The coronavirus has highlighted the complex situation facing migrant workers in the Gulf. As the virus continues to spread in the region, foreign workers have been hit hardest. With falling oil prices and continuous lockdowns and health hazards due to the pandemic, many jobs will likely be shed. As a result, the region’s high reliance on migrant workers is undergoing a profound transition, and a growing divide has emerged between these workers and local populations.
Since the oil boom, migrant workers have been providing various services to Gulf citizens, from maintenance and construction to filling grocery bags and delivering goods. This need created an influx of migrant workers who constitute two-thirds of the workforce in the Gulf, with low-wage workers occupying the majority of these jobs. Even though most come to the Gulf countries legally, many of them end up working illegally as “day workers,” making a living from various jobs and paying a monthly or annual fee to their sponsors. Such arrangements have become widespread in the region, creating the phenomenon of tujjar altashirat (visa merchants).
For decades, visa merchants have been the subject of much discussion in newspapers in many Gulf countries, with Kuwait’s Al-Qabas writing about the issue as early as 1989. Throughout the Gulf, influential figures and networks have been part of this phenomenon. Consequently, attempts at tackling the situation of migrant workers over the years have not resulted in much change. The problem continues to present a challenge elsewhere in the Gulf with a Saudi minister of labor threatening visa merchants that they would be “thrown in jail.” In Bahrain, the Flexi Permits system was introduced in 2017 to improve the situation of day workers and to curb the abuses of visa merchants. However, many Bahrainis have criticized the system, arguing that it has allowed migrant workers to compete with locals by providing services at a lower price while making it difficult for small-sized businesses to survive or nationalize jobs.
As the coronavirus spreads in the Gulf, the high number of infections among migrant workers continues to rise. The daily coronavirus briefings across the Gulf region announce new cases among both foreigners and locals. The distinction is perhaps significant for statistical analysis and might also ease fears among locals. However, it also feeds the growing distrust of migrant workers. Violations of the curfew among workers have been circulating on social media in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, videos showcasing poor hygienic standards has further fueled the anxiety and triggered the Saudi Ministry of Commerce to proactively demonstrate its efforts to clamp down on violations.
In Kuwait, the finance minister announced that certain grocery stores in a neighborhood with a high number of foreign workers would be reserved for nationals only. Such separations have become one of the first signs of the divide between the migrant community and locals. Some grocery stores stopped migrant workers from packing goods for customers, as they had been replaced by Kuwaiti volunteers. Many day workers were confined to their accommodations and unable to make a living, which made their situation especially dire under the curfew.
In Oman, the high number of infections among migrant workers, especially in locales such as the port area Mutrah in the capital Muscat, has created an atmosphere of apprehension. Migrant workers who are unable to work due to the curfew are seen as a potential security threat that must be tackled by reducing their numbers. Others have compared the influx of migrant workers to a “cancer,” arguing that the lack of strict government regulations is to blame. As a result, the Omani health minister has urged citizens not to dwell on the legal side of the crisis, explaining that health services will be provided to all.
Qatar and the UAE are the most dependent on migrant workers, having the highest numbers per capita in the region. In both countries, foreign labor plays an important role in large development projects and events on the horizon, including the World Cup 2022 and Expo Dubai (postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus). In Qatar, migrant workers live in an industrial sector that has been largely sealed off because of the high number of coronavirus cases among the workers. On the other hand, concerns related to migrant workers outside of the construction sector who are in direct contact with the Qatari population have increased. As in the rest of the Gulf, calls to crack down on violations by workers and to hold sponsors accountable have risen.
In Saudi Arabia, the majority of infections are among migrant workers, and schools are being used to provide temporary accommodations for them. A particular challenge has arisen in western parts of the country, due in part to their historical role as an entry point for pilgrims from around the world. As a result, the urban centers have long been melting pots of diverse communities, some of whose inhabitants lack official documents. Mecca is currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the kingdom. In Jeddah and the holy cities, neighborhoods with high numbers of migrants were the first to be placed under curfew. A video of the poor living conditions in Al-Nakkasah in Mecca was widely circulated. Later, the neighborhood was sealed off by the national guard, and a curfew was put in place.
The debate regarding migrant workers has also fed into the continuing discussion on redefining the responsibility of businesses during the pandemic. Since its beginning, businesses and merchants have come under intense scrutiny from the public for not helping the government during the crisis. Now, the issue of migrant workers is redirecting the blame once again to businesses and merchants. In Saudi Arabia, criticism is aimed at the employers and sponsors deemed responsible for the deteriorating conditions of migrant workers. Some argue that the state should not convert schools into accommodations and that the sponsors should take full responsibility for their workers.
Experts from the Gulf have also taken an active role in examining the extent of the migrant crisis on the region’s economic and social structure. Economist Omar Alshehabi argues that Gulf states do not only need to change the sponsorship system to better manage and organize the flow of labor in the Gulf but must also play an active role in establishing a central state institution to monitor the situation of expatriate laborers instead of leaving them dependent on their sponsors and employers. Moreover, he also suggests that Gulf states need to decide first what kind of labor market they want, whether it is dependent on migrant workers, or if it increasingly relies on nationals and permanent residents. On both social and traditional media, debates on how to make the private sector more appealing to locals – a long-standing challenge in the Gulf – have reemerged in light of the coronavirus crisis.
More specifically to Kuwait, assistant professor Abdulaziz Al-Saqabi presented an initiative to modify the country’s demographics and suggested several steps to tackle the migrant situation. These include introducing a quota, building “labor cities” (mudun umaliyah), and creating technological solutions to lower the number of migrant workers. Al-Saqabi suggests adopting the UAE’s labor cities and the Saudi system “Ejar” that links rental accommodations with the details of its residents on one website. The Saudi authorities are now using this system to keep track of migrant workers and have given sponsors until the end of April to complete the registration.
For decades migrant workers have constituted the backbone of Gulf economic and social structures. As a result, the coronavirus, along with the economic crisis due to falling oil prices, will have a direct impact on businesses in the Gulf, including migrant labor. The crisis has also unleashed criticism of decades-old “bad habits” in the Gulf region that depend on a high number of migrant workers. Many have called for changing the lifestyle in the Gulf, including workers filling grocery bags and gas tanks, taking orders outside of restaurants, washing cars, and making tea and coffee in offices. This transition will likely prove challenging since many in the Gulf will continue to depend on domestic labor providing convenience and comfort inside their private homes, even if the situation changes in the public sphere. Nevertheless, the pandemic can perhaps trigger a reevaluation, thus providing governments with not only challenges but also opportunities as they face the current crisis and address a long-standing problem.