Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Highly Skilled Migration to the Gulf in Comparative Perspective Working Group I

Highly Skilled Migration to the Gulf in Comparative Perspective Working Group I

On June 1-2, 2016, The Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) hosted a working group on “Highly Skilled Migrants: The Gulf and Global Perspectives.” This working group is an outcome of a joint research project on Highly Skilled Migrants in Qatar that Zahra Babar, CIRS Associate Director, and two co-collaborators, Nabil Khattab of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and Michael Ewers of Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute recently began working on. The working group provided Babar, Khattab, and Ewers with the opportunity to share their preliminary research results and receive feedback. A number of other scholars with regional and global experience on the topic of skilled migration were invited to present on their own research during the working group. The gathering allowed the group to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions about the nature, patterns, and processes of labor migration to the Gulf region, through the lens of highly skilled migration.

Zahra Babar, Michael Ewers and Nabil Khattab started the discussion by introducing their pilot project on “Highly Skilled Migrants in Qatar.” They shared the results of a survey of 300 highly skilled migrants that was carried out in Qatar in January 2016 and also some of the preliminary findings of a few in-depth interviews that they have carried out in the past month. The survey and qualitative interviews address a number of areas, including among other things: highly skilled migrants’ careers and professional lives in Qatar, motivations and drivers for coming to the country and reasons for staying, human capital development— both the tacit skills and know-how that they contribute to their work, organizations and the country— and their values and aspirations relating to their mobility, as well as life strategies and future aims and life strategies.

Building on the first session and allowing for a very interesting comparative geographic perspective, Micheline van Riemsdijk led a discussion on the “Integration of Highly Skilled Migrants in the Workplace: A Multi-Scalar Model” which is focused on highly skilled migrants in Scandinavia. Dr. van Riemsdijk’s research examines the integration of foreign-born skilled migrants within Norway’s petroleum industry. Just as in Qatar and in other hydrocarbon producers, Norway draws on an international workforce to populate its petroleum industry. Through her study of foreign-born engineers and other highly skilled migrants in Norway’s petroleum industry, Dr. Van Riemsdijk argues that integration and retention of skilled migrants is essential to the success of the sector, as these foreign workers contribute to knowledge creation and innovation in their host countries. Van Riemsdijk has developed a multi-scalar model to assist her in studying the socio-cultural integration of skilled migrants in the workplace. This model includes several interdependent variables that influence the integration of skilled migrants in the workplace, including societal values, industry characteristics, companies, managers, and the agency of migrants. This model can be useful to the broader literature on immigrant integration and international skilled migration.

Mathias Czaika led a group discussion on “High-Skilled Migration Policies and Practices in Emerging Economies.” Dr. Czaika’s research focuses on emerging economics, in particular the “BRICS plus” of Brazil, Russia, India, China, Turkey and Indonesia, as “new hubs” of global migration that are drawing highly skilled workers. Dr. Czaika’s work on  recent developments in migration policy-making reveals that in highly developed (mostly OECD) states, policies to attract the highly skilled are implemented, as are carefully   crafted migration policies that allow for selectively allowing the highly skilled to immigrate. The newly emerging migration hubs of the BRICS plus are at a different stage of development, and as a result they are experiencing a “migration policy transition”. Dr. Czaika concluded by suggesting that the “global race for talent” is not so much a race for the new migration hubs as it is for the old.

Martin Hividt’s presentation was on the role and impact of highly skilled migrants in developing economies of the GCC. Dr. Hvidt’s research demonstrates that the contribution of highly skilled migrants to the GCC is vital, particularly given the focus on creating a knowledge economy. While highly skilled migrants are certainly an important component of the skilled labor force, in larger and more mature industrialized societies, in the GCC the countries could not transform into knowledge-based economies without the international skilled workforce.

Payal Banerjee shifted the regional focus once again, by sharing her research on Indian IT workers in the United States technology sector. Dr. Banerjee’s research helps us to unpick and think through some of the binaries that exist that suggest that migrants who are “skilled and highly skilled” face less exploitation or obstacles in their lives than migrants who are considered “low skilled.” Dr. Banerjee’s work suggests that there is in fact a fluidity to migration categories and visa classes. Her works demonstrates how the development of capitalism and neo-liberal economic globalization have impacted the creation of immigrant categories and work visas in the United Sates, such as the H-1B, L-1, and B-1. According the Dr. Banerjee these visa programs allow for the differential construction of immigrant statuses in terms of producing different entitlements, pay-scales, rights, and protections under law. Banerjee argues that there is a troubling disjuncture between the neoliberal rhetoric of “free market” policies and the daily practices of subordination and control witnessed in the methods of subcontracting-based immigrant recruitment.

Building up on the differences between migrants in terms of governing and rights, Binod Khadria discussed “The Gulf Divide: Indian Highly Skilled vs. Labor Migrants.” He examined whether the so-called “Asian Century” has sowed the seeds of a paradigm shift in the GCC states, ushering in a change of trend in the ratio of “knowledge workers” to “service workers.” More Indians are migrating as generic workers and students with varying endowments of knowledge, experience, and training. These migration trends turned high-skill migration to the GCC states from “occupation-tied” to “occupation-wide.”

The last session was led by Neha Vora on “Western ‘Experts’ in an Age of Knowledge Economy.” Dr. Vora explored the experiences of highly-skilled migrant workers who have been hired for their expertise to develop GCC’s knowledge economies. These highly-skilled migrants, who are predominantly Westerners, include: consultants, administrators, and educators in all areas of research, development, and education sectors, and primarily those who participate in projects of liberal education. Vora examined the role of “whiteness” and self-segregation in Western migrant experiences, whether they rehearse earlier colonial and civilizational attitudes to projects of development and modernity, and their articulations of their place within highly stratified ethno-racial and class regimes of migration and labor.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Payal Banerjee, Smith College
  • Mathias Czaika, University of Oxford
  • Michael Ewers, The Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Binod Khadria, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • Nabil Khattab, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
  • Martin Hvidt, Zayed University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Micheline van Riemsdijk, University of Tennessee
  • Neha Vora, Lafayette College
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS