The presence of voices in the Gulf against the expatriate communities that make up the majority of the populations of many of the states in the region are not unprecedented, but with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, exacerbated in the Gulf by a sharp drop in oil prices, such voices are becoming louder and more widespread.
While the leaders of the Gulf countries have been trying to dilute this trend through public messages acknowledging the contributions of expatriates to their societies, it has not been abating.
At least one of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) made the trend official when its government asked businesses to replace foreign workers by nationals. This country, Oman, is the Gulf country least likely to be troubled by such criticisms, however, since almost two-thirds of its workforce are local citizens, and it is not a country seeing large-scale remittances by foreign workers.
Though Saudi Arabia has a lesser percentage of expatriate workers because of the greater size of its population, the number of foreign workers in the Kingdom is around 10 million. It has been little wonder as a result that calls to “expel” these foreign workers have not been confined to social media, but have also appeared in the mainstream official media.
One host of a TV show on a state-owned channel criticised Saudi businesses for retaining expatriates, saying they had “no shame and knew nothing about loyalty to the country”. Social-media posts are often treated as a vent for “popular” views in Saudi Arabia, but these have more usually been checked on the mainstream official media.
The Saudi TV host went on to say that “we have to stop making Saudi employees the scapegoat in every crisis... [We must] get rid of the foreign labour that has replaced more skilled Saudis.”
The comments went beyond more usual attacks on non-skilled workers, mainly Asians and from some Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Jordan, to target white-collar expatriates as well.
Saudi Arabia, like other GCC countries, has been working to “localise” its job market over recent years. Yet, go into any healthcare facility in Saudi Arabia and the majority of workers are still foreigners, from the Asian and African nursing staff to doctors and even accountants from Arab and foreign countries. The hydrocarbons sector still relies heavily on expatriate workers and professionals.
Highly publicised attacks on foreigners in Kuwait have also dominated social media in that country recently, with prominent figures calling for the immediate expulsion of expatriates for “spreading the virus,” as one MP and a famous Kuwaiti actress have said.
Lawmaker Safaa Al-Hashem is known for her regular outbursts against expatriates in Kuwait, especially Egyptian nationals. She called for the deportation of foreigners in order to “purify the country” of the virus, while actress Hayat Al-Fahad told a Kuwaiti broadcaster that the root of the country’s coronavirus problem lay with South Asian and Egyptian migrant workers.
Other Kuwaitis have taken to social media to describe how they have been treated for the coronavirus by Egyptian doctors and Asian nurses in Kuwaiti hospitals, denouncing the MP and the actress for their accusations.
Kuwait is among the most distressed Gulf states economically by the pandemic, and its government has found it difficult to appease its citizens without taking measures to lessen the “burden” of expatriate workers. For this reason, the repatriation of many thousands of such workers has become a necessity in Kuwait, though not all of them can be driven out, as foreigners represent more than two-thirds of the population.
The UAE is a special case, with expatriates amounting to more than three-quarters of the population. The country started a drive to “localise” more jobs last year, and UAE citizen voices on social media, though fewer than in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have been lamenting the “burden” of expatriate workers.
The country’s leadership is focusing on the message of equating citizens, residents and visitors in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
A strong message from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed early in the pandemic stressed the importance of foreigners to the country. He said in a video in March that he had been moved to tears watching foreign residents on social media sing the UAE’s national anthem, adding “may God protect you and protect the country you’re in, which you are loyal to like its own citizens.”
However, as many businesses have temporarily closed in the UAE due to lockdown measures to combat the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers have had to be repatriated, mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Others, even professionals from the Middle East, Europe and North America, have also had to leave as they have been faced with growing uncertainty surrounding their jobs.
The situation in Qatar is worse for expatriate workers, most of them Asians and Africans, especially those working on projects associated with the Football World Cup 2022 that is to be hosted by Qatar. Stories of Asian workers left in limbo and with no money reflect a gloomy picture of the emirate despite the relatively low official numbers of cases of infection with the coronavirus in the country.
The Gulf countries might have to offload the burden of their foreign workforce, but with many sectors relying extensively on expatriates their economies will likely not rebound after the pandemic without the foreign workers. Moreover, government receipts from expatriates and their consumer spending are significant components of the GDP of the Gulf economies. One example is the property sector, where prices and rents have been sharply dropping as demand diminishes as expatriate workers leave.
Between 25 and 30 million foreigners work in the GCC countries, most of them Asians and representing almost three-quarters of the workforce in the six countries. And workforce exporting countries depend on foreign currency remittances from these expatriates to balance their budgets. In the case of India, for example, whose nationals make up almost a quarter of foreign workers in the Gulf, more than $78 billion was sent from the Gulf to India in 2018.
According to World Bank figures, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are among the top 10 countries for remittances in the world, and foreign workers send around a quarter of a trillion dollars to their original low or middle-income countries. More than half of these global remittances come from the GCC countries, with nearly half of them landing in five countries including India, the Philippines, Egypt, China and Mexico.
No country in the world has been spared from the negative economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, but remittance-receiving countries will be more adversely affected in the short term. Even though the Gulf countries will not be able in the short and medium terms to afford expatriate-free societies, the era of dream jobs in the GCC for the unemployed in densely-populated countries is over.
Western white collar advisers and consultants will also miss the lucrative opportunities they have enjoyed in the Gulf “paradise” for decades.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly