Millions of people around the world have left their home countries in search of employment. In 2005, there were 191 million migrants, or about 3% of the world’s population, living in other countries.[1]Today, that number has grown to about 200 million. An estimated one person in 35 is an international migrant. Almost all countries are affected by international migration. The Gulf countries are no exception. There are over 15 million migrants working in the Gulf region. They face many difficulties, which consequently raise the issue of their rights in the host countries.

Five Phases of Migration to the Gulf

The first phase in the modern history of migration to the Gulf occurred in the period prior to the 1970s oil boom. During this phase, more than 80% of migrant workers were Arabs, mainly from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. There also were Asian workers, who were employed in European companies and government agencies. The number of Asian workers was estimated to be 247,700 in the entire Arab region in 1970.[2] During this period, there were narrow wage differentials between sending and receiving countries. Iraq and Oman were net exporters of manpower. Thereafter, both became the major labor importing countries.

The second phase — the point at which migration to the Gulf began to intensify — was triggered by the post-1973 oil price hike. During this phase, the number of Arab migrants, especially from poorer countries such as Egypt and Yemen, rose considerably. About 1.3 million migrants were estimated to be in the region in 1975.

The third phase spans the latter part of the 1970s and the early 1980s. Due to the second oil price hike in 1979, government revenue rose sharply in the course of a single year. As a result, the Gulf states launched more ambitious development plans, lavish projects, and even more generous social welfare programs. These initiatives caused a surge in demand for an additional 700,000 migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries in 1980. The number of migrant workers in Iraq also increased to about 750,000.[3]The number of Indian workers alone exceeded 500,000 by 1980.

Apart from the increasing number of workers, two other trends emerged during this period. First, the share of Arab migrant workers declined from about 43% in 1975 to about 37% in 1980. This was primarily due to the inflow of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and other Asian workers to the region. This was perhaps the result of the policies of the Gulf countries that favored South Asian workers (they were believed to be politically “safer” than their Arab counterparts). Second, the demand for unskilled labor slowed as major infrastructure projects were completed, while the demand for skilled workers increased.

The fourth phase began with the decline in oil prices in late 1982. With the contraction of oil revenues, some development projects slowed and demand for foreign workers slackened. However, the preference for skilled workers continued.

The fifth phase began in the 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, new migrant workers began to arrive in the Gulf countries, particularly from China and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. These migrant workers created additional competition in the labor market. The second Gulf War (1991) resulted in the displacement of about 1.5 million people, including one million Yemenis (who were expelled from Saudi Arabia) and 200,000 Jordanians, 150,000 Palestinians, and 158,000 Egyptians (most of whom left Kuwait).[4]This mass displacement created job vacancies in the Gulf countries that were filled by South Asians (particularly by Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis).

Although it is difficult to know the exact size of the migrant worker population in the GCC countries, available information suggests that it was about 12.5 million in 2002. Of this total, there were 3.5 million non-Gulf Arabs, 3.6 million Indians, 1.7 million Pakistanis, almost one million Bangladeshis, more than 700,000 Filipinos, and over 700,000 Sri Lankans.[5]

The number of Asians was more than twice that of non-Gulf Arab workers. The presence of South Asian workers is growing, and is likely to continue to do so.

Migrant Workers — Security Risks or Economic Assets?

As previously noted, the overwhelming presence of migrant workers in the Gulf region is perceived as a national security issue. Accordingly, GCC countries have instituted tougher recruitment policies, deported surplus expatriate workers, and made the renewal of residence permits more difficult. Moreover, the GCC labor ministers have proposed a quota system to limit the number of foreign workers. Majid Al-Alawi, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs of Bahrain, has stated that non-Arab foreign workers constitute a strategic threat to the region’s future. Similarly, Abdul Rahman Al Attiya, the GCC Secretary-General, warned about the possible security risks incurred by the massive presence of expatriates in the region.

However, the International Labour Organization (ILO) portrays migrant workers not as potential security risks but as vital economic partners whose contributions are often underappreciated and undercompensated:

Migrant workers provide valuable services with their labour and furnish an often invisible subsidy to the national economies that receive them. They work in factories, produce food, provide domestic service, staff in hospitals and contribute to a wide range of basic needs, often for low wages and with little recognition of the value of their contribution.[6]Many countries face labor shortages and thus seek to import labor.[7]

Migrant Worker Rights in the Gulf—Ignored or Upheld?

The international community is demanding that expatriate workers be granted equal rights. If a worker is mistreated in one country, s/he can always opt to work in another country with a better reputation for treating foreign workers. In the case of the UAE, the United States demanded the creation of trade unions and the amending of labor laws to comply with international laws. The UAE must revise sponsorship rules in order to bring justice. The United States also has demanded that US citizens be treated equally with UAE nationals in terms of ownership and other matters.

Efforts are underway to press all labor-receiving countries to ensure that expatriates’ salaries are equal to those of nationals, and that migrant workers are accorded greater rights in the areas of education and health. Moreover, France and other European nations have realized that denying justice to expatriate workers is not only shameful, but also weakens the moral fabric of society. Highlighting the issue of equal rights, James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, rightly stated, “Expatriate workers are a time bomb waiting to explode and unleash riots like those that rocked France.”[8]

Yet, migrant workers in the Gulf often are trapped in horrible living and working conditions, denied justice and their basic rights. This harms not only migrants, but also the international image and prestige of the host countries. It is rightly acknowledged that these countries must do better. “They clean your offices, build your cities and yet remain invisible. You must see them, incorporate their rights into your vision and defend them.”[9]

Similarly, Dr. Shamlan Yousef, an Arab intellectual, asked, “Can a lesson be learnt from the events in France?” He clearly acknowledged that “no one can deny the fact that policies of discrimination and oppression are being practiced in the Gulf countries against the foreign workforce in terms of low salaries, long working hours and absence of rights.”[10]

Gulf countries often ignore international conventions on the rights of migrant workers. Their labor laws do not meet the standards for the protection of migrants. Khowla Mattar, a senior specialist on workers’ rights at the ILO’s regional office for Arab states, also noted that Gulf countries habitually deny the problem of human trafficking and human rights abuses towards migrant workers. As Mattar said, “The culture of rights is weak in our societies; unless we enhance this culture at the regional level, migrant workers will continue to be exploited and their rights would be abused.”[11]She further underlined that the labor laws in the Gulf are not compatible with international conventions. Rather, companies continue to prosper at the expense of poor workers.

There are presently over 15 million migrants living in the GCC countries. Regardless of their nationality, they are subjected to local sponsors, who have the power to limit migrants’ movement and ability to change jobs.[12]Low-income uneducated workers are exposed to other kinds of abuses and exploitations, such as physical and verbal harassment, denial of access to consular services, and contact with families.


Migrant workers are engaged in every sector of development activity in the Gulf. They contribute substantially to the economic growth of labor receiving countries. Ironically, however, migrant workers are considered to be a threat to national security. Meanwhile, migrants are often exploited by unscrupulous employers, recruitment agents, and others. The international norms and standards are often violated in order to promote individual interests. A change in the mindsets and policies of Gulf governments is urgently necessary and long overdue — a change that not only acknowledges the economic benefits of hosting migrant laborers, but that also recognizes, respects, and works to ensure the rights of migrant workers.


[1]. Ahn Pong-Su, ed., Migrant Workers and Human Rights: Out-Migration from South Asia (New Delhi: ILO Subregional Office for South Asia, 2004), p. 7; Kristin Gilmore, “Convention Establishes Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families,” Pubs/chronicle/ 2003/ web Articles/ 070203_migrantworkers.html.


[2]. J.S. Birks and C.A. Sinclair, International Migration and Development in the Arab Region (Geneva: ILO, 1980), p. 31.


[3]. Anisur Rahman, Indian Labour Migration to the Gulf: A Socio-economic Analysis (New Delhi: Rajat Publications, 2001), p.129.


[4]. Giovanna Tattolo, Arab Labour Migration to the GCC States,


[5]. Tattolo, Arab Labour Migration to the GCC States.


[6]. Nasra M. Shah, “Restrictive Labour Immigration Policies in the Oil Rich Gulf: Implications for Asian Countries,”


[7]. Aroonim Bhuyan, “Foreign Workers should be treated at Par with Locals,”


[8]. Andrzej Kapiszewski, “Arab vs. Asian Migrant Workers in the GCC Countries,”….


[9]. Dr. James Zogby, Keynote Address to the Plenary Session of the Parallel Conference to the Forum for Future, Kingdom of Bahrain, November 7, 2005.


[10]. Quoted in “France and the Gulf,” Al-Seyassah (Kuwait), November 15, 2005..


[11]. Khowla Mattar, “The Rights of Migrant Workers Ignored,” Gulfnews,


[12]. Mattar, “The Rights of Migrant Workers Ignored.”



The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.