sectors.

[iii] One could make the argument that given the nexus between ministers and senior bureaucrats and their own investments in the private sector that the division between the state and the private sector is somewhat blurred but the specific impacts of this are difficult to trace.

[iv] For details on the mobility element of the new UK–Australia Free Trade Agreement see: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/61b9b783e90e0704439f4400/uk-australia-free-trade-agreement-fta-mobility-explainer.pdf.

[v] This is something which the Gulf States have invested in significantly over the past decade. See: Young (2023).

[vi] These sorts of dynamics can be positive for both sides Ilyssa Yahmi (2024) demonstrates in the very different context of EU-North Africa Relations, which also reveals diplomatic level coercion. As Micinski and Norman (2024) also show, interactions of this kind are far more nuanced than they might seem.

[vii] There is not yet any clear evidence that the very significant increase in demand for migrant labor in the Gulf which is needed to deliver the breakneck construction boom of mega-projects such as the world cup stadia in Qatar, new railways lines across the Gulf and The Line and Neom in Saudi Arabia, among many others, has changed the power dynamic between sending and receiving states. However this is a possibility, especially given tight deadlines. In discussions across the Gulf with recruiters and managers in the hospitality sector I have heard complaints about increased difficulty or recruiting and retaining the right staff which seem much more acute than a decade ago. Much more research, particularly on the construction sector is required, but this remains a sensitive topic given international human rights attention on the issue. I am grateful to Marc Lynch for encouraging me to explore this point here.

[viii] As Babar (2024) in her memorable phrase states, migrants on the GCC-South Asia Corridor, continue to find themselves “rentiered at both ends”.