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Citizenship, nationalism and the non-assimilation of migrant workers in the Gulf oil-states | The Gulf Cooperation Council States (GCC) |

Citizenship, nationalism and the non-assimilation of migrant workers in the Gulf oil-states

Onn Winckler

/ 5 Minuten zu lesen

“Despite their sizable numbers, migrants can only have temporary residency, they have no access to citizenship, and they have limited membership in society, conditions which are unique to the Gulf states as destination countries.” (Philippe Fargues 2011:273)

The form of nationality development of the Gulf oil-states was the result of three major events which had occurred almost simultaneously: the first was the withdrawal of Britain from the Gulf; the second was gaining control over oil production from the “oil majors,” and the third was the transformation from poor traditional economies into rich rentier states following the October 1973 “oil boom.”

Continuity of traditional forms of belonging

Through the rentier formula, the GCC ruling families succeeded in maneuvering the political identity of the indigenous populations toward the traditional forms of tribal, religious and family identity, thus preventing the development of a modern political identity, based on secular nationalism, which might risk their continued rule. Indeed, in none of the Gulf oil-states has a nationalist or any other sort of modern ideological party or even political movement ever been established and opposition to the ruling families, if it exists at all, remains mainly in the traditional forms of Sunni/Shi‘is revivals (in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) and Islamic fundamentalism (mainly in Saudi Arabia).

In order to preserve the traditional socio-political forms, based on an “intimate society” in which the individual is not regarded as an autonomous being but rather as part of a certain tribe, an urban extended family or a religious sect, the Gulf ruling families, from the onset of the oil era, treated foreign labor as a temporary phenomenon soon to be replaced by nationals. Thus, although many foreigners are, in fact, second and sometimes even third generation and have lived in the Gulf their entire lives, they still continue to be treated as “temporary.” The most extreme example of this “temporariness” was the deportation of the Yemenites from Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians and Jordanians from Kuwait following the support of their alleged leaders for the Iraqi side in the Kuwait Crisis of 1990/91.

The social hierarchy in the GCC states

The result was that a clear dichotomy between nationals and foreigners created an extreme socioeconomic-political polarization in these countries: The top of the hierarchy includes the ruling families, followed by the most prestigious and established urban merchant families as well as the heads of the Bedouin tribes. The bottom is made up of the other nationals, each of whom related in some way or belonging to a certain tribe or an extended urban family. Thus, while in the democratic developed countries, the society is formed by individuals, in the GCC countries the society is formed by extended “kin organizations” which mediate between the “state,” namely the ruling family, and the individuals (Partrick, 2012:51-52).

In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the nationals are also divided between the Sunnis, who constitute the socioeconomic-political elite, and the Shi‘is who constitute the bottom strata of the national population despite the fact that in the case of Bahrain the Shi‘is make up the vast majority of the indigenous population. Longva (2000:190) noted in this regard that: “Everywhere in the Arab Gulf states, the Shi‘is suffer from a problem of ascribed disloyalty because of their faith and because of their real or putative connections with Iran.” The discrimination of the Shi‘is in all the GCC countries demonstrates more than any other factor the absence of “secular nationality” in its Western-secular meaning and the perception of loyalty according to the traditional forms of religious, family and tribal belonging.

In recent years, however, the GCC ruling families are investing in building a modern nationality identity including a common heritage. One main reason for this is to develop a clear political entity to distinguish between the nationals and the foreigners. In any case, these efforts will only bear fruits, if any, in the distant future.

Among the expatriate workers, the upper stratum is comprised of Western professional workers, such as engineers, medical doctors, and managers of larger companies, banks and insurance companies, hotels, etc. On a lower stratum there are professional workers from Arab countries such as teachers, lecturers in the higher education institutions and other skilled staff. The bottom of the hierarchy is comprised of unskilled workers from various non-Arab countries, mainly from central and South-East Asia, with those working in agriculture and as domestic workers, particularly Asian women, making up the lowest strata (Naithani, 2010:101; Dito, 2008:12). Hence, the spectrum of rights in the GCC countries runs from “all” at the top level of the ruling families to “none” at the bottom level, the place of women who are employed in domestic services, the vast majority of them are from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Family reunification and naturalization

Moreover, the right to bring the accompanying family members also depends on minimum wage. Thus, only those employed by the public sector and in the managerial and professional occupations in the private sector can enjoy this privilege while the non-professional employees in the private sector are not entitled to this privilege. In any case, their salary is so low that even if they had the legal right to bring their family members, they would not have the financial ability to support them in the Gulf. Thus, while it is typical in the “Western-style migration chain” that after some time, in most cases no more than a few years, the migrant workers are joined by their family members and all of them eventually become citizens of the host countries, the situation in the Gulf oil-states is in total contrast and the authorities almost entirely prevent the option of naturalization of foreign workers, even if they are Muslims and Arabs and even if they have lived in the country for decades. It should be noted, however, that even marriage of a foreign male to a Gulf female does not grant citizenship for the groom. A foreign woman who marries a Gulf male, on the other hand, becomes a citizen of the host country. This difference in attitude is because according to the Islamic shari‘a the religion of the children follows that of the father. Thus, the vast majority of those who did receive citizenship in one of the GCC countries are females who married GCC males. In the case of Oman, marriage of a national, both male and female, to a non-GCC citizen required a prior permission from the Ministry of Interior (U.S., Department of State, 2008:2117).

Birth in one of the GCC countries does not entitle the newborn to citizenship or permanent residence either. Male children of foreign workers are allowed to stay with their parents until the age of 21 years while a female child can stay until she gets married (Shah, 2009:8). Only in exceptional circumstances might the ruler grant citizenship to a foreigner who has “provided outstanding service” to the country. In recent years, however, the strict preventive policy of the naturalization of males has been somewhat alleviated, mainly in cases of professional workers who stay in the country for a long period of time and whose profession is needed in the labor market. In any case, the number of males who are naturalized in any of the GCC countries remains extremely low by any international comparison. As noted by Fargues and Brouwer (2012:245): “GCC countries try to limit naturalization as much as possible."

The Policies of the GCC countries toward refugees and the bidun

The policies of the GCC countries toward refugees are among the most restrictive in the world. Thus far, none of the GCC countries have signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Due to their location near areas with vast numbers of refugees on the one hand, and the high standard of living on the other, the GCC countries naturally fear from a deluge of refugees into their countries. In the case of Oman, for example, besides Somalis, all other nationalities which enter the Sultanate illegally are detained in camps and are usually deported to their countries of origin within one month (U.S. Department of State, 2008:2120). Consequently, the number of refugees in the GCC countries is negligible, ranging from a few tens of people in Qatar and Oman to some tens of thousands in Kuwait (World Bank Data), the vast majority of whom being Palestinians who lived in the country for decades and Iraqis who fled from the war in their home country. These refugees, however, are not recognized as “refugees” but are rather part of the body of foreign workers (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, 2001). The main operational area of the GCC countries on the issue of refugees is generously donating to the UNHCR and other international NGOs which help refugees globally, particularly those operating in Islamic countries.

A major problem in the Gulf is that of the bidun (bidun jinsiyah in Arabic, namely, “without nationality” or “stateless persons”*) mainly concentrated in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These people, although having lived in the Gulf their entire lives, are not considered citizens and thus are prevented from free public services and even passports. In the case of Kuwait, the issue of the bidun is particularly crucial due to their vast numbers. Although the Kuwaiti authorities granted citizenship to many of them and their number declined from about 250,000 prior to the Iraqi invasion to 113,000 in 2001, they still represent a substantial percentage of the non-foreign population. In Saudi Arabia, according to the estimates, the bidun population numbered approximately 70,000 persons in 2001 (UNHCR, 2007:4; U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, 2001). In the case of the UAE, the number of the bidun although substantial, is unknown, running from the low governmental official figure of only 10,000, to about 100,000 according to unofficial estimates (ECHR, 2012; Bloomberg News, 30 March 2008).

*The vast majority of the bidun in the Gulf are Bedouin who wandered in the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula as there were no borders in this area prior to the establishment of the current Gulf states. Thus, they were not settled in one country at the time when the authorities of these new states granted nationality to their local populations.



  1. There are no official or other reliable data regarding the religious composition of Bahrain’s indigenous population. However, according to unofficial data, approximately 55% to 60% of them are Shi‘is and the rest, including the ruling family, are Sunnis. See, e.g., MEED, 6-12 April 2012:38-39.


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Onn Winckler is professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History, University of Haifa. His major fields of academic research are political demography and economic history of the modern Middle East.
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