Powering the Gulf

More than 100 million people around the world are migrant workers seeking better opportunities in a foreign country, says the International Labour Organisation. Last year more than half a trillion dollars was sent home by migrant workers, and the amount sent to developing countries has more than quadrupled in the past decade.

Among the biggest destinations for migrant workers is the Gulf region, whose fast-growing, resource-rich countries have attracted millions of labourers from South Asia, East Asia - and, increasingly, Africa.

Workers in the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent home about $61bn in 2011, the last year for which full data is available. Labourers in Saudi Arabia remit more money than those in any other country except the United States. In 2011, Gulf workers sent home almost as much money as foreign workers in Europe's three biggest economies combined: Germany, France and the UK.

India is the biggest beneficiary, receiving about $30bn in remittances from the Gulf states in 2012. "Remittance flows from the [Gulf states] provide a lifeline" to developing countries, said Dilip Ratha, the manager of the World Bank's Migration and Remittances Unit.

Although the Gulf's economic growth has provided millions of jobs to people from developing countries, states in the region and in the Middle East more broadly have been criticised for failing to protect labourers from poor working conditions and abuse. In April 2013, the United Nations' International Labour Organisation reported that an estimated 600,000 migrant workers are "tricked and trapped into forced labour across the Middle East".

Rights groups are also strongly critical of the kafala system, used across the Gulf, which binds workers to a single employer and limits workers' ability to change jobs. This system facilitates forced labour, they say, adding that domestic workers - who are not covered under Gulf countries' labour laws - are particularly vulnerable.

Remittances and population

Select a country to view estimated amount of remittances sent in 2011.

* Data on remittances between countries are estimates made by the World Bank

Because there is little official data publicly available on the number of foreign workers by nationality living in each Gulf country, these charts should be treated as very rough estimates. The pie charts below rely on data obtained from conversations with embassy officials and previously published news articles. Census data was used to obtain the number of each Gulf states' citizens. Nationalities comprising less than 5 percent of a given Gulf country's population are not shown. Because of the imprecise data and 5-percent cutoff, some pie charts will appear to show that there are no workers of the nationalities not listed, though this is not the case.

Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $7.62bn
Egypt $3.15bn
Philippines $2.65bn
Pakistan $2.59bn
Bangladesh $1.32bn
Source: World Bank
Saudi Arabia
Population (2011): 28 m
Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $14.25bn
Pakistan $1.49bn
Philippines $0.70bn
Egypt $0.65bn
Sri Lanka $0.50bn
Source: World Bank
Population (2011): 7.9 m
Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $2.08bn
Nepal $1.69bn
Pakistan $1.08bn
Philippines $0.91bn
Egypt $0.48bn
Source: World Bank
Population (2011): 1.9 m
Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $2.37bn
Bangladesh $0.45bn
Pakistan $0.24bn
Egypt $0.16bn
Sri Lanka $0.10bn
Source: World Bank
Population (2011): 2.8 m
Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $2.67bn
Egypt $1.52bn
Bangladesh $0.87bn
Sri Lanka $0.67bn
Philippines $0.51bn
Source: World Bank
Population (2011): 2.8 m
Why are there no percentages above ? ▼ EXPAND ▼
Top five receivers:
India $0.69bn
Pakistan $0.14bn
Egypt $0.13bn
Philippines $0.13bn
Iran $0.03bn
Source: World Bank
Population (2011): 1.3 m

Domestic disputes

Diplomatic spats often flare up between sending countries whose citizens work overseas and receiving countries that hire them, especially those in the Gulf region.

Sending countries frequently complain that their workers - especially domestic labourers - are not treated fairly or paid enough at their jobs overseas. Although sending countries sometimes ban their citizens from working in certain Gulf countries, the bans are difficult to enforce. "It's much easier to regulate immigration than it is to regulate emigration," said Martin Ruhs, an economist at Oxford University who specialises in labour migration.

Ruhs told Al Jazeera that when a sending country threatens to withdraw its labour supply, "there's ... often a poorer country that is under even more pressure to maintain the flow of workers and who may be willing to step in". Accordingly, sending countries often lack the bargaining power to demand better conditions.

Some of these disputes have been heated, such as that between Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. But other labour bans, such as that on Ethiopian domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, have been mutually agreed upon by the two countries.

Read more about some of these labour disputes below:

Sri Lanka

January 2013 - present

Prompted by Saudi beheading of Sri Lankan maid


When Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek was beheaded in Saudi Arabia in January after being convicted for killing a Saudi baby under her care, Sri Lanka announced it would ban women under the age of 25 from working in Saudi households.

Rights groups decried Nafeek's execution, and criticised the legal process that led to the conviction. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, denied claims the maid was only 17 years old when she was charged with killing the baby. The diplomatic row spurred Saudi Arabia to recall its ambassador to Sri Lanka.

Saudi Arabia


June 1990 - present

Prompted by jewel heist and killings of Saudi diplomats


Perhaps the longest-running Gulf labour dispute, Saudi Arabia banned Thais from working in the kingdom more than 20 years ago. The ban followed a 1989 incident in which a Thai janitor stole nearly 100kg of jewellery from a Riyadh palace, and the subsequent murders of several Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.

Although manpower companies and Saudi Arabia's Labour Ministry reportedly want to re-allow Thai workers, Saudi's Interior Ministry declined a recent request to do away with the ban. Saudi citizens are also not permitted to travel to Thailand except under special conditions.

Saudi Arabia


June 2011 - October 2012

Prompted by dispute over minimum wage and work conditions


Saudi Arabia blocked work permits for Filipino domestic workers in 2011 after the island nation demanded its domestic workers be paid a mandatory minimum wage of $400 a month and their work conditions be improved. The Philippines, for its part, suspended deploying household workers to Saudi Arabia. In 2012, Saudi Arabia agreed to many of the Philippine government's conditions, prompting the ban to be lifted in October.

