Labor Migration in the GCC Countries: Some Reflections on a Chronic Dilemna

By Mohammed Dito | Vice President in Policy Directorate - Bahrain Labour Market Regulatory Authority | Feb 02, 2010
International Labour Organization-Crozet M2
International Labour Organization-Crozet M2
Labor Migration in the GCC Countries: Some Reflections on a Chronic Dilemna

After four decades of successive waves of labor migration to the GCC states, three fundamental questions are still subject to debate: In what way can we better comprehend the role and functions in the Arab Gulf societies of this unique phenomenon? How should we assess the labor migrations policies adopted by the countries of this region? What are the possible outcomes of the current trends of this process?

Both the scope and depth of knowledge needed in this area requires collaboration between different social science disciplines. It is precisely the weakness of this collaboration within the context of research on labor migration in the GCC that constitutes the first obstacle to an objective assessment of this phenomenon. Despite the significance of the knowledge gained by many researchers on labor markets, the sociological, economic and political aspects of this process, a holistic picture is still missing. This is partly attributable to the high level of specialization in each discipline. However, it also is due to the political sensitivity of the subject, especially to GCC decision makers. There is no better example of this sensitivity than the persistence of the use of the official term “temporary contractual labor” instead of “labor migration.” Fear rather than ground realities are responsible for the persistent use of the term — fear of “potential demands” for the granting of citizenship to migrant workers (though hard evidence of such demands is lacking). This fear reflects a sense of “losing control” of the situation that has become increasingly apparent and acute. But such fear has never been, nor can be, the basis for a constructive approach to better labor migration governance. On the contrary, it is likely to produce more problems and dilemmas for policy makers energized by it. Rather engaging in a terminological battle, it would be more productive to look at how assessments of the labor migration process can be improved.

An important condition for any evidence based assessment of labor migration impact is the existence of reliable basic statistics and data. Yet, data on foreign workers in the Gulf region is inadequate. For example, each country relies on different sources, making the overall comparison between them extremely difficult. The scope of the data also is problematic: inflows-outflows, employment-related classifications (i.e., workers, foreign domestic workers, and occupational classifications), the number of labor disputes, and health and safety conditions are just some of the types of “evidence” that are not in place, either because they are not collected systemically or not published in the GCC states.

In fact, the absence of reliable information on the many aspects of labor migration in this region contributes to making the assessments highly disputable and subject to political manipulation by the receiving and sending countries. The lack of a unified framework for collecting, processing, and distributing data on migrant workers in the Gulf and between the different sending countries is one of the major obstacles to effective cooperation between sending and receiving countries. The lack of such a framework blinds policy makers to the realities of labor migration and prevents researchers from evaluating the associated achievements and obstacles. This leads to “trial and error” approaches on the practical side and speculation on the theoretical side.

One important aspect of evidence-based assessment is the relationship between hidden and apparent manifestations of the process of labor migration. This becomes more relevant as we seek to assess the impact of labor migration on the individual lives of migrants and citizens of the Gulf. Labor migrants gain better job prospects than in their home countries, but are not accorded full political, economic, and social rights. Meanwhile, Gulf citizens enjoy higher living conditions as a result of the combined effects of oil revenues and the “choice” of using foreign labor. Yet, these citizens experience feelings of “alienation” in their own countries due to the fact that they are becoming increasingly a “minority” compared to the vast numbers of foreign workers living among them.

An interesting yet often neglected aspect of the assessments on labor migration to the GCC relates to the way that we comprehend the two sides of the process itself: How much is it a labor issue (a process directly related to labor market conditions), and how much is it also a migration concern inasmuch as it resembles the situation of people working outside their countries of origin?

The subjects related to labor or migration are neither the same nor mutually exclusive. It is the necessary appreciation of the interaction between smaller and wider circles of the labor migration process that is often missing in the vast wealth of literature on it. Indeed, few scholars have sought a deeper insight into the critical and decisive roles and functions played by foreign workers in the socioeconomic and political constructs of the Gulf societies. This is not surprising, as both local academic and policy research work in this field are driven and affected mostly by decision makers’ policies and priorities. Its main subjects are the structure, size, and impact of the foreign workers on the labor market, with frequent repetition of the “cultural threat” argument used by advocates of controlling or halting the inflow of migrant workers to the Gulf.

For all the reasons mentioned above, a realistic assessment of the outcome of labor migration to the GCC cannot be that which sees it as an absolute good or curse. The reality is rather nuanced.

What, then, might be a starting point for an approach to assessing labor migration that is attuned to these nuances? At its core, labor migration in the Gulf is a manifestation of the relationship between “us” (Gulf citizens) and “them” (non-GCC citizens) within the historical construct of this relationship after the 1973 oil boom.

