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The Arab Spring at Five

Ali Hashisho / Reuters A Syrian refugee girl stands behind a door at a makeshift settlement in the village of Ketermaya, south of Beirut January 8, 2015.
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No (Gulf) Country for Syrian Refugees

The Kafala System and the Migration Crisis

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A common reaction to the ongoing migrant crisis has been to blame Europe: how can the wealthy nations of western Europe allow such a tragedy? More recently, however, media and popular scrutiny have turned back toward the Middle East—not to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria or the Islamic State (also called ISIS) but to the wealthy petro-states of the Arab Gulf. The Chicago Tribune asks, “Why don’t Gulf states accept more refugees?USA Today reports, “Gulf states idle as migrant crisis swells in Europe.” The most direct accusation comes from The Washington Post: “The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees.”

Gulf governments and citizens have largely dismissed the criticism, citing the more than $2 billion they have donated in humanitarian aid and the tens of thousands of Syrians—not to mention Egyptians, Yemenis, and other Arabs—who have found political and economic refuge in the Gulf (even if not as formal refugees) since the region started to destabilize in 2011. Yet even in their rejection of critics’ specific claims, many Gulf representatives have acknowledged that their countries are more inclined to help from a distance than to open their tightly restricted borders to migrants, Arabs or not. “Our countries are only fit for workers,” as one Kuwaiti official put it in a candid discussion with France 24television on September 2. “We don’t want people who suffer from internal stress and trauma in our country!”

Observers have been quick to point out the unfortunate irony of the situation: Gulf leaders are unwilling to risk their own political and economic stability by taking in individuals displaced by the very conflicts and proxy wars they themselves continue to fuel with money and arms. Or less cynically, Gulf leaders are limited by the legal ambiguity of refugees in the Gulf countries. None of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—is a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. By this latter view, then, the question is how Gulf governments can be expected to offer asylum to a class of individuals whom they do not even recognize.

Both lines of reasoning, while simplistic, contain kernels of a much larger truth: the fundamental incompatibility of the Gulf political-economic model with the category of refugee. That the Gulf states, despite their vast wealth and resources, have not formally taken on asylum seekers from Syria or elsewhere owes to the nature of the ubiquitous kafala ("sponsorship") system, the vast labyrinth of legislation that governs the employment and sponsorship of migrant workers in the GCC and preserves the status of foreigners as (in principle) temporary and separate from domestic populations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits to board his plane at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, September 12, 2014. Kerry announced on Friday nearly $500 million in humanitarian aid for people and countries hit by Syria's civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits to board his plane at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, September 12, 2014. Kerry announced on Friday nearly $500 million in humanitarian aid for people and countries hit by Syria's civil war.

The kafala is an inelegant solution to reconcile the often competing interests of distinct societal constituencies: ordinary Gulf citizens, who remain wary of cultural encroachment and desirous of the benefits of an advanced rentier economy; and business and political elites, who seek to balance migrant-fueled economic growth and profits with concerns over potential social alienation and eventual political discontent. The system, which is today facing intense criticism over the conditions of workers laying the groundwork for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, deserves equal attention for those whom excludes altogether, in the strict legal sense but also structurally.


Since the onset of commercial production of oil in the mid–twentieth century, the Arab Gulf countries, with their small native populations, have need to import high- and low-skilled workers. Initially viewed as a necessary but temporary solution, foreign labor has remained instrumental in creating and maintaining the modern physical and social infrastructure of the twenty-first-century Gulf. During the 1970s, much of this foreign work force was Arab and hailed from the oil-poor, labor-abundant countries of the Middle East and North Africa, such as Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. But over time, two factors made Arabs relatively less desirable.

First, spurred by leftist movements, Arab workers began to demand greater political and economic inclusion in the Gulf states, including a path toward citizenship. But in the rentier state, more citizens means a dilution of the financial resources enjoyed by rulers and (partly) distributed to nationals, so this idea was a nonstarter. Today, citizenship remains a virtual impossibility for foreigners in the Gulf, regardless of national origin or skill level. Qatar, for instance, legally caps naturalization at 50 individuals a year; other states impose similar formal or informal restrictions.