The Philippines "has probably been the country that's been most outspoken about protection of the rights of workers in the Gulf", said Ruhs.

Saudi Arabia


August 2012 - present

Prompted by concerns of abuse


In August 2012, the Nepalese government placed a ban on women under the age of 30 from working as domestic labourers in the six Gulf states. Nepalese information minister Raj Kishor Yadav explained, "Young female workers are reported to have been sexually and psychologically exploited in Gulf countries". Nepal had previously lifted a similar ban in October 2011.

GCC region


January 2013 - January 2013

Prompted by high number of runaway maids


In January, Indonesia briefly stopped endorsing its citizens' contracts to work as housemaids in Qatar. The move came after three to five runaway maids were reportedly seeking shelter at the Indonesian embassy each day, complaining of poor working conditions.



September 2010 - April 2012

Prompted by concerns of abuse and poor working conditions


The Indonesian government, citing safety concerns, banned its citizens from working as maids in Kuwait in September 2010. Indonesia had issued a similar ban in October 2009. In April 2012, Kuwait announced that it had come to an agreement with Indonesia to end the ban.



July 2012 - present

Prompted by concerns of deceptive recruitment practices


In July 2012, Ethiopia requested the UAE stop issuing visas for domestic labourers and blue-collar workers because of complaints of abuse and deceptive recruitment practices, according to the Ethiopian consul general. The UAE agreed, with a government spokesperson saying the two countries are working together on a labour agreement to improve conditions.



With small native populations but fast-growing economies, Gulf governments have long imported labourers from abroad to help build their countries.

But some worry that heavy reliance on foreign workers - who outnumber the native population in every Gulf country but Saudi Arabia and Oman - is causing unemployment among Gulf countries' citizens and having negative effects on society.

Private companies in the region are especially reliant on migrant workers, who are often willing to work long hours for low wages. Accordingly, most Gulf citizens in the labour force work in public - sector jobs.

A report by the secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 2009 said, "More and more GCC citizens are graduating from universities and institutes and cannot find jobs. It is time for the GCC countries to intensify their efforts to find jobs for their people ... otherwise it will be too late."

Here's what some of the Gulf countries have been doing about the low numbers of citizens in the private-sector workforce:

Percentage of expatriates in the private sector:

Hover over each graph for more information.

There are a lot of jobs taken by expats that is not considered a choice to Saudis in its current form or situation. By increasing labour fees for the private sector, we are trying to encourage them to employ Saudis and give them job security. We want the private sector to be creative and make those jobs appealing to Saudis.

Ibrahim Al-Moaiqil, director general of Saudi Arabia's Human Resources Development Fund

We will take stringent action against these companies [that hire few Qatari nationals]. They will have to face the music for defying the Cabinet decision ... The private sector has no excuse now. They used to earlier say that Qataris didn't know English. That excuse can't work anymore because Qataris do know English.

Hussein Al Mulla, undersecretary of Qatar's Ministry of Labour

Reforming the labor market is among the top priorities along with steps to support national labour forces in the private sector.

Thekra Al-Rashidi, Kuwaiti Labour Minister

In the past couple of years we've found that things have become polarised. It looks like we built two separate job markets: one in the government for Emiratis, and one in the private sector for everyone else.

Saqr Ghobash, Minister of Labour


Beginning in November 2012, private companies in Saudi Arabia have had to pay a fee of 2,400 Saudi riyals ($640) a year for each foreign worker they employ, unless a majority of its employees are Saudis. Fines are expected to total $2.6bn this year.

Last month, Saudi Arabia deported thousands of Yemeni workers in the country illegally, partly in order to lower high unemployment among Saudi youth - which was 39 percent as of 2011.

One barrier to increasing Saudi participation in the workforce is low salaries in the private sector. Ibrahim Al-Moaiqil, the director general of Saudi Arabia's Human Resources Development Fund, noted that the vast majority of migrant workers are paid less than 2,000 Saudi riyals ($533) a month.

[Data Source]


In 1997, Qatar's emir decreed that 20 percent of private-sector jobs must go to citizens. But the decree has not been enforced, and more than 99 percent of workers in the private sector are expatriates, according to the Qatar Statistics Authority.

Recently, however, Qatar has decided to get tougher on private companies that fail to meet the quota.

[Data Source]


Kuwaiti MPs recently proposed a law that would terminate all non-Kuwaiti citizens from their government jobs within a year, and replace them with Kuwaitis.

The Kuwaiti government has also said it would pay salaries for three years to Kuwaitis who decide to sign up for jobs in the private sector.

Last month, Kuwaiti Labour Minister Thekra Al-Rashidi said she plans to reduce the number of foreign workers illegally in the country by 100,000 each year.

[Data Source]


The unemployment rate among Emiratis is about 11.8 percent. As in other countries in the region, government jobs often pay very high salaries, making it difficult for private firms to attract Emirati citizens to work for them. About one-third of Emiratis working in the private sector are in the banking industry.

Last year, UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid announced the "Absher" initiative, which aims to create 20,000 jobs in the private sector for Emiratis over the next five years, and pay for Emirati graduates' job training.

[Data Source]


The country's 'Omanisation' programme began in 1988. The Omani government has set targets for the private sector, stipulating goals of 30 percent native workers in hotels and restaurants, 45 percent in finance and real estate, and 60 percent in transport, storage and communications, and so on.

[Data Source]


In January, Ausamah Abdulla Al Absi, the head of Bahrain's Labour Market Regulatory Authority, said the rate of 'Bahrainisation' of the workforce might have to be reconsidered, in order to improve the economy's productivity.

[Data Source]
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