Outsourcing Domestic Migration Management in the Gulf: Public–Private Partnership Models as Immigration Rentier Quasi-State Actors in the United Arab Emirates

Froilan Malit, Jr., American University in Dubai

 

Introduction

Over the past few decades, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have traditionally monopolized control over their domestic migration management processes (i.e., visas, contractual documentation processes, conflict resolutions, etc.) concerning migrant populations via Kafala sponsorship systems (see Babar, this volume). Less publicly, GCC states have consolidated their control and shifted their domestic migration management over the past decade by introducing public–private partnership (PPP) models to effectively control their migrant populations (see Thiollet 2016; Thiollet 2023). By strategically integrating a diverse array of private sector actors into the state’s domestic apparatus, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has established de facto immigration rentier quasi-states. I define immigration rentier quasi-states as not fully institutionalized or autonomous state entities that work closely with private sector entities. Their primary intent is to manage migration flows while extracting “migration rent” (i.e., via direct and indirect taxation, documentation processing, renewal fees, etc.) from migrant populations in the GCC. Thus, immigration rentier quasi-state actors have become increasingly incorporated into the domestic state apparatus of the Emirati state’s management of migrant populations (cf. Bish 2024).

This paper examines the roles of immigration rentier quasi-states in international migration politics, focusing on the case of the UAE. Building on the emerging scholarly work on migration and refugee rentierism (see Thiollet and Tsourapas 2024; Tsourapas 2021; Thiollet 2023; Lynch and Tsourapas 2024), I explore the rise of immigration rentier quasi-states and their complex institutional origins, structures, and operations within the UAE’s broader domestic migration management strategies. Using the Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actors as a case study, I offer two arguments: firstly, that the UAE’s rentier strategy using immigration rentier quasi-state actors has become a strategy for outsourcing migration management, central to its long-term domestic and foreign policy aims. Secondly, the Emirati state’s rentier strategy demonstrates not only their extractive domestic migration management model but also mirrors their diffusing capacity to rule. These arguments contribute to the emerging discourses on migration and refugee rentierism politics by highlighting the immigration rentier quasi-state actors’ emergence, diversity, and functionalities in the Global South.

Methodologically, I employ a case study approach using selected UAE immigration rentier quasi-state actors, including Tadbeer (for domestic work processing), Tasheel (for labor and employment processing), and Amer (for immigration-related processing). These are of particular significance because they serve as the central rent-seeking actors involved in the overall domestic migration management processes via the PPP approach. While the UAE has introduced various immigration rentier quasi-state actors (e.g., Tawafuqh, Tawjeeh, etc.), these domestic PPP services do not constitute mandatory requirements for most of the migrant populations.[i] I also employed process tracing and secondary analysis of government data publications on the role of domestic PPP arrangements in the UAE.

This paper is structured as follows: firstly, I highlight the existing literature on the politics of migration and rentierism, underscoring the little-studied element of immigration rentier quasi-state actors’ influence in the GCC’s domestic migration management. Secondly, I contextualize the roles and emergence of immigration rentier quasi-state actors in the GCC, particularly in the UAE, and describe their domestic rent-seeking structures, operations, and processes for migrant populations. I specifically examine three examples of immigration rentier quasi-state actors and their institutional processes that deal with domestic migration management: Tadbeer (for domestic work processing), Tasheel (for labor and employment processing), and Amer (for immigration processing). I investigate the intricate logic of immigration rentier quasi-state actors and their rent-seeking strategies and behaviors in the UAE. The concluding section summarizes the future role of immigration rentier quasi-state actors in the emerging literature on the politics of domestic migration and rentierism in the GCC and, more broadly, the Global South.

 

The Politics of Labor Migration and Refugee Rentierism in the Middle East

International migration politics scholars are increasingly theorizing about the under-examined role of host states’ rent-seeking behaviors in the Middle East (see Tsourapas 2019; Thiollet 2016; Thiollet & Tsourapas 2024). While rentierism has been extensively examined in the international politics of the Middle East (see Herb 2014; Hertog 2011; Beblawi, 1976), it is only more recently that some scholars have attempted to provide a more robust conceptualization within the field of migration studies. Tsourapas (2019) investigates how host states (such as Jordan) extract “rents” by utilizing refugees as political leverage to gain economic payoffs. Thiollet (2016) examines how GCC nationals can extract “migration rent” from their citizenship by selling their sponsorship visas without providing official employment to migrants, thus making it a “secondary rent” for migrants (also see Eddin, 1982; Thiollet 2021). However, scholars in this area have yet to systematically investigate the diverse range of complex state and non-state actors, specifically immigration rentier quasi-state actors via PPPs, within the domestic migration management context in the Middle East. This can help to clarify host states’ various rent-seeking institutional modalities to strategically extract rents from large-scale migrant populations (current and prospective) in both the host and source countries in the Global South.

