The millions of foreign nationals working in the Gulf are often lumped together as “migrant workers,” but this is misleading. The population of foreign workers in the UAE, for example, is complex and heterogeneous. One layer of that complexity is manifested by the lexicon used by migrants to identify other migrants.

Three Waves of International Labor Migration

The Gulf states are characterized by a unique demography resulting from years of international labor migration. Each of these states has idiosyncratic demographic issues. Some, like Bahrain and Oman, without the wealth of their neighbors, have not been able to rely so heavily on imported labor and have much smaller migrant populations. In the UAE, the rapid and comprehensive development of the country was accomplished by successive waves of imported labor in response to development needs, plans, and goals. These waves began in the early 1960s, as oil revenues seemed assured, and then exploded as oil exports began in 1968. Oil field workers, crew chiefs, drillers, mechanics, technicians, and geologists — all of whom were necessary to get the oil out of the ground — needed to be fed, housed, clothed, transported, entertained, and connected to their home countries; and so infrastructural development required more workers. Those workers then needed the same amenities as the oil field personnel, so development continued at a breakneck pace.

The second wave of workers continued building the cities of the UAE through the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, at which point there was a brief lull in new construction on the grand scale that had built the urban centers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. However, the pause was short-lived, and the construction of the Burj al Arab in Dubai marked the beginning of the third wave of construction and its concomitant imported labor. Dubai, with its mega-construction projects dominated the first half of the decade. While official statistics were unavailable, there were rumors of one million construction laborers there by the end of 2006. Abu Dhabi increased the pace and scope of development in 2005, and the competition between the two emirates for construction materials, cranes, and cement drove prices sky-high; even laborers were in short supply.[1]

The UAE’s Migrant Communities

By 2009 the number of foreign nationals living and working in the UAE represented 85% of the country’s six million inhabitants. Perhaps it is security concerns that prompt the national media to use euphemistic glosses such as “demographic imbalance,” rather than citing statistics. Such glosses not only obscure the size of the foreign population, but also blur the fact that there are several categories of migrants. There are migrant communities, each of which has rather specific characteristics. While the labor conditions of foreign workers in the construction industry often make headlines, there are hundreds of thousands of other foreigners residing in the UAE who read the articles and commentaries on foreign labor. Migrants do not consider themselves to be a part of that story; they are office workers, shop clerks, nurses, engineers, teachers, drivers, draftsmen, doctors, and librarians. The foreign population in the UAE is enormous, but hardly monolithic: It is fragmented first by nationality and then further divided by ethnicity, education, employment, and economics. In some instances, economics — earning power — and education connect people from disparate ethnic and national origins, while in others, ethnicity and employment are so inextricably connected that education is immaterial. University professors, none of whom classify themselves as migrant workers, socialize within a spectrum defined by education and institutional affiliation that is multi-national and multi-ethnic, while other individuals who hold advanced degrees in fields such as engineering and architecture may find that it is their nationality that defines — and indeed effectively circumscribes — the range of possible social relations to co-nationals.

Some foreign communities — notably the Indians, Egyptians, and Pakistanis, all of whose nations are major labor exporters to the UAE with accordingly large migrant communities — have reproduced in the UAE the socio-economic hierarchies that structure and stratify society in their home countries. The segmentation of these communities reflects the attributes of class structures in which social status is largely ascribed. One fascinating by-product of labor migration is that the labor policies and practices of the UAE appear to have reinforced class divisions within migrant communities rather than, as one might anticipate, the development of transcendent transnational identities, a new ethos of commonality predicated on the shared experience of migration. The migrant communities are internally segmented; they are largely isolated from other communities; and they are completely separated from Emirati society. These divisions are maintained in diverse ways, and crucial to all are the linguistic denotations that classify and categorize migrants.

The Lexicon of Foreign Workers

The lexicon of foreign workers in the UAE distinguishes laborers from workers on the basis of type of employment. The fundamental distinction that splits all migrants into one of two categories is the type of work visa: contracted or sponsored.[2]Only laborers and workers are contracted in the way that word is used in the UAE despite the fact that most migrants (including those in professions such as engineering, architecture, medicine, and higher education) have employment contracts. Contract laborers are employed in construction, municipal cleaning crews, building maintenance, agriculture, and road works; they are Pakistani, Indian, and recently but in smaller numbers, Nepalese and Chinese. Contracted laborers are assumed to have been recruited by labor agencies in their home countries and to have little education; they must live in labor camps and are transported to and from job sites.[3]Workers also may be contracted as to an industrial cleaning firm or municipality, but most are sponsored through the ka’feel system that allows Emiratis to obtain visas for employees. Workers live in urban centers, most commonly sharing space in apartment buildings; they are often female; they work in shops, drive taxis, serve food in restaurants, and sell cars. Domestic workers usually reside with the sponsoring family, be they Emirati or foreign. The salary range in this category goes from the low end of 600 or 700 dirhams per month (roughly $160 to $190), to several thousand per month. All foreigners who have residence visas in the UAE are sponsored workers but in common use; “worker” refers only to individuals who are from non-Western countries and earn less than 8,000 dirhams ($2,100) per month. “Worker” immediately denotes a South Asian, Arab, Asian, or African nationality.

By contrast, individuals from Western countries are referred to as “expatriates,” regardless of salary. An Egyptian or an Indian must earn much more and be sponsored by an institution such as a university to be called an expatriate. Expatriates do not consider themselves to be migrants in any sense of the word. They are “living abroad and working,” but are not migrant workers. Interestingly, Emiratis rarely use the term “expatriate” to refer to an employee, a professor, or a physician. Emiratis normally use the word foreigner to denote the upper-level range of migrants (i.e. expatriates); all others are workers. Emiratis do use nationality to distinguish between foreigners. Therefore, “the Indian doctor” and the “Lebanese barber” are common, while just as often Arabs from Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria are lumped together as zalamat, an innocuous word for man that is used pejoratively to give the meaning of “interchangeable and replaceable.” In the final analysis, that word could be applied to all foreign workers in the UAE because since naturalization occurs only in exceptional cases, all work under contracts of varying lengths and are both temporary and replaceable.


The lexicon of migrants in the UAE reveals the fundamental prejudices that shape Emirati society by underscoring the dynamics of ethno-economics whereby South Asians and Arabs from other countries, both of which have large populations, are referred to as migrants, identified by nationality and/or ethnicity and only secondarily by profession, employment, and income. Alternately, Westerners are not considered migrants in any context. Thus, the vocabulary used to refer to migrants in the UAE reveals a great deal not only about the migrants, but about the society to which they have relocated.



[1]. Robert Ditcham, “Builders Stuck as Cement Prices Soar,” Gulfnews, May 9, 2007.


[2]. Paul Dresch, “Foreign Matter: The Place of Strangers in Gulf Society, in J.W. Fox, N. Mourtada-Sabbah, and M. Al Mutawa, eds., Globalization and the Gulf (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 200-222.


[3]. Magnus Marsden, “Lords of a Dubai Labor Camp: Pakistani Migrants in the Gulf,” International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, Vol. 49 (2008), pp. 5-6.



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