This relationship has many dimensions — economic, social, and political. To date, most studies have focused on the first two dimensions. Many have argued that migrant workers are needed due to skills shortages, large development projects, and the small size of local populations. This was the case after the first oil boom in 1973, and again during the 2004-2008 oil boom. Indeed, the same argument re-emerges every time there is an increase in public expenditures with contracts awarded to the private sector for “development” projects. These arguments seem “natural” — a matter of “fate” rather than a consequence of development policy choices. But they alone do not explain the “persistence” and in some way “addictive” dependency on migrant labor in the Gulf.

Two events — similar yet different — invite us to delve more deeply into the nature of this dependency: oil booms as catalysts for labor migration to all the GCC states, and Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation.

Looking closer at these events reveals the role played by two factors whose significance with regard to labor migration to the GCC countries has been under-estimated. The first is that labor migration did, and still does reflect a political choice by the state to secure its authority within the “welfare” model. The second is that this political choice has triggered a process that shaped the whole relationship between “citizens” and non-citizens of the Gulf states.

In an interview recalling the aftermath of the 1973 oil price increase, Shaykh Hisham Nazir, Saudi Minister of Petroleum (1986-95) stated: “We were building two schools every three days. We had to build seven universities. We were trying to do so much in a constrained period of time. So the debate was, ‘Do we import foreign labor, or do we wait until we train our labor and then carry the projects ourselves?’ And I was of the opinion then that the decision that was taken at the time to import foreign labor was a great decision.” [1]

This “great decision,” which was made by all of the GCC states at that time, had a profound impact not only on the shape of the labor market, but also on power relations within the whole society between the citizens and non-citizens.

One of the pioneering approaches in venturing into the place and role played by migrant workers in GCC societies was the insight gained by Anh Nga Longva, the Norwegian scientist who spent years in Kuwait studying the link between citizens, expatriates, and the socio-political system in Kuwait. [2] She noted that:

Very few analysts react to the total absence of linkage between studies of Kuwaiti politics and studies of Kuwaiti labour relations. In particular, writers on democratization (Farah 1989, Ghabra 1994, Meyer et al. 1998, Alnajjar 2000, Tetreault 2001) fail to appreciate the social, psychological and political impact that a majority population of rightless migrant workers, imported for the sole purpose of serving the native minority, can have on the way this privileged minority conceptualise and practice political rights among themselves. Most analyses leave out the one social variable on which the native minority population depends for its identity as well as its material well being.[3]

An important conclusion on the significance of migrant workers within the socio-political structure is reached when she says, “More than oil prosperity per se, it is the presence of non-Kuwaiti workers and their legal, social and political subjection to Kuwaiti citizens that allows for (1) the reproduction of a political structure with quasi autocratic features, and (2) the continued marginalization of Kuwaiti women from productive work.”[4]

The events of 1991 in Kuwait provide us with another example on the nature of dependency on migrant workers, because it resembles a “chance” to correct what have been often criticized in the years before by both the public and the state as a demographic imbalance between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis. As Rania Maktabi clearly put it: “The aftermath of the war demonstrates even more glaringly the contradiction and incongruity between the regime’s aim at reducing dependency on foreign labor, and the country’s demand for these workers’ services in order to rebuild the country and restore the pre-war level of services ... the regime cannot afford the political costs of declined welfare services and goods which non-Kuwaiti labor provides, and which the Kuwaiti population has grown accustomed to … Apparently, the government prefers an option which ensures the maintenance of services provided by non-Kuwaitis, implicitly accepting the imperative result: continued import of foreign labor.” Maktabi concludes that the “citizenship policies appear to play a more powerful role in forming the post-war demographic structure of Kuwait.” The Kuwaiti regime showed many signs of reinforcing the multi-tiered citizenship system as an instrument of legitimacy.[5]

Longva and Maktabi demonstrate the crucial importance of considering the structural deficiencies within the socio-political construct of the Gulf societies when we study labor migration to the GCC. Often this consideration is lacking or pushed to the margins when looking at labor migration policies. Under the maxims of efficiency in government services and adopting private sector business culture, labor migration management tends to rely more on an “instrumental” or “administrative” mindset. In practice, this means an obsession with “fixing” the problems by using procedural “short-cuts.” We need to stress that this approach contributes to improving certain aspects of the labor migration process, such as facilitating inflow procedures and reducing bureaucratic burdens associated with it. But they touch only parts of the whole cycle of labor migration. Little is done in areas such as protection of migrant workers, especially the chronic problem of non-payment of wages, or improving safety and health conditions. Even looking closely at the admission policies, it is clear that over the past four decades, little has changed in terms of policies adopted to manage the inflow of migrant workers. Despite “loud” calls to limit it, the increase in the number of migrants seems unstoppable.

