One of the primary goals in the Gulf economic visions is decreasing dependence upon migrant workers. This policy may have geo-political ramifications: relations between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and Bahrain and India, are based on the migrant workers received by the Gulf party. Accordingly, the foreign ministries of the Gulf countries need to plan for a future version of these relations in the event that job opportunities for migrant workers diminish in the Gulf.
The abundance of migrant workers in the Gulf countries is widely acknowledged, but some of the stakeholders have some fundamentally inaccurate views regarding the matter.
From the perspective of Gulf stakeholders, there are those who think that the job opportunities open to foreigners in the Gulf are virtually a form of charity by the Gulf people—one that needs to be appreciated by migrant workers. Proponents of this view point to the billions of dollars that Gulf-based migrant workers remit annually; in fact, some Gulf nationals scorn these financial transfers, and demand the imposition of fees and restrictions upon them.
From the perspective of non-Gulf nationals, there are those who imagine that they are the reason for the development of the Gulf countries. They also think that Gulf nationals are undisciplined, and that the strengths of the Gulf economies are largely the result of foreign efforts—efforts that need to be appreciated by Gulf nationals.
The reality lies between these two poles, as migrant workers are partners in the Gulf economy, and their contribution does not represent exceptional charity from either side toward the other. Misperceptions regarding this issue stem from viewing the relationship as zero-sum, whereby neither side can benefit without the other losing. Gulf national surmise that if foreigners benefit from job opportunities and remittances, it must be at the expense of Gulf nationals; while migrant workers deduce that if Gulf nationals benefit from the services and infrastructure provided by foreign hands, foreigners must be losing out.
In fact, the relationship is positive-sum. When I purchase bread from the backer, this is a transaction that benefits both sides: I get bread that I value more than the money I spent, while the baker gets money he values more than the effort and materials he used to make it. The baker is my commercial partner, and not my rival or someone who profits at my expense; rather, he gains when I do.
Analogously, both sides benefit from the contribution of migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf.
Gulf nationals get services at a reduced price, because in many cases, migrant workers plug holes in the labor market, including the advanced skills that are undersupplied by nationals, such as top surgeons; or the jobs that nationals dislike, such as domestic helper.
Naturally, there are exceptions, such as when a Gulf company wrongs a migrant worker by withholding his salary; or when a migrant worker undertakes illegal enterprises, such as human trafficking. But these are rare compared to the daily interactions that are overwhelmingly legal.
The relevant parties in the foreign ministries of both sending and receiving countries realize that this relationship is an economic partnership that benefits both sides, and that it isn’t an act of charity from one side toward the other. That is one of the reasons for the robustness of diplomatic relationships between these countries, and for the UAE’s decision to host a regular conference titled the “Abu Dhabi Dialogue” dedicated to discussing the issues surrounding migrant workers in the Gulf.
However, the Gulf countries have entered a new phase in their economic development which involves building a productive national labor force that can service the needs of the private sector, in an effort to diversify their economies after the decline in oil prices. This requires rolling back the contribution of migrant workers, partially by decreasing the job opportunities made available, and partially by imposing fees on the companies that seek to hire foreigners.
This may weaken the economic relationship between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These kinds of changes are natural, as relationships between countries are inherently dynamic; for example, the UK used to import tea from India, but today, it imports chemical manufacturing products from its former colony.
Strategic planners in the Gulf foreign ministries need to consider alternatives to maintain the robustness of these relations, which have created trust between the two sides. As is widely known, developing existing relations is always easier than starting new ones, and so there should be a dialogue to explore new dimensions of cooperation with the Gulf countries’ historic partners.
For example, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, recently announced his desire to launch a new Indian export council to boost exports of solar components. This initiative comes at the same time that the Gulf countries are looking to increase the domestic contribution of renewable energy. Therefore, the Gulf countries may consider increasing Indian manufacturing imports as they decrease Indian labor imports, to maintain a constructive relationship.
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