[Excerpt] The oil-rich Gulf countries comprise a region with exceptionally high international migration of persons originating from a wide range of countries. The six countries that comprise this sub-region include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, SaudivArabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are joined together for several purposes in an association known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). For the last three decades expatriates have come to outnumber nationals in several of the GCC countries’ populations. During the 1970s and 1980s, large scale migration of “guest” workers started as a response to the increase in the price of oil, and the consequent plans of the GCC countries for rapid development. Such plans necessitated the import of very large numbers of foreign workers since the indigenous labor forces were usually small in number and did not have the variety of skills required for the development of infrastructure and other projects. In the initial stages, construction workers were a major category of workers imported. While the demand for construction workers declined somewhat with the completion of projects, a persistent demand for such workers still exists, especially for the creation of new housing projects and buildings required for the growing number of nationals. The GCC countries have fairly high population growth rates and the number of births per woman is generally more than 4 in case of most countries. In some countries such as the UAE, construction projects are also under way as a means of investment, especially in Dubai.
Besides construction workers, another major category of workers consists of those in cleaning services, helpers, and domestic service. Among domestic workers, women generally constitute a majority in most of the GCC countries. Among the sending countries, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia and India are the major ones. Over the years, the number of domestic workers has been increasing. In Kuwait, for example, housemaids comprised 7.1 % of Kuwait’s population (of 2.87 million) and numbered 203,406 in 2005 (PACI, 2005).
Table 1 indicates the predominance of expatriates in Gulf countries. The percentage of non-nationals ranged from a low of 24% in Oman to 78% in Qatar in 2005. In case of the labor force, more than half in each country comprised expatriates in the early 2000s. In 2005, the combined estimated GCC population was 35.8 million with expatriates constituting 12.8 million (35.7 %). It was estimated that if the expatriate population continued to increase at the present rate it might reach 18 million after ten years. UN estimates for 2005 indicate that in the largest GCC country, Saudi Arabia, foreigners constitute 6.4 million (or 26 %) of the 24.5 million residents. Some other sources report the number of foreigners to be as high as 8.8 million. However, various estimates suggest that foreigners comprise 56-70% of the labor force and 95 % of the private sector workforce. In UAE, foreigners constitute 71 % of the 4.5 million residents (Table 1); and fill 98% of the private sector jobs.
The continued predominance of foreign workers in the population and labor force of the GCC countries has been accompanied by a whole range of policies to regulate and manage such migration. A general policy aimed at curtailing the number of foreign workers has been present for several years. This general policy started getting translated into action and implementation through various means during the mid 1990s. The goal of this paper is to highlight the major policies and discuss some of the social and economic factors that may facilitate or hinder their effective implementation. An important reason for the increasingly active and forceful implementation of policies to reduce migration is the rising levels of unemployment in the GCC countries, described in the next section.