During the last four years, there has been a noticeable decrease in the percentage of nationals in total employment: from 33% in 2005, to 28% in 2008 in the Kingdom of Bahrain and from 32% to 25% in Oman. Only Saudi Arabia has maintained a constant level (46%) of nationals in the workforce.[6]

The main sources of the corresponding increase in the number of foreign workers are diverse, but not isolated from each other. The so-called “fourth oil boom” (2002-2008) generated massive revenues for the GCC states (from $91.1 billion in 2002 to $355 billion in 2007). This facilitated massive public spending on large contracts awarded to private sector companies, mainly those working in infrastructure activities and construction. This in turn generated a strong demand for cheap and unskilled labor from southeast Asia.

This whole process reflects the type of development model followed by the GCC states, especially during oil boom years. The current official approach is highly focused on the role of the private sector role in the development strategy. Yet this vision has evolved to become more of a “dogma” than a “compass” for development.

The issue of the public versus private sector labor market needs to be constructively reviewed in the light of two important facts. The first fact concerns the role of the state whereby the public sector involves not only administrative bodies of the government but also highly successful joint venture enterprises that achieved worldwide competitive edge. According to Steffen Hertog, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the GCC countries (with the exception of Kuwait) are considered the only successful ones in the world.[7]

The second fact concerns the role of the private sector in development. The last oil boom was a test for the private sector both as a driver of economic development and as a provider of jobs for citizens. In the case of the first, it seems that it benefited from economic growth rather than acting as its main source. In the second case, there is no doubt that it has persisted in its heavy dependency on unskilled migrant workers with little interest in improving productivity. The issue of public versus private has undermined the importance of the nature of private sector development in a rentier economy.[8]

In general, the current situation leads to a clash between aims and means of labor migration policies and an unresolved dilemma between long-term declared ambitions and short-term actions: The Gulf states want better and value-added jobs to be filled by the increasing number of nationals who enter the labor market every year, yet they also want to fulfill their “development” projects by granting the “private sector” a leading role in this process. The experience of the previous decades has shown that the first objective was sacrificed in favor of the second. Moreover, the successes that were achieved in employing citizens in the private sector were not necessarily related to better or different labor migration policies. It was more a result of a package of training and wage support programs for young jobseekers. Work permits for foreign workers were used mostly as a bargaining tool against granting ministries of labor vacancies for the unemployed nationals.

The outcome of this chronic dilemma can only be guided by a set of values based on a decent work paradigm.

The notion of decent work has been elaborated by the ILO Director-General in his 1999 Report to the International Labour Conference where he stated that: “The primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.” This notion “emphasizes four elements: employment, social security, workers’ rights, and social dialogue. While the first two components of decent work refer to opportunities, remuneration, security and conditions of work, the last two emphasize the “social relations of workers.”[9]

This approach, if integrated with the migration policies of the GCC countries, will help them eliminate the frictions between the “us “and “them” and will create a better “we” that belongs to the same human family. It will help also to deal with the difficult challenge of aligning national labor migration policies with global trends in the same area and create a solid foundation for socio-political and economic policy coherence at the national level.[10]



[2]. See, Anh Longva, “Neither Autocracy nor Democracy but Ethnocracy: Citizens, Expatriates and the Socio-Political System in Kuwait,” in Paul Dresch and James Piscatori, eds., Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), Chapter 5.

[3]. Longva, “Neither Autocracy nor Democracy but Ethnocracy,” p. 118.

[4]. Longva, “Neither Autocracy nor Democracy but Ethnocracy,” pp. 117-8.

[6]. Please refer to the tables and charts in the Annex.

[7]. Steffen Hertog, “Lean and mean: the politics of the new state-owned enterprises in the GCC.”

[8]. The Kafala or sponsorship system also is of cardinal importance in determining the nature of dependency on migrant workers in the GCC. Without elaborating much on this issue in this paper, we think that reforming this system cannot be a one-shot or a marginal act. It has more to do with the way citizens of the Gulf see themselves in relations to others than only as a mere labor relationship between employer and employee.

[9]. Dharam Ghai, “Decent Work: Concepts, models and indicators” (International Institute for Labour Studies, Geneva, Discussion Paper Series No. 139), p. 2.

[10]. See the ILO suggested Decent Work Indicators in the next page.


[L]abor migration in the Gulf is a manifestation of the relationship between "us"...and "them."