Middle East remains hub for migrant labour despite ‘localisation’ efforts


More prosperous countries in the Middle East, especially those in the Gulf, will continue to be a key labour migration hub despite workforce localisation programs, ongoing geopolitical tensions and problems arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, experts said.

Economic diversification plans, particularly among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, will prompt a need to retain and attract migrant workers who have been integral to the region’s economic development strategy through the years, they said.

The GCC countries comprise of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for the last decade, have been trying to diversify their economies in order to reduce their reliance on oil and other hydrocarbon energy resources.

“The GCC countries continue to be a labor migration hub, noting that the bloc had the highest proportion of migrant workers, relative to the total workforce, worldwide,” said Sara Salman, population affairs officer at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, or ESCWA, which is headquartered in Lebanon.

Ms. Salman said the shift to diversify economies, in addition to the impact of the fourth industrial revolution or the automation of manufacturing and industrial practices will have an impact on the future of work and the demand for skilled migrant workers.

But not all of them have the same labor policy for migrant workers, and some nations have been making efforts to curb the hiring of foreign workers in order to boost the employment of locals.

Froilan Malit Jr, a Dubai-based Gulf migration specialist from Cambridge University, said in the case of the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait where migrant workers “really dominate”, it would be challenging to replace them as they are part of the countries’ economic strategy and “business model”.

According to the UN, there were an estimated 35 million international migrants in the GCC countries in 2019.  The International Labour Organization said the majority of the workers in the GCC are from Asia, with a sizable number also coming from Africa ─ particularly Egypt, and also increasingly from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

Migrant workers in the GCC countries hit an average of 70.4%, ranging from 56 to 93% for individual countries.

But a recent ILO report in August also revealed that the Arab region had registered the highest levels of unemployment worldwide. About 14.3 million individuals, it said, had already been unemployed prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.

It also highlighted a skills mismatch and identified manufacturing, hospitality and real estate among the sectors that were hit hard by the global health crisis. About 40 million individuals were under the threat of layoffs, reduced wages and hours of work, the ILO said.

Anis Khayati, an economics professor at the College and Business Administration at the University of Bahrain, said given that a high percentage of the population of most GCC states’ workforce consists of expats, the group is liable to be most impacted by the economic downturn.

Several GCC governments, Khayati noted, have implemented policies that seek to prioritize employment for local citizens at the expense of foreign worker as there has been an acceleration of these measures in countries such as Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

The professor cited Oman’s decision to replace expats with Omani nationals in its public sector, Qatar’s directive to all state-owned entities to curb spending by implementing layoffs and expat salary cuts, and Kuwait, which aims to slash its expat population from 70% to 30%.

Khayati thinks a labor shortage scenario will become clearer in the market in the near future because of the departure of both high-earning professionals and low-income workers.

ESCWA’s Salman said the economic crisis witnessed in several Arab countries, like Lebanon and Sudan, which is in northeastern Africa, is serving as a driver for outward migration for people seeking livelihoods elsewhere.

Protracted conflict and occupation in the region has resulted in one of the largest wave of refugees in the past decade, with two-fifths of the refugees worldwide originating from Arab countries, she noted.

There have been reports of Saudi Arabia purging Yemeni academic professionals from its turf, particularly universities in the provinces of Baha, Jizan, Najran. There are an estimated two million Yemeni expats in Saudi.

Malit, the Dubai-based Gulf migration specialist, noted that Saudi Arabia’s behavior “is not an exceptional one”.

Many Gulf countries have historically used “different coercive methods” to address domestic security threats through labor reform, immigration reforms or other legal reforms, said Malit, who is also managing director at Rights Corridor, a human rights and policy research platform.

“I see unemployment as a security factor as well,” Malit told China Daily, adding that Saudi Arabia has been quite serious in terms of imposing stronger localisation, or Saudisation, requirements across sectors. The nation’s thinking needs to be contextualized, he said.

The University of Bahrain’s Khayati said authorities in the region must bear in mind the importance of ensuring business continuity, “and to maintain vigilance due to the heightened risk of anti-foreign sentiment … due to the perception among some parts of the local population that expats are a burden on their resources”. (Source: China Daily)