1940s to 1980s: labor migration from Arab countries
During the first stage of the development process in the Gulf oil countries, namely, from the late 1940s until the early 1980s, the vast majority of the foreign labor came from the other Arab countries, mainly from Egypt, Yemen, Jordan/Palestine (the occupied Palestinian territories) and Syria, Lebanon and Sudan to a lesser extent. The Arab foreign workers were needed in order to establish the new government bureaucracy, the educational system, the legal system and other public sector services. They were needed not only because of their professional qualifications but also because they were the only available workforce which could establish all of these institutions and systems in Arabic. One major reason for the rapid development of the GCC state institutions and public services, in addition of course to their huge financial resources, was the high availability of skilled and professional Arab workers.
In addition to the Arab speakers being irreplaceable due to their language skills, the labor laws of the Gulf oil-states privileged non-Gulf Arabs over non-Arab labor migrants. However, non-Gulf Arabs could only be employed if there was no Gulf citizen available to do the job. The employment of non-national non-Arabs was limited to cases in which no suitable Gulf citizens or non-national Arab worker could be found. Hence, until the early 1980s there was a kind of mutual dependence between the non-oil Arab countries and the Gulf oil-states. The first were badly in need of employment opportunities due to their bulging workforces, while in the Gulf oil-states there was no other choice but to employ Arabs in their rapidly expanding public sectors.
Moreover, the employment of millions of workers from the non-oil Arab countries strengthened the Gulf oil-states in the inter-Arab political arena. It “ensured” that the non-oil Arab countries would, in effect, “abandon” their “Arab unity” ideas which had previously jeopardized the position of the Gulf ruling families, especially that of the Al-Sa‘ud family. Thus, employing Arabs served the Gulf oil-states from both socioeconomic as well as political points of view.
Late 1980s until today: labor migration from Asia
However, following the end of the “oil decade” a gradual replacement of Arabs by Asian workers began even in Kuwait which constituted the “fortress” of Arab foreign labor. Thus, while in 1975 the percentage of Arabs of the total foreign workforce in Kuwait was 69% (ILO, 1980:137) this percentage radically declined to less than 40% in 2007 (Shah, 2007:14). In the Saudi case, the percentage of Arabs of the total foreign population declined from more than 90% in 1975 (ILO, 1980:137) to 37% in 1992 (Birks, Sinclair & Associates Ltd., 1992:103) and to little more than 30% in the early 2000s (Kapiszewski, 2006:9). In Oman, although Asian workers constituted the vast majority of the foreign workers since the beginning of the oil era due to the traditional relationship between Oman and the Far East, particularly India, still in 1975 Arabs constituted 12.4% of the total Sultanate’s foreign workers (ILO, 1080:137). In 2008, however, with the exception of less than 11,000 Egyptian workers (1.4% of the total foreign workers) there were no other Arab foreign workers in the Sultanate while those from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka constituted almost 88% of the total Sultanate’s foreign labor (Oman, MNE, Statistics Online). Overall, in 2004, the total number of non-national Arabs (including both workers and accompanying family members) in the GCC countries amounted to 3-3.5 million. In the early 2000s, Indians alone outnumbered non-GCC Arabs (MEI, 21 January 2005:23). In 2010, almost three-fourths of the migrant workers in GCC countries were Asians (Migration News, January 2012).
Economic reasons for the replacement of Arab labor
This gradual replacement of Arabs by non-Arab labor in the GCC countries was due to both economic and political reasons: from a purely economic point of view, the Asian workers were much cheaper than the Arabs and much easier to lay-off (see e.g., ESCWA et al., 1993:7; Kapiszewski, 2006:6-7). In addition, in contrast to the Arab workers, the Asian workers usually came to the Gulf alone, leaving their family members behind, thus reducing the cost of subsidized goods.
In the late 1990s, when oil prices were extremely low and reached the bottom of less than $10 per barrel, workers’ remittances sent from the GCC countries constituted a substantial percentage of their oil revenues. In the Saudi case, for example, in 1999 the workers’ remittances sent from the Kingdom amounted to $14 billion (Looney, 2004:8), representing more than a third of the Kingdom’s total oil export revenues that year (OPEC, 2000:5). Overall, during the 1970-2008 period, the workers’ remittances sent from the Kingdom alone reached the inconceivable amount of $327 billion (Ramady, 2010:31).
Furthermore, due to massive investments in education, in many governmental offices and in the educational system, nationals indeed replaced many non-national Arabs. In the private sector, mainly in construction and agriculture which have become the largest employers of foreign labor, knowledge of Arabic is not relevant so that Arab workers were gradually replaced by non-Arab labor. Moreover, many of the infrastructure projects in the Gulf were implemented by Asian companies which brought their own workers with them.
Political reasons for the replacement of Arab labor
From a political point of view, the GCC rulers were afraid that the Arab foreigners would spread republican anti-monarchy ideas. Moreover, some of the GCC countries were shaken by strikes led by Arab foreign workers (Kapiszewski, 2006:6). Finally, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in early 1979, the GCC rulers were afraid of the spread of Islamic radicalism to their own countries, particularly following the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi and his followers on 20 November 1979. The Asian workers, in contrast to the Arabs, were treated by the GCC rulers as “passive observers” (Choucri 1986:252) and thus were not considered as a threat either to the “intimate nature” of the GCC societies or to their political regimes. It should be noted that the events of the “Arab spring” did not change this situation. In each of the GCC countries Asian workers continue to be preferred over Arab foreign workers.