Post-COVID-19, migration has flowed continuously in the GCC. This means that there is a critical need to further investigate the various host and non-state immigration rentier actors and their rent-seeking strategies and processes. Previous scholarship on migration politics has extensively examined how host states in the GCC influence domestic migration management in the context of internal mobility (Babar 2014; Hertog 2011 2023), regional migration governance (Jureidni 2019; Thiollet 2016), migrant exploitation via the Kafala sponsorship system (Longva 1999; Halabi 2008; Keane & McGeehan 2008; Fernandez 2020), sectoral precariousness (Parennas 2016; 2021), citizenship (Lori 2021), and migration diplomacy and power politics (Malit & Tsourapas 2021; Thiollet 2011; 2021). To build upon this literature, it is key to focus on the rent-seeking behavior of host states and diverse non-state, private actors operating within the GCC domestic migration management space.

This paper builds on Thiollet (2023), Thiollet and Tsourapas (2024), and Lynch and Tsourapas’s (2024) conceptualization of migration rentier states. It situates the emerging role of immigration rentier quasi-state actors in the GCC, specifically in the UAE. While rent-seeking literature on migration has tended to focus on host states (Tsourapas 2019; Thiollet 2021 2023), it is essential to examine how host states strategically exploit and co-opt with private sector actors to extract not only rent but also administrative, technological, and other institutional resources. Host states use these resources to execute the everyday migration processes required to legalize and govern their migrant populations. These GCC states’ immigration rentier quasi-state actors employ more “corporatized” PPP arrangements by outsourcing specific state processes of domestic migration management (Babar 2014; Sabban 2020). Thus, as the global governance of temporary migration has shifted toward PPP, it has also become an essential instrument for the GCC’s rentier states.

Little is empirically known about the historical emergence of immigration rentier quasi-state actors via PPP and how they contribute to the overarching architecture of domestic migration management (Thiollet 2016) and migration diplomacy (Malit & Tsourapas 2021) in host states. Thiollet (2016) highlights the use of “public-private multilateralism” (i.e., bilateral agreements, dialogues) strategies using a diverse range of state and non-state actors, particularly the “transnational migration management” aspects of migration flows operating both in the Asia–GCC host corridors. Malit and Tsourapas (2021) emphasize the role of non-state actors in influencing host states’ bilateral and multilateral migration diplomacy processes. However, while they partially explore the complex role of non-state actors in shaping domestic migration management and diplomacy, they have yet to examine the logic and process of their institutional emergence within the politics of GCC domestic migration management literature. To address some of these gaps, I examine the case of Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actors in the UAE. I look at how the UAE deploys multiple quasi-state actors to extract migration rent and manage migrant populations (using technology, migration management systems, etc.) to optimize its control over domestic and global migration flows into the territory.

 

The Politics of Domestic Migration Management in the GCC

For many decades, the UAE monopolized control over the domestic migration management processes (i.e., the issuance and processing of labor and employment, immigration documentation, etc.) that contribute to generating state revenues. The rise of immigration rentier quasi-state actors has mainly occurred within the past decade due to several factors. Firstly, with consistent international solid criticisms and legal cases (i.e., the International Labour Organization’s forced labor case in 2014) challenging the UAE and other GCC states’ perceived “weak” migration institutional capacities (see Malit and Tsourapas 2021; Thiollet 2016), the UAE developed an increasingly corporatized PPP approach, legally co-opting private sector actors (via joint ownership, licensing, accreditation, etc.) to govern domestic migration management processes. These immigration rentier quasi-state actors became the “smart” solutions of the Emirati state to the domestic migration management dilemmas of the rising influx of migrant populations, as well as a strategic response to the growing localization demands (i.e., the inclusion of mandatory employment for Emirati nationals within PPPs) (WAM 2024). They have also become a strategic response to the institutional bureaucratic efficiency issues (i.e., costs, manpower capacity, and other resource constraints) of the UAE’s administration, given its limited pool of existing local talent.

