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December 1996, Volume 3, Number 12

Foreign Workers in the Middle East

About 40 percent of the population of the six Gulf nations are foreigners and their per capita incomes, including foreign residents, have fallen sharply. In Saudi Arabia, for example, per capita income has fallen from $19,000 in 1980 to about $7,000 in 1995, below the World Bank's line for rich countries ($7620).

Jordan. The Jordanian government is considering deporting 300,000 guest workers to reduce unemployment. Unemployment estimates range from 15 percent to 25 percent of the 900,000 work force. There are currently about 400,000 foreign workers in Jordan, three-fourths of whom are Egyptians.

Under one proposal, medicine, engineering and administrative and secretarial positions would be closed to foreigners.

Analysts say that most competition for employment between foreign workers and Jordanians is in low-paying jobs. A proposed minimum wage for Jordanian workers might, analysts say, make employers favor foreign workers for low-paying jobs.

UAE. Water and power demand in the United Arab Emirates fell 10 to 15 percent since nearly 200,000 illegal foreign workers left the country, according to government sources. Water and electricity are heavily subsidized in the UAE, which has 2.4 million residents. About two-thirds of the population, and 90 percent of the work force, are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants leaving the UAE range from 167,000 to 200,000. Reports from the UAE say that taxis are difficult to find and hiring a maid is almost impossible. Work at several construction sites has stopped. Most of the workers who left were construction workers and service workers in restaurants, shops and some factories.

One bank official predicted that there may be a slight decline in real growth through the rest of the year because of the departure of the foreign workers. One effect of the exodus has been to have illegal part-time workers take on full-time jobs. Employers must pay taxes on full-time employees and provide housing.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia continues its effort to intervene in both the demand and supply side of the labor market, denying employers permission to import e.g. secretaries, and offering young Saudis courses in how to be better workers. There are about three million Saudi workers and five million foreign workers in the country.

The Saudi 1995-2000 plan calls for the creation of 650,000 jobs for Saudis, with 300,000 created by having Saudis replacing foreigners.

Saudi Arabia's per capita income fell from about $18,000 per year in the early 1980s to $6,000 in 1995.

Kuwait. The 1.2 million foreign workers and their families in Kuwait are about 63 percent Kuwait's 1.9 million residents. Since 1991, 440 foreigners were found to be HIV positive and immediately deported.

Israel. Israel in November set up a camp near Tel Aviv to hold some of the 200,000 illegal aliens in the country that it apprehends. The camp, a former prison annex, can accommodate 90 immigrants. Israel plans to deport 2,000 illegal immigrants each month, up from 1996 level of 150 per month.

Most of the foreign workers are from Romania, Thailand, the Philippines and African countries. Many overstay their visas rather than return to a life of poverty in their native lands. At one Tel Aviv school, half the pupils are children of foreign workers illegally living in the country.

The 250,000 foreign workers in Israel enter into some 3,000 fictitious marriages each year, the Interior Ministry estimates. Israeli women typically receive NIS 2000 to marry a foreigner.

Israel will ask Thailand for 4,000 additional workers to pick fruit for export to Japan.

In Palestine, the labor force is about 433,000 with unemployment estimated to be over 50 percent. About 18,000 Palestinians work in Israel, down from 116,000 in 1992.

Douglas Jehl, "A Tutorial for Young Saudis On Ways to Toil for Money," New York Times, November 21, 1996. "Israel is preparing to deport 2,000 illegal aliens monthly," Associated Press, November 7, 1996. "UAE Utility Demand Slides as Illegal Workers Leave," Reuters, November 3, 1996. Patrick Rahir, "Emirates could pay high price for exodus of foreign workers," Agence France Presse, November 2, 1996. "Israel to open detention camp for illegal immigrants," Agence France Presse, November 6, 1996. "Israel wants more foreign workers," UPI, October 4, 1996. "Jordan to deport foreign laborers," Xinhua News Agency, October 14, 1996. "Jordan: Unemployment moves," Middle East Economic Digest October 7, 1996.