Book Chapter

Immigration vs. Population in the Gulf

| November 11, 2015

Capital-rich and labour-poor. This is how the curse of the Gulf States was described fifty years ago. The world’s largest oil stocks had just been discovered under the earth’s most arid and depopulated region. With oil internationally recognised as the property of the state and not of the company that did the pumping, the scarcely populated states of the Gulf acquired enormous wealth. From the largest and oldest (Saudi Arabia) to the tiniest and youngest (Qatar), all six Gulf states soon faced income surpluses with population shortages, to which they all responded by importing labour. In just five decades, the Gulf, which for centuries had received only small population flows, became the world’s third largest receiver of global migrants after the United States and the European Union.

From the largest and oldest (Saudi Arabia) to the tiniest and youngest (Qatar), all six Gulf states soon faced income surpluses with population shortages, to which they all responded by importing labour. In just five decades, the Gulf, which for centuries had received only small population flows, became the world’s third largest receiver of global migrants after the United States and the European Union. The way in which these nascent nations would incorporate massive numbers of newcomers into the workplace but not into their societies is a unique feature of the Gulf.

When strong oil economies emerged in the Gulf in the 1960s, Pan-Arabism was still at its height. Migration from South Arabia, the Levant and the Nile Valley to the Gulf was seen by many in the region as a strategic move towards a strong integrated Arab Nation. Arab labour mobility would bring the human wealth of the Arab world together with its financial wealth, and a powerful nation would be born. This ideology was reinforced by the 1973 Suez Canal War, when OAPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) proclaimed an oil embargo on Israel’s allies and oil prices quadrupled. Oil income, and with it the demand for migrant labour, soared in the Gulf. This is when the reality and rhetoric started to part company, as Asians gradually came to outnumber Arabs in the Gulf labour markets.

The 1990-91 Gulf war following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was to finish off the pan-Arab myth. Three million Arab migrants were deported from the Arab states where they were employed for the simple reason that they were born with the wrong citizenship: Egyptians from Iraq, as Egypt was part of the coalition against Iraq; Palestinians from Kuwait; and Yemenis from Saudi Arabia, because the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Yemeni government were supporting Iraq. Since then, Arab migration, which was the preferred topic of Arab social scientists and conferences in the region in the 1980s, has disappeared from the academic world. Migrants soon returned to the Gulf, and because the vast majority were excluded from host citizenship non-citizens came to form most of the workforce (from 50 to 90% according to the state) and in some cases most of the total population (from 36 to 80%)...

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For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation: Fargues Philippe, 2015, "Immigration vs. Population in the Gulf" in L. Narbone (ed.) The Gulf Monarchies Beyond the Arab Spring. Changes and Challenges, EUI e-book, pp. 11-17 http://cadmus.eui.eu//handle/1814/37734