Background and Scope of the Project

Under the rubrics of neoliberalism and economic globalization, scholars have documented the increasing scale, scope and diversity of skilled international labor mobility. Indeed, highly skilled migrants are thought to embody the global flows of trade, labor, and investment that enable our more knowledge-intensive and internationalized global economy. The result is a highly dynamic landscape of global talent, as states, firms, even urban areas, compete for human capital. Most recently, the geography of talent has shifted with the emergence of new global centers of trade, industry, and finance in the Arabian Peninsula, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. In recent years, these rapidly globalizing cities have joined a growing number of places with clear policies to attract and recruit highly skilled workers to fill labor shortages and skill gaps in new sectors aiming at diversifying economic resources and moving towards knowledge-based societies.

Yet, in these places we find state regulatory frameworks, local labor market structures, and urban growth dynamics which appear in many ways to be dissimilar to conditions in the advanced economies and global cities of the West and the Far East which dominate the highly skilled migration literature. While most countries in the West offer some path to permanent residency or citizenship to skilled migrants, the oil-rich countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have established alternative systems other than those leading to permanent settlement of highly skilled migrants, such as the kafala system and fixed term contracts.

By now we have an extensive body of scholarship on how Gulf labor migration policies and laws impact low income and low skill workers in the GCC states. There is, however, very little work on the impact of these laws and policies on the highly skilled migrants who populate a number of jobs across the regional labor market. Scholars and migrants’ advocates have drawn attention to the vulnerabilities and exposures that lower skill migrants contend with as a result of the kafala and other restrictive labor policies that undergird the Gulf migration system, but little attention has been paid to how the highly skilled are regulated through the sponsorship system or how other aspects of local labor law and policy affect their lived experiences. The lack of attention to the conditions of highly skilled migrants in the region can possibly be attributed to the prevailing assumption that highly skilled migrants as a category are less likely to be negatively impacted by labor law, and are better able to navigate the various systems that govern them. There is, however, increasing evidence that skilled migrants experience systemic, institutional, and personal obstacles that are generally overlooked by scholars and practitioners studying Gulf labor migration. We feel it is critical for us as scholars to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions about the nature, patterns, and processes of labor migration to this region. Given their own relatively small populations in tandem with their oil-derived, wealthy Gulf States have depended on migration to facilitate their rapid industrialization. The cities of the Gulf thus articulate the transnational organizational and social networks of skilled migration, spatially embedded within expatriate social spaces. Notably highly skilled migrants in certain sectors–for example, extraction, construction, banking and financial services–have enabled these states’ relatively swift integration into the global economy.

A number of scholars have noted the dearth of research on migration, especially highly skilled migration, in Gulf States–which has partly been attributed to a lack of sufficient. The lack of available data in the GCC region including in Qatar on migration and highly skilled migrants specifically means that existing research on migration to countries like Qatar has addressed the region separately from other popular destination countries. Thus, whereas comparative studies examine highly skilled migrants within the EU and migrants to and from North America, few studies exist that explore the parallels and differences between immigrants’ experiences and labor market integration across regions. Moreover, migration to the GCC tends to be treated as conceptually separate from other migration systems no doubt–in part–due to the relative paucity of data in the region, as well as distinctive aspects of migration to the GCC as discussed above.

The outcome of this project will address how international knowledge flows intersect with the economies and societies of the Gulf, which will extend and amplify the foundational work on highly skilled migration in the literature. 


Article by Zahra Babar, CIRS Associate Director; Nabil Khattab, the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies; and Michael Ewers, Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute