Migration to the Gulf: A Gulf Perspective
By Aarohi, Ameen and the IMN team
Around 8.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf countries, one of the largest concentrations of migrants in the world. The geographical and historical proximity of the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian Subcontinent makes it a convenient destination for Indians, and today migrants from across India are working and living in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait). A massive recruitment industry has emerged in India for “exporting” Indian workers to the Gulf.
At the same time all these developments have had immense costs for migrant households in the form of debilitating debt, broken families at source along with deplorable working and living conditions, and general social exclusion at destinations. Since 2010, return migration from the Gulf has increased rapidly, resulting in further insecurity for migrant households and their home regions.
While many factors have been discussed for the above developments, the Gulf destination perspective is conspicuously missing in the Indian emigration discourse. This is largely due to the sensitivity and opaqueness of Gulf regimes towards migration issues. Poor or absent data and suppression of journalistic and academic scholarship on migration has resulted in a lop sided understanding of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf.
In this edition we attempt to fill this gap by sharing perspectives from the Gulf. We spoke with journalists based in the Gulf, with return migrants from the Gulf and tapped into the legal, historical and socio-economic narratives around Gulf societies to contextualise issues and policies faced by migrants.
First off, we spoke with Regimon Kuttappan, a journalist previously based in the Gulf, on the Arab media and migrant worker experience.
“My earliest stories at the Oman Times brought me into contact with small time migrant workers who were facing issues of starvation, abandonment, and negligence. These migrants are brought to journalists by social workers for the purpose of publishing what are known as ‘begging bowl’ stories. The hope is that local philanthropists and wealthy individuals will intervene to aid the migrants after reading of such stories.”
You can listen to the podcast and read a summary of the conversation here.
Resource Rich but Labour Poor: A Historical Narrative of Gulf Migration
Labour migration within the Arab region is not a new phenomenon — it started in the late 1930s, following the discovery of oil in the Gulf area — the scale of labor migration to the Gulf states was relatively small, estimated in the early 1970s to be between 800,000 and 1.25 million (including both workers and their accompanying family members).
Large scale migration from Asia to the GCC developed rapidly after the oil price rises of 1973. In the 1970s, this involved mainly male migrants for construction, initially from India and Pakistan.
The surge in both oil prices and production scale on the one hand, and the small national populations on the other, transformed the GCC countries within a short period of time into pure “rentier states” with oil revenues amounting to 80% (and in some cases even higher) of the total governmental revenues. A major tool for distributing the oil income to the indigenous populations was through public sector employment with high salaries and luxury work conditions. Hence, the political implication of the rentier state was “no taxation and no representation.”
The end result was the creation of a dual labor market with nationals employed almost exclusively in the public sector while the vast majority of the foreign workers were employed in the private sector.
From the mid-1980s, as living standards rose, there was a progressive feminisation of Asian migrant labor in the Gulf, with a growing demand for domestic workers, nurses, sales staff and other service personnel. By 2014, females accounted for about 40% of Asian migrants in the Gulf countries. Today, the GCC economies rely heavily on foreign labour (in the form of Asian migrants) to support rapid economic and infrastructural growth. Currently, 8.5 million Indian migrants alone are employed in the Gulf countries.
One major part of the appeal of South Asian migrants in the Gulf is their assumed disinterest in demanding socio-political rights. In fact, research studies show that financial and physical abuse of Filipino domestic workers is not always a deterrent for future migration prospects.
Citizenship and Migrants Rights in the Gulf: Denial and Extraction
Despite playing an important role in building their economies, the issue of immigrant citizenship rights has been largely ignored by the GCC. Currently, migrants enjoy few, if any, of the civil, political, or social rights associated with citizenship i.e. no integration possibilities.
In order to understand the prevalent attitudes and restrictions towards migrants in the Gulf, we have to examine the nature of citizenship rights in the Gulf, for both natives and migrants. (We are grateful to and lean heavily on a 2013 article by Sater for this analysis.)
First, Gulf citizens themselves enjoy only some civil rights and even fewer political rights. But they possess quite a substantial number of welfare and employment rights (positive rights). Due to the continuing reliance of many Gulf states on oil and gas income, the distributive spending of export income remains a core characteristic of these states. In the states with the highest proportion of migrant communities (Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE), these welfare provisions also appear strongest. For example, on the occasion of Kuwait’s celebration of 50 years of independence on 25 February 2011, its citizens received USD 3000 as a gift from the government.
Second, along with limiting civil and positive rights of women, Gulf states have substantial population segments identified by origin, religion, or language which enjoy fewer civil and social rights than other citizens of these states. In fact, citizenship rights are negotiated through, and dependent on, the wider religious or tribal communities to which individuals belong. This is best illustrated in the UAE, where citizenship rights are contingent on wider kinship affiliation through each individual Emirate. This can make substantial differences in terms of protection (civil rights) and welfare-employment (positive rights).
The key takeaway is this: In the Gulf countries, in return for limited/absent political rights, citizens are compensated by strong welfare provisions generated from the distribution of oil and gas revenues. Outside of these welfare provisions, the demarcation line between citizens and migrants is not quite as clear as may appear from the outside.
In addition, the distribution of oil revenues is just one component of the welfare distribution system. Migrants’ contribution to the generation of wealth is the hidden and undervalued second component which contributes to the inequitable welfare systems in the GCC.
