Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC Working Group I

Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC Working Group I

On September 7–8, 2013, CIRS held a two-day working group to discuss, amongst other things, the economic and political push and pull factors of Arab migration to the region, the historical migration trajectory, the current conditions and varied experiences of Arab expatriates residing and working in the Gulf, as well as future trends in regional migration. Along with the five teams of research grant awardees, who updated the group on their ongoing research and preliminary findings, the working group participants consisted of a cohort of experts and scholars. In contrast to the burgeoning literature on Asian immigrants in the Gulf, Arab migration to the region has been a neglected area of study. In order to fill this gap, in early 2013 CIRS launched a grant-based research initiative on “Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC.” Five grant proposals were awarded to scholars to conduct fieldwork and original research on various topics related to Arab migration in the region.

The advent of the Gulf oil economy in the 1950s brought with it an influx of migrants, initially predominantly from the Arab world. As the literature documents, the stocks and flows of regional migration have altered throughout the years, with the first Gulf War demonstrating a break in the inflow of Arabs and a dramatic increase in the import of an Asian work force. Viewed as more politicized in comparison to their Asian and Western counterparts, Arab migrants in the GCC have historically been impacted by the geo-political atmosphere. In light of the recent uprisings throughout the region, and more specifically in recognition of the political consciousness of Arab youth, the participants discussed the significance of assessing perceptions of the Arab Uprisings amongst non-local students in the GCC. The attitudes of foreign students towards political and social change taking place in the region has significant implications for future policies related to labor and migration. While perceptions embedded in historical events or narratives impact the governance of migration, they too influence the relations between the locals and the expatriate Arab. Mapping the historical-political consequences of the first Gulf War and more recently the Arab Uprisings provides a lens to assess how certain Gulf States have negotiated their tenuous relationship with their migrant Arab communities. Based on the historical context, different generations of Palestinians in the UAE for example, have exhibited varying experiences of cross-nationality interaction, different degrees of willingness to engage on political issues, and most substantially, diverse levels of success in their ability to obtain Gulf citizenship.

Underlying the politics of migration, the notion of impermanence and temporariness in relation to the “transient foreigner” was repeatedly discussed throughout the two-day working group. As participants pointed out, the “temporariness of migration” in the Gulf states, particularly as it relates to Arab migrants, is an indication more so of their political and social status rather than the duration of their stay in the region. Several nationalities of Arab origin have resided within the GCC for decades, resulting in a significant proportion of second and third generation GCC-born Arab expatriates. While limited pathways to citizenship have policy makers categorizing migrants as “temporary,” numerous long-standing migrant communities of various Arab origins have carved out a more permanent presence within the GCC.

As the dominant Arab nationality throughout the GCC, Egyptians have permeated a range of economic sectors and are generally considered to be the most diverse Arab expatriate community within the Gulf states. The diversity of the Egyptian community in certain states such as Kuwait is manifested in the demographically based socio-spatial and geographic distribution of Egyptians throughout the city. The diverse experiences and socio-economic statuses of Egyptians provide a valuable foundation for the analysis of “bonding capital” within the Egyptian community as well as “bridging capital” with the host community. Moreover, as Egyptians in Kuwait constitute the second largest source of remittances to Egypt, their impact on homeland development is substantial. While most studies focus on the micro-level impact of remittances at the household level, experts discussed the need to assess its impact on macro-level development and particularly how it affects the home country’s investment climate.

While most Arab migrants have traditionally migrated to North America and Europe, they are increasingly choosing the GCC as a destination despite limited pathways to integration and citizenship. For instance, the number of high-skilled Lebanese immigrants in Kuwait has exponentially increased in recent years. While assessing the push factors of Lebanese emigration to Kuwait, participants identified the limited size and prospects of the Lebanese labor market, along with issues of clientalism and corruption as major drivers of emigration. In addition to economic and political push factors of Arab migration, a deteriorating “quality of life” in some home countries have led migrants to seek employment in Gulf cities, which are characterized by high growth, sound infrastructure, and the accessibility of public goods. An increase in Jordanian female immigration to the Gulf suggests that the rising age of marriage, the geographic proximity of the GCC, the availability of job opportunities, and the “comfortable lifestyle” offered have made this region the ideal destination for Arab female migrants. Moreover, within certain sectors of the GCC labor market, there appears to be a level of dependency on Arab workers, most notably due to the shared Arabic language with the host country. Arab teachers, for instance, are a unique part of the labor force in the Gulf, in that they cannot easily be replaced by Asians or Westerners. While the pull-factors to the GCC may outweigh the status of impermanence its migrants face, Arab workers nonetheless accommodate their temporariness into their risk and decision-making process. Impermanent contracts affect the behavior of workers as manifested in their tendency to invest in the present rather any future-related endeavors.

Investigating intergroup-relations and particularly the relationship between Arab workers and GCC employers within the workplace was also discussed as a point of interest. In certain sectors, there is a “privileging” of Arab workers and assessing opportunities or barriers to promotion and professional development in the Gulf is of importance. In addition to standard workplace relations, the relationship between Hadrami migrants and their Kuwaiti employers is unique in comparison to other Arab expatriate experiences. Since the start of their migration to Kuwait in the early 1950s, Hadramis were quickly absorbed into the domestic services sector. Throughout the decades, a culture of dependency developed between Hadramis and their mo’azib (Kuwaiti sponsor and employer) where immigrants and their sons work for the same household for decades. What is exemplary in this relationship in comparison to other workplace relations is the inherent hierarchy and enduring commitment to the mo’azib that eliminates any possibility of competition with the locals. In comparison with other Arab immigrants that characteristically tend to be economically valued, Hadramis are symbolically valued in the Kuwaiti community. These differences in the experiences of Arab migrants based on historical context and nationality offer a nuanced understanding on the evolving conditions of expatriates and the dynamics of migration in the Gulf.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Abdullah M. Alajmi, Arab Open University
  • Mohammed Al-Waqfi, United Arab Emirates University
  • Heba Arafa, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Françoise De Bel-Air, Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO)
  • Ismail H. Genc, American University of Sharjah
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Manal A. Jamal, James Madison University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Sulayman Khalaf, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority
  • Garret Maher, Gulf University for Science and Technology
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Heba Nassar, American University in Cairo
  • George Naufal, American University of Sharjah
  • Michael Newson, International Organization for Migration
  • Gwenn Okruhlik, Middle East Institute – National University of Singapore
  • Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Natasha Ridge, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research
  • Ganesh Seshan, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nasra Shah, Kuwait University
  • Nada Soudy, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar
  • Paul Tacon, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia
  • Abbie Taylor, ISIM – Georgetown University
  • Luciano Zaccara, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS