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April 2001, Volume 8, Number 4

Gulf: Migrants

In most of the Gulf oil exporting states, foreigners must be "sponsored" for admission; after arrival, the migrant deals with the government through the sponsor, not directly with any government agency. The only way for a foreigner to obtain residence and work visas is to respond to an advertisement placed by a Kuwaiti or Saudi citizen seeking workers.

Many Gulf citizens require job-seeking foreign migrants to pay them "sponsor fees." Migrants go into debt to pay these fees and some, after their arrival in the Gulf, learn that the sponsor has no job for them. Thus, migrants may arrive in debt and find themselves jobless, and they have the choice of working illegally or returning home in debt.

The sponsorship system is increasing illegal immigration and exploitation in the Gulf region in the 21st century. It did not do so initially. During the 1970s and 1980s, when migrants were imported to "recycle" petro dollars by building infrastructure, contracting firms normally paid fees to brokers to obtain foreign workers, and often paid the workers' transportation and housing costs. As the demand for labor changed to private sector service and maid jobs, migrants began to be charged fees for entry and to pay their own transportation costs.

There are about seven million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government announced several policies aimed at reducing abuse of the sponsorship system. Saudi Arabia plans to limit the ability of Saudi sponsors to "sell" maids and housekeepers for SR2,000 ($533) to each other. In another change, Saudi Arabia plans to allow foreign professional expatriates to own property in the country, and to directly recruit and sponsor foreign household help.

There were clashes in Kuwait between Egyptian migrants and Kuwaiti police on October 30-31, 1999 in the neighborhood of Khaitan, with the migrants protesting the practice of Kuwaiti sponsors selling them entry visas and work permits, but then not having jobs for them. About half of the 100,000 residents of Khaitan are Egyptians, most of whom are young men from rural Upper Egypt-most unskilled migrants cannot bring their families to Kuwait.

The number of Egyptians in Kuwait rose sharply in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, after Kuwait expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Jordanians, Sudanese, Yemenis and nationals of other Arab states whose governments did not support the U.S.-led coalition that ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Nationalization. In 1998, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates announced that they would reduce their reliance on migrant workers because their own work forces are growing at four to five percent a year, a legacy of high birth rates in the 1970s and 1980s, and their public sectors, where most nationals work, were fully staffed. These efforts to "nationalize" labor forces by encouraging nationals to find jobs with private sector employers have largely failed.