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Covid-19 shutdowns, lockdowns and economic downturns destroyed the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs worldwide in 2020, International Labor Organization (ILO) figures show.
Nowhere has the economic impact been felt more deeply than in the Gulf, home to many of the world’s estimated 154 million migrant workers.
In Saudi Arabia, the third quarter alone saw 257,000 expats depart, according to the Kingdom’s General Authority for Statistics, with 1.2 million expected to have left in the year.
In Oman, the country’s National Center for Statistics recorded 45,000 expat departures in July 2020 alone.
In Kuwait, the last three months of 2020 saw 83,500 expats depart, local daily Al Qabas reported last month, after a wave of firings of foreign employees in the public sector.
In the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, too, expat numbers are down, with shops shutting and offices emptying.
In 2020, gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 9% in the UAE – making it the worst performer in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in a year when all the Gulf economies contracted severely.
The pandemic downturn has left a growing number of expats with a major dilemma: should they stay or go?
“They may have had salary cuts, or not been paid for months,” Zahra Babar, associate director for research at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told Asia Times. “But they also have to figure out just what would be the long-term impact of going home.”
Indeed, their native lands may not have much to offer either, with a growing resentment both in ahead, now, and in the past.
For years, the once sparsely populated GCC countries have imported labor, particularly in sectors such as construction, hospitality, health and domestic services.
Giant oil and gas revenues have largely paid for this – and for the extraordinary economic growth these countries have experienced in just a few short decades.
In tandem with that growth, the expat population has boomed, reaching 88% of the total in Qatar, 83% in the UAE and around 70% in Kuwait, according to World Bank figures for 2018.
Only in Saudi Arabia and Oman is there a majority of local citizens, at around 70% in the kingdom and 60% in the sultanate.
Such huge numbers of foreign workers have created a highly vibrant, culturally and socially diverse urban landscape throughout the Gulf.
Relations between citizens and foreigners have also generally been good, with national governments keen to attract foreign investment and consumers.
“If you build a lot of extra office and residential and retail space,” Nader Kabbani, director of research at Brookings Doha Center, told Asia Times, “the question is, how do you fill it? The expectation is, with expats.”
Yet, as the economies of the GCC countries have faltered, with oil and gas prices falling and Covid-19 squeezing fuel demand, offices, apartments and malls have emptied.
At the same time, the long-standing “social contract” between rulers and ruled has begun to seem increasingly unsustainable.
“These societies are wedded to an arrangement of keeping the citizenry well looked after in terms of employment, housing, education and other services,” Georgetown’s Babar said.
Yet now, “in the context of a strained social contract, citizens might say to their rulers, ‘You promised me x, y and z, but I don’t seem to be getting them,’” says Brookings’ Kabbani. “The result can be increased resentment and sometimes people can blame foreign workers.”
One GCC state where this has been more recently evident is Kuwait, perhaps the Gulf’s most politically open society with parliamentary elections and a vibrant press.
“Kuwait is a good microcosm of what’s happening in the rest of the Gulf because of freedom of speech,” says Geoffrey Martin, a Canadian analyst, academic and entrepreneur based in Kuwait City.
That freedom has, however, given rise in recent times to some increasingly vitriolic rhetoric about foreigners – rhetoric made worse by the pandemic.
In March 2020, when lockdowns began, former Kuwaiti parliamentarian Safaa Al Hashem described Covid-19 as “an opportunity to purify the country of violating [foreign] workers.”
By August 2020, an opinion poll found 65% of Kuwaitis blamed expats alone for the spread of the virus.
This was despite the government having sealed off districts of Kuwait City with large foreign populations, such as Mahboula, as part of its anti-Covid campaign. This lockdown, however, left many unable to go to their jobs and with no social safety net.
“There wasn’t even a co-op store there to distribute food,” recalls Martin, who had helped to organize emergency food deliveries into the district, “so they had to set up something in the basement of a school.”
Yet, at the same time, Gulf states such as Kuwait continue to recognize the importance of foreign workers to their economies.
“In 2020, Kuwait introduced an expat quota bill,” Shabarinath Nair, regional migration specialist for South Asia with the ILO in New Delhi, told Asia Times. “With around one million Indian citizens in Kuwait, some 800,000 of them were going to have to leave if the quota was introduced.”
The bill was eventually passed by parliament, but without national quotas. “We said, look at it from both sides. If you want to replace these Indian workers, how is the local population going to be supported to do all this work?” recalls Nair.
Trouble at home
India is currently the largest migrant-sending country in the world, with about 18 million citizens working overseas, the ILO estimates.
Given the size of the Indian population and economy, however, these migrants’ remittances – about $82 billion in 2019 –account for only 2-3% of India’s GDP.
For Nepal, that percentage is 28% of GDP. Similarly, in an Indian state such as Kerala, the importance of remittances is far higher – somewhere between 20% and 30%.
A collapse in remittances is thus also driving major economic downturns back home for many expats. Returnees have also sometimes faced a hard time from their neighbors.
“We saw this in India, Nepal and elsewhere,” Nair says. “Returning workers were seen as potential vectors for Covid.”
While some governments have tried to ease the return of expats, with programs such as India’s SWADES skills database scheme, many expats in the Gulf face a hard choice.
At the same time, too, Gulf countries face some hard choices.
“One of the key issues a country like Kuwait has to address is what its identity should be,” says Martin. “Is it a country of only Kuwaitis, or a country of migrants providing a useful part of Kuwaiti society?”
The pandemic, it seems, has made the question all the more pressing.