The Gulf's employment crisis (6)


Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. View of an alley with several tailoring businesses. Photo: Nadine Compton

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts exploring employment problems in the Arab Gulf states.

Part one: How it began

Part two: The iniquities of kafala

Part three: Female domestic workers

Part four: Working outside the rules

Part five: Jobs for citizens?

Part six: Jobs, politics and ethnocracy



EMPLOYMENT policies in the Arab Gulf states have led to a situation where most of the inhabitants are non-citizens and have almost no prospect of becoming citizens, no matter how long they stay, even if they happen to have been born in the country. 

Meanwhile the citizen-minority, though often also deprived of political rights, exist as a privileged class dependent on the labour of the non-citizen majority.

The result is ethnocracy – a system where one ethnic group holds disproportionate power, using it to its own advantage and to the detriment of others.

Although Gulf employment policies are often discussed in terms of economics and workers' rights, the wider political implications are rarely considered. These policies do have a political function, however. They have served the interests of the Gulf monarchies and may well have helped to prolong their power. Whether they will continue to do so is another matter.

Regardless of the flaws in these policies (and there are many), Gulf states have managed them very effectively in the interests of the political status quo. Just how effectively can be seen from the events of 2010-11. The Tunisian revolution started in marginalised industrial towns of the south. Likewise in Egypt, where a long series of factory strikes preceded the revolt against Mubarak.

The Gulf monarchs, on the other hand, are well protected from that sort of action because almost the entire working class consists on non-citizens who can be expelled if they cause trouble or merely become politically suspect. Probably the most striking example of that came in 1991 when Saudi Arabia expelled some 750,000 Yemenis because their government had opposed a UN security council resolution authorising force against Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Over the years, Gulf states have managed the composition of their non-citizen workforce, in terms of its nationalities, to minimise the political risks. At first, workers from the poorer Arab countries seemed an ideal choice since they shared the same language, religion and culture. But political differences soon became apparent. Andrzej Kapiszewski writes:

"The Gulf authorities became worried about non-local Arabs bringing and spreading radical social and political concepts (in particular, the secularist and frequently pro-Soviet ideologies), and cultivating undesirable loyalties. 

"The leftist, pan-Arab ideas promoted by Arab expatriates called for the abolition of monarchies in the Gulf. Some organisations of the type of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf were established and began anti-government activities in the Gulf states. 

"In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous immigrant Arab workers were prosecuted, jailed, and deported because of their participation in the activities of these organisations. The internal stability of some of the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, was also shaken by the Arab expatriate-led labour strikes."

More alarming still, some of these workers held pan-Arabist ideas which questioned the very existence of the Gulf states:

"Many young Arabs regarded borders in the Middle East as artificial lines imposed by western imperialists, and, consequently, expected them to be eliminated."

In their view, Arabs were a single nation where labour should be allowed to circulate freely and oil wealth should be shared rather than assigned to individual governments.

Needless to say, the proportion of non-Gulf Arabs in the Gulf workforce has shrunk from 72% in 1975 to no more than one-third today (and in some countries considerably less). Conversely, the proportion of Asian workers has grown and they now form the majority.

Asians, Kapiszewski notes, are "less expensive to employ, easier to lay-off, and believed to be more efficient, obedient, and manageable". They are also less likely to want to bring families and settle permanently in the Gulf.

Even so, Gulf states have been careful not to become too dependent on Asian workers of any particular nationality. In 2003, for example, the Saudi interior minister set a target where no single nationality could exceed 10% of the total population.

Citizens and work

The other side of the equation is the effect of Gulf employment policies on local citizens – and the political consequences. Writing about ethnocracy in Kuwait, Anh Longva says:

"More than oil prosperity per se, it is the presence of non-Kuwaiti workers and their legal, social and political subjection to Kuwaiti citizens that allows for (1) the reproduction of a political structure with quasi autocratic features, and (2) the continued marginalisation of Kuwaiti women from productive work."

By having vast numbers of non-citizens to do the arduous and low-status work (overwhelmingly in the private sector), Gulf citizens – by virtue of their birth – are assured of a privileged position. Thanks to the oil and gas revenues, governments have been able to provide them with comfortable livelihoods in the state sector.

Providing large numbers of government jobs is one of the chief mechanisms by which Gulf rulers have established their hegemony and maintained control, since those who rely on government pay cheques are unlikely to demand change and rebel. (The trade-off, of course, is that buying loyalty in this way involves a sacrifice of competence and efficiency in the bureaucracy.) 

There is perhaps a broader cultural point to be made here too, relating to differences between the private sector and the state sector. Work in the state sector fits more neatly with the Gulf's paternalistic political ethos: you will be looked after, so long as you follow the rules. In this kind of political system ideas more commonly associated with the private sector – initiative, efficiency, the search for new (and more profitable) ways to do things is not encouraged, and sometimes actively discouraged.

Previous blog posts in this series have looked at various aspects of Gulf employment policies and the ways they are now being challenged:

  • Gulf states are under increasing pressure to reform or abolish the kafala (sponsorship) system which lies at the centre of these policies as far as non-citizen labour is concerned, and which has led to numerous forms of abuse.

  • Meanwhile, quota systems to provide jobs for citizens in the private sector have met with resistance and even subversion from employers.

  • In Saudi Arabia, efforts to provide jobs for women are highlighting the impracticalities of gender segregation in a modern economy

But perhaps the two most important political questions are these:

First, what will be the effect of shifting citizens away from the state sector and towards the private sector? This, as we are already seeing in Saudi Arabia, requires a more relevant (and less religious) education system. It requires a widespread change in attitudes to work and a significant lowering of expectations. The further this goes, the more likely the chances of political unrest.

Second, can the Gulf states continue to regard their non-citizen workforce as temporary and dispensable when in reality it is neither? if not, the social and political implications will be profound.


Further reading:

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 24 February 2014