Secondly, in line with the UAE’s vision of localization and competitive knowledge economies, establishing immigration rentier quasi-state actors has allowed it to outsource localization to the private sector institutions by hiring an Emirati workforce. This outsourcing, rent-seeking strategy has also given it the upper hand to fully control private sector operations via licensing and sub-licensing within the federal ministry (i.e., the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MOHRE)) while simultaneously extracting rents from them (i.e., taxes, fees, fines, renewals, etc.).

Thirdly, the UAE’s establishment of immigration rentier quasi-state actors has allowed it to effectively exploit private sector institutions’ existing digital technological capacity and know-how. This further enables the state to modernize rent-seeking systems toward the migration population within domestic state institutions while placing significant monitoring and control over the institutionalized corporate transactions of private sector actors. This outsourcing of rent-seeking control has further allowed the UAE to extract institutional rents and more. The deinstitutionalization of Emirati state services via immigration rentier quasi-state actors allows the state to rule through deinstitutionalized or diffusion strategies despite socio-institutional constraints (i.e., demographic imbalance, institutional bureaucratic limitations, etc.).

The following section highlights the domestic (Tadbeer, Tasheel, and Amer) Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actors operating to extract rents from current and prospective migrants.

 

Selected Immigration Rentier Quasi-State Actors in the UAE

At the domestic level, Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actors extract migration rents from some 11 million transit migrant populations. The complex legal documentation processing (i.e., labor and employment, immigration, etc.) of domestic migration management has created a strategic revenue source for the UAE. It has also created an opportunity for the state to effectively observe private sector entities by cooperating with and monitoring their domestic migration management practices. While these processes were historically under the control of their respective federal ministries (i.e., the UAE Ministries of Labour and Interior), the Emirati state has transferred these institutional controls to quasi-immigration rentier state actors, which has resulted in their “corporatization” at the frontline level (Sabban 2020).

 

Tadbeer

Tadbeer is an Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actor that concentrates on the comprehensive recruitment, training, and placement of 19 distinct categories of state-defined migrant domestic workers, who numbered at least one million in 2023 (excluding those who were undocumented) (see GLMM 2023). The UAE’s MOHRE (formerly the Ministry of Labour) has strategically shifted from a laissez-faire approach to a corporatized, immigration rentier quasi-state model (Malit & Naufal 2016; Sabban 2020). In fact, the new Tadbeer model governs more than 120 licensed branches. The UAE mainly reserves institutional franchise ownership for local wealthy Emiratis and their private sector partners, with more than 500,000 UAE dirhams (AED) as a bank guarantee to the MOHRE for the entire duration of the Tadbeer license.[ii] The Emirati state holds substantial control over the licensed or accredited franchise of Tadbeer domestic work agencies by controlling, monitoring, and governing the private sector actors’ daily transactions while simultaneously imposing taxes and fees (i.e., violators of up to AED 50,000 fines) on their everyday transactions. These taxes and fees significantly contribute to the federal ministry’s annual state revenue. In other words, the newly structured Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state Tadbeer shifts absolute institutional power to the state and extracts financial and institutional rents from private sector partners. This reinforces the migration rent-seeking strategy within its domestic migration management modality.

Tadbeer not only outsources its administrative capacity to private sector partners but also attempts to extract migration rent from private sector partners (i.e., for violations) and migrant laborers (via recruitment fees, taxes, penalties, and other documentation fees). Table 1 below shows an example of transaction costs extracted from employers in the UAE, totaling approximately $6,400 per employer in the UAE. These fees are not just taxed but also generated through certain government processes (i.e., applying for national Emirates ID, government-run medical testing facilities).