“Gulf migrants do not have many of the civil rights associated with citizenship:
- Above all,the right to own a private company is limited; foreigners need local sponsors, who in turn take a 51% ownership stake in whatever company is founded.
- Second, the right to hire employees is limited through the sponsorship system (kafala), so that only citizens may sponsor workers who are invariably foreigners.
- Third, foreigners are not allowed to own property except in special freehold areas.
As a result, property markets generate a substantial amount of rents which becomes part of a redistribution system from foreign, private enterprise to the local population.”
This is a fundamental feature of the migrant, native and state relationship in the Gulf, which, to a significant extent, explains the willingness to host such large immigrant populations.
This tripartite relationship has, for instance, facilitated the massive increase in UAE’s wealth (especially Dubai which has small oil reserves) generated by the economic activities of millions of migrant workers. The main beneficiaries of which are the Emiratis: in 2015, UAE’s per capita GDP was $67,616 and the average annual income of a migrant worker was $4,355.
Sater further explains how citizenship identity among Gulf natives is also shaped by contrasting them from foreigners (immigrants). He cites the example of Dubai, where: “ the meaning of civil rights is not related to the liberal notion of protection from the state, but instead to the nationalistic notion of protection from foreigners in the event of disputes. This applies in particular to economic transactions and, ironically, traffic accidents.”
Which goes a long way to explain the widespread traumatic and helpless experiences of immigrants in the Gulf, who often have no legal recourse except deportation. The Gulf economic development model is contingent on the exploitation and extraction as much, if not more, of its immigrant population than oil.
Do the local citizens resent the migrant labour force?
The public opinion among the nationals remains generally positive towards immigration. According to the Gallup Survey 2013, only a relatively small percentage of people (with the exception of Kuwait and Bahrain) want immigration levels to decrease; while a high share wants levels to increase or stay the same. These results point to the fact that the general public in these countries considers migrants to be an important part of the workforce and their economy.
Tilt towards Arabisation: Migration Policies to enable Economic Transition
Since the late 1990’s Gulf economies have been looking to diversify beyond oil-revenues and transition to a more services and finance driven economic model. To enable this transition, policymakers are trying to increase the productivity and labour force participation of the native workforce; simultaneously, governments are localising or nationalising their labour force through restrictive border entry policies targeted largely at low skilled workers. These measures are usually named after the country of implementation: Omanisation, Saudisation, etc.
These policies have been put in place to tackle ‘an over-reliance on migrant labour; high rates of citizen unemployment; education systems that are still undergoing fundamental development; an inadequate gender balance in the workforce; and poor levels of private sector employment of citizens.’
Whether these policies will be successful is unclear. Evidence suggests that UAE’s nationalisation policies have been ineffective until now. Only one percent of the native labour force is in the private sector because of a lack of appropriate skills required to take on highly skilled jobs. The national population is also shrinking in proportion, experiencing fertility decline, down from 6.9 births per woman in 1960 to 1.8 in 2018, as its relatively affluent population moves into demographic transition. The overall rise in high skilled migration into the GCC (especially from India) also attests to this assertion.
We will be soon putting out a detailed analysis of these policies; do follow our Medium blog.
One visible impact of migration and the localisation policies is the increasing recognition of the (non)representation of women in the GCC work force. Given the socio-cultural background of these states and the still gendered understanding of work itself, the composition of the GCC states’ demographic/total labour force is overwhelmingly male. Therefore, female labour force participation, more specifically female citizen labour force participation, is significantly under counted.
Calculating female citizens’ economic participation using female population as a denominator might eliminate the imbalance caused by a predominantly male labour force. The table and graph below represents the women in the GCC workforce , compared to other countries: it shows that the women’s participation numbers for the GCC are inching to be on par with the West.
Alternatively, however, it has been noted that (in reference to Saudi Arabia and UAE) with nationalisation, women’s participation in the labour force continues to be limited by social and cultural barriers, and even geographical mobility and proximity to the home.
Can governments overcome these barriers?
Ennis points out that the promotion of female entrepreneurship by the Qatar and Omani governments, through either private (home) or public SMEs relieves the state of social and economic pressures. It forces the women into the labour market through private enterprise and redefines the boundaries for women’s public participation.
However, when women enter the workforce it is often at the expense of other women taking over their household and care-giving duties. Unlike the other sectors of the Gulf economies, the demand for domestic workers remained high in the GCC in 2016 at 3.77 million domestic workers, 1.65 million of whom (44%) were women.
The following graph represents domestic workers as a percentage of non-national employment in 2016.
The demand for domestic labour grows as the GCC countries experience high female labour force participation and an aging population. The Future of Domestic Work report also notes the increasing number of double income expat (typically high skilled immigrants from developed countries) families demanding professional house keepers. With the growing need for child and elderly care that is often expected of women, the demand for migrant domestic workers is only going to grow in the GCC.
Migration is a complex and highly dynamic process with constantly evolving profiles of migrants and their destinations. Only an ex-ante — migrant rights-based approach inclusive of all Indian migrants abroad can be considerate of this and provide Indian migrants abroad with adequate security and welfare. You can read our comments on the Draft Emigration Bill 2019 in greater here.