Second, and equally important, foreign Arab workers came to be viewed as more politically active than native Gulf Arabs. They were seen as particularly inclined toward Nasserism and other pan-Arab ideologies and were, therefore, a dangerous influence on citizens. For instance, the spread of Arab nationalism among Kuwaitis in the 1950s and 1960s prompted the government to begin a program of mass naturalization of some 200,000 Bedouins from the neighboring deserts to serve as a dependable pro-government bloc in an increasingly oppositional parliament. Apprehensions about foreign influence were further borne out in the minds of Gulf rulers in 1991, when Kuwait accused Palestinian workers in the country of supporting the invasion of Arab nationalist Saddam Hussein. After the war, Kuwait expelled half a million Palestinians. Saudi Arabia likewise expelled approximately one million Yemeni workers after former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh came out in support of Iraq.

Internally displaced people play football in a school in Sanaa May 17, 2015. Residents were forced to leave their homes in the nearby province of Saada amid Saudi-led air strikes.

Internally displaced people play football in a school in Sanaa May 17, 2015. Residents were forced to leave their homes in the nearby province of Saada amid Saudi-led air strikes.

These same factors that made Arab workers less desirable made South Asian workers more attractive. Asian workers had lower wage expectations and no misgivings about citizenship or societal integration. Although many of the Asian workers shared Islam as a religion (which helped to alleviate concerns about cultural encroachment), they were viewed as less likely to be politically active or potential recruits for Arab-dominated leftist and Islamist movements. As one Syrian professor living in Qatar told us, "[Gulf leaders] know the Indians come here, do work, and don't cause trouble. This is just how they like it."

The modern kafala system has further solidified the role of Asian workers in the Gulf by encouraging the development of transnational networks linking the Gulf labor markets to labor pools in migrant-sending countries. Today, a vast enterprise ensures the flow of workers to the Gulf through international recruitment agencies with dedicated airline routes, control over segments of the Gulf real estate market, and access to local ethnic economies, which have evolved to cater to the specific national and regional tastes of particular groups. Such corporations have strong economic incentives to resist a return to the Middle East as the Gulf’s primary labor pool.

As a result of the kafala, the Gulf labor market is a carefully constructed but delicately balanced system—a migrant division of labor—in which particular nationalities are matched to particular types of occupations and are paid largely according to their passports. The system is viewed as economically productive and politically viable but demographically precarious. Keeping the kafala system in balance is a task Gulf governments take very seriously. In 2013, for instance, amid declining oil revenues and rising discontent over unemployment, Saudi Arabia expelled some 300,000 Yemenis, ostensibly for overstaying their visas or illegally taking on a second job. In 2014, Oman, bowing to similar pressures, announced new regulations and redoubled enforcement of existing laws aimed at reducing non-nationals to one-third of the population.


Delicate economic balance aside, the notion of replacing some low-skill Asian and high-skill Western migrants with foreign Arabs—of reversing the geographic trend of the past several decades—would seem to make sense from at least one angle: societal cohesion. The majority of Gulf nationals remain culturally and religiously conservative and are concerned about the potential erosion of traditional identity and values. Many also worry about Western political and military intentions in the region, feelings only magnified by the recent U.S.- and European-led rapprochement with Iran. The upshot is latent and sometimes open tension among various social groupings in Gulf societies, both in public and in the workplace.

Construction work goes on at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar September 16, 2015. The stadium is being renovated to accommodate 40,000 spectators and is expected to host soccer matches during the 2022 World Cup.

Construction work goes on at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar September 16, 2015. The stadium is being renovated to accommodate 40,000 spectators and is expected to host soccer matches during the 2022 World Cup.

And, indeed, opinion surveys of Gulf nationals consistently point to greater acceptance of Arabs from other Middle East and North African countries than of those from other nationality groups. For instance, a 2012 study conducted by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University found that a full 82 percent of Qataris agreed that “the growing number of non-Arab workers threatens traditional Qatari customs and values.” Only 45 percent agreed when posed the same question about foreign Arab workers. Respondents were asked additionally, “How many workers from Arab countries outside of the Gulf do you think Qatar should allow to come to work here in Qatar?” Far more than for any other group, 38 percent of Qataris said to “allow many” and 47 percent said to “allow some” Arab workers. By contrast, only 12 percent wanted the state to “allow many” Asian workers, this proportion dropping further to ten percent for American and European workers and six percent for workers from sub-Saharan Africa.

In a separate survey conducted in 2014, SESRI found that Qatari citizens “trust” or “highly trust” Arab expatriates (88 percent) more than any other group save for other Qataris (95 percent). Western expatriates and individuals from the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, received far lower trust ratings, at 46 percent and 50 percent, respectively.


It might be, then, that Gulf governments’ historical fears over the political activism of Arab expatriates are today mitigated—perhaps even outweighed—by countervailing public concerns about non-Arab foreign workers. Yet even with such a changing political calculus, there are enormous structural economic impediments to accepting significant numbers of Arab workers, refugees or not. To take the case of Syrian asylum seekers, individuals would be unlikely to accept the wages or conditions of existing low-skilled migrants from South Asia and are a socially unacceptable (and in some Gulf countries legally proscribed) choice for domestic helpers, such as nannies, cooks, and drivers.

Laborers are pictured in a foreign workers dormitory in the Sanaya Industrial Area in Doha, during a government-guided tour, May 3, 2015.

Laborers are pictured in a foreign workers dormitory in the Sanaya Industrial Area in Doha, during a government-guided tour, May 3, 2015. The Qatari government on Sunday conducted the tour of four foreign workers' dormitories, including two newly built by the government, to show their living conditions.

Presumably, then, if not qualified to work as high-skilled professionals like teachers or nurses, unwilling to work as manual laborers, and not permitted to work as low-wage domestic servants, most refugees would probably fit somewhere in the vast middle of semiskilled trade occupations, such as oil field and construction work. Unfortunately, the timing for this sector could not be worse. In Qatar, for instance, hydrocarbon revenues are predicted to fall by a third in 2015. Qatar Petroleum has begun a restructuring project that will cut thousands of jobs, including those of hundreds of nationals. The company also recently scrapped a proposed $6.4 billion petrochemical project with Shell. The demand for oil workers in the Gulf, skilled or unskilled, is on the decline. Moreover, an economic decline in energy is likely to spell a decline across many industries, particularly the very service sector that is well positioned to absorb Arab expatriates.

An entirely separate consideration is the strain that additional population influxes would have on existing resources in these rapidly growing countries. Incorporating 30,000 refugees into the Gulf city-states is a much larger task than in Germany, a country of 80 million. And whereas workers in the oil industry may already be leaving, many others are arriving arriving amid a World Cup building frenzy that is poised only to accelerate in the lead-up to 2022. With the population growing at a rate of over 7.5 percent annually, Qatar and its capital, Doha, have struggled to keep up with new arrivals. Public health and education services are already under heavy strain, and stadium construction has brought traffic to a near standstill. Finally, a great deal of effort goes into the screening of workers, including medical examinations, police background checks, and document attestation. These rules would need to be significantly altered to allow for the mass acceptance of refugees.

In short, a growing chorus of citizens and commentators have called on Gulf governments to provide Syrian and other refugees with dignified work in the region’s rapidly expanding economies. But it is unclear where exactly these individuals would fit in the Gulf’s highly structured and segmented labor markets, markets that in actuality are more likely to contract than expand absent a dramatic reversal in oil prices. The GCC states are therefore likely to follow their intuition about the potential challenge to social and political stability posed by a mass influx of refugees: stability not mainly in terms of unwelcome political activism, but with a view toward preserving the carefully constructed political-economic status quo enshrined in the kafala.

Of course, it may be that the sustained media attention and criticism will prompt one or more of the Gulf governments to change course. Perhaps even tomorrow, a Gulf leader will announce that he has accepted one million Syrian refugees, to live in contained, air-conditioned camps in the desert while receiving generous state support. Yet it is clear that such a decision will have been either a shrewd diplomatic move or an act of pure altruism. For there is no place for refugees in the kafala.

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