 

Table 1: Sample Tadbeer Fees

Components Tadbeer Sponsorship
Years valid Two years
Cost of sponsorship (i.e., entry permit, etc.) AED 8,500
Cost of process and documentations (i.e., national ID documents, medical testing, deposits, insurance, gratuity) AED 15,000 (for expatriate employers)
Approximate total costs (for domestic work recruitment, employment, and residence processing) AED 23,500 (approximately $6,400)

Source: Author’s interview with a Tadbeer manager in Dubai

 

While the private sector historically monopolized domestic work sector processes in the UAE, the current immigration rentier quasi-state actor via the Tadbeer system has become, de facto, state-controlled. This state-sponsored recruitment system collects substantial migration rents from employers and Tadbeer owners. For example, instead of institutionally developing public infrastructures to host Tadbeer offices, the UAE outsources institutional resources to Tadbeer private sector actors. These provide a variety of services with corresponding fees (rents) imposed on prospective employers, including but not limited to the following: recruitment and placement services; on-demand labor supply (full-time and part-time); visa services and entry processing; transfer of sponsorships; medical checks for workers; health insurance for domestic workers; transportation services for domestic workers to reach employers’ houses from the airport; training and orientation upon arrival; and conflict resolution. With such a high demand for domestic workers and other low-wage workers (i.e., construction workers, cleaners, caregivers, etc.), these sites have become a vital source of migration rent for the UAE, with low state investments in Tadbeer private sector partners.

In addition, under the Tadbeer PPP agreement, UAE-based Tadbeer private sector partners are legally required to hire local Emiratis, as part of the Emirati state’s efforts to increase Emirati labor market participation. This thereby shifts the economic responsibilities to pay costs (i.e., local workers’ wages, pensions, etc.) to the private sector. Thus, the UAE not only extracts migration rents from domestic migration processes (i.e., migrant worker documentation, etc.) but also legally shifts some of its national state mandates (i.e., localizations) toward the private sector. This highlights the diverse flows of rent-seeking behavior outcomes (migration rent, institutional rents, and other capacity rents) within the Tadbeer system.

 

Tasheel

Developed in 2017, Tasheel is an immigration rentier quasi-state actor that offers “comprehensive online services covering the full spectrum of MOHRE application processes and more” (MOHRE 2024).[iii] Tasheel, which is governed by MOHRE, sought to improve the government’s infrastructure for dealing with labor processes. With approximately 90% (and counting) of the UAE’s population consisting of migrant populations, the state has increasingly deinstitutionalized its domestic migration management by expediting and corporatizing the labor and employment processes (i.e., conflict resolutions, case management, labor permit application systems, discrepancy problems in labor processes and payments). Tasheel resulted from efforts to develop an all-encompassing platform that would address all employment-related issues in the UAE, and evolved into a digital online system, streamlining labor-related procedures for employers and employees. Tasheel also enables online MOHRE transactions and payment processing, thus increasing output and process efficacy.

The establishment of Tasheel represents an effort by the UAE to digitally monopolize control over the domestic migration administration of labor processes, using the private sector. It systematizes and monetizes substantial rents from migrant populations’ domestic immigration requirements. Table 2 below highlights Tasheel’s sample transactions with the corresponding fees, which are exacted from migrant populations (i.e., seeking new entry fees) and converted into federal state revenues via immigration rentier quasi-state actors like Tasheel. These immigration rentier quasi-state actors have become vital rent collectors for federal and local Emirati state entities and thus play a central role within the UAE’s domestic migration management apparatus.

 

Table 2: Sample Tasheel Fees

Selected Transaction or Application Fees (AED)
Sponsorship registration 268.90
Entry permit (cancel or residence) 188.90
Entry permit (cancel or work) 209.66
New entry permit: short-term visit (single entry) 1,511
New entry permit: short-term visit (inside country) 2,189
New entry permit: temporary work permit (one month) 655
New entry permit: temporary work permit (three months) 955
New entry permit: temporary work permit (six months) 1,165
New entry permit: temporary work permit (one year) 1,955

Source: Tasheel Fees & Payments (2023)

 

With the growing influx of temporary migrant populations in the UAE, the institutional burden and pressures to deal with the complexities of daily labor processing have also grown. These are crucial incentives for the UAE to defer to Tadbeer actors, which extract rents from migrant populations with low infrastructure investments. These migration rents have become essential federal revenue sources, enabling the UAE—and particularly Dubai—to generate state capital. The immigration rentier quasi-state actors have also become a growing alternative source of employment opportunities for Emirati nationals, thereby directly serving the national development plans for the Emiratization of their labor markets. Overall, the UAE’s outsourcing of labor processing, via immigration rentier quasi-state actors like Tasheel, results from its limited institutional capacity to regulate labor processing while extracting rents from migrant populations.

