These are unprecedented times globally, however for the countries of the Gulf this is a historic inflection point as the future presents many uncomfortable realisations, questions and options. The trajectories for the future have prompted tough calls, towards drastically cutting down expat populations which comprise the bulk of the population, often running the ‘everyday’ of the economy. Since the 2014 oil price crash, expats have been leaving in droves as contracts mainly in the public sector have been terminated overnight. The COVID-19 global pause was the final straw on the camel’s back (quite an apt metaphor for the region) as economic downturn caused by the oil price crash once again, a public health emergency stretching resources and a dicey geopolitical environment with the Iran nuclear crisis, Qatar blockade and the Yemeni civil war has manifested in the perfect meta crisis to ponder on the question on the future- Where now?
The direct outcome of the flux will be felt on the migrant population of the region, which is projected to contract significantly, leading to global decrease in remittances by up to twenty percent this year as per World Bank projections. The contraction in expat/migrant population makes regular headlines in Omani broadsheets as the country struggles with lower oil prices. All expats in the public sector are set to lose work or have already lost jobs during the pandemic.
The new Oxford educated Sultan Haitham bin Tarik has set his targets at balancing the books through consolidation (such as the multiple investment arms under the newly formed Oman Investment Authority) and reduction in state expenses calling for a freeze in any new capital-intensive project. Jobs are a major concern in the region as youth unemployment is the worst kept secret. Since the Arab Spring which impacted Bahrain and Oman, the focus has been on trimming expat jobs through nationalisation programs which create public sector employment, which is already stretched to the limits, as the private sector more driven towards efficiency in a low cash slow economic milieu, banks on expat talent to keep the show running.
Expats have built the cities of the Gulf with their blood, and in return have fed families from Mallapuram to Murshidabad in India.
However, once economic pain hits the region, the same migrants are at risk of being made scape goats for a region that had a wind fall for decades and did not plan longer for a future ready workforce that can compete in the global marketplace.
Irrespective of what the nationalisation requirements might be, migrants are preferred because they are cheaper, work longer hours generally and vitally get the job done. This is however not to say that work force transitions cannot be implemented. When the taxi sector was nationalised in Oman, there was a shaky adjustment period, but then the locals populated the sector (where are no voids left unfilled in labour markets where jobs are needed!) and taxis are the predominant mode of public transport in Muscat, as a bus system is being built once again, much in resistance to the taxi drivers whose earnings will be hurt as most taxi’s do not operate as per the meter as in Dubai. A lot of jobs have been reserved for local citizens and getting a work visa for certain professions is next to impossible.
In Saudi Arabia, where the nationalisation program has been aggressive and underway for years including a monthly visa tax on dependents of expats to discourage them from staying on in the country. This caused hundreds of thousands of expats and their families to leave the country and caused certain businesses to shut because of higher local wages. As in Oman, Saudis drive Uber where the country’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF has invested and there are now baristas in cafes, unheard off a few years ago.
The Gulf is not a monolith of a region, and there are national and sub regional variations within countries which create their unique demands. The littoral port cities of the Gulf have been cosmopolitan melting pots from Muscat to Kuwait City drawn in the early global capitalist grid by the virtues of slavery, dates and pearls and for the past eight decades, oil. Countries such as Kuwait have had a culture of robust democratic spaces including community centred consultative forums such as ‘Diwaniyya’ or the National Parliament, ‘Majlis Al Shura’ where ferocious debates are held. As a result of the vivid democratic culture, a contrast often to