 

Amer

Amer is an Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actor designed to provide a one-stop shop for immigration-related processing. It links to the Ministry of Interior’s transactions for migrant populations in the UAE. Established in 2017, Amer 24/7 Center was the first UAE state-approved and affiliated organization established in collaboration with the General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs. It was a direct application of the government’s strategy as advocated by the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. Amer, like Tadbeer and Tasheel, is both a private sector entity and a state actor and regulates immigration documentation procedure in the UAE. Amer’s licensed private sector entities conduct most government processing operations, offering multiple services, including immigration services (i.e., entry permit and residence for individuals and family members); UAE identification document services pricing; medical test servicing pricing; health insurance service pricing; establishment card issuing, renewal, and cancellation services; and residence pricing (i.e., obtaining a residence).

 

Table 3 Selected Amer Transactions

Selected Transaction Linked to Migrants’ Residency Processes Fees (AED)
Obtain residence/transfer residence to new passport from another passport 259.90
Obtain residence / renew residence/ renew residence for wife and children 359.90
Obtain residence / cancel residence 305.65
Obtain or renew residence either in the private sector or free zone local establishment 676.65
Residence transfer sponsor to (new) sponsor 1,405.65

 

Table 3 shows an example of Amer transactions in the UAE, highlighting the costliness for migrants and the high profitability of domestic migration procedures for the state.

Beyond the domestic processing of migrant populations, Amer selectively caters to the immigration needs of prospective migrants from select Western countries, such as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe, who wish to migrate to the UAE as skilled workers. This service efficiently processes skilled migrant populations, who are essential for the UAE’s future knowledge economy and diversification plans. Thus, immigration rentier quasi-state actors like Amer serve as centralized sources of virtual service that enable residents to complete all immigration-related proceduresas well as being vital sites of rent-seeking extraction (i.e., taxes, penalties, etc.) within the UAE’s domestic migration management system.

 

Conclusions

This paper examined Emirati immigration rentier quasi-state actors and their rent-seeking strategies, processes, and behaviors within the domestic migration management context of the Global South. With the escalating influx of migrant populations into the GCC, there is a critical need to contextualize the emerging role of immigration rentier quasi-states and their rent-seeking behaviors. Using a case study analysis of the UAE, I argued that the presence of immigration rentier quasi-state actors (namely Tadbeer, Tasheel, and Amer) highlight the state’s need to exert transnational control over migrant inflows, driven by both domestic and foreign policy considerations. In delegating administrative functions to private entities through PPP arrangements, the UAE displays its absolute power and capacity to govern and capture the private sector. Despite institutional constraints, the state acquires migration rents that are essential for its everyday operations. The article also emphasizes how host states like the UAE exercise domestic and international rentier techniques to reap economic benefits from crucial source countries in the Global South.

Beyond the UAE, there is also growing utilization of immigration rentier quasi-state actors in other GCC states, with varied rentierism techniques. In Qatar, the government has established collaborations with visa center organizations based in India, creating many visa service centers in India to manage migration and extract migration rents from prospective migrants bound for Qatar. These centers are strategically situated in areas considered significant sources of labor migration to Qatar, to facilitate efficient migration processes. In Saudi Arabia, the government has established an implementation agency called Takamol, which operates as a quasi-state entity. This agency has introduced a need for migrant construction workers in 19 specific vocations to undergo training and certification tests. The cost of these examinations is $80 for each person aiming to work in Saudi Arabia, enabling the Saudi state to extract millions from immigration policy requirements for low-skilled migrant construction workers. The increasing prevalence of rent-seeking behavior in GCC nations, both domestically and internationally, presents an opportunity to examine how other regional hosts and sending states utilize various rentiering behaviors beyond immigration (i.e., such as exile or emigration).

Ultimately, while the host states’ increasing use of immigration rentier quasi-state approaches indicate a decreased control over domestic migration management, it may also signal a sophisticated institutional strategy aiming to outsource and capitalize on present and future migration flows into their respective domestic borders.

 

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[i]Available at: https://u.ae/en/participate/consultations/consultation?id=1616.

[ii] Available at: https://www.mohre.gov.ae/assets/8ba1d1a1/tadbeer-service-centers.aspx.

[iii] Available at: https://eservices.mohre.gov.ae/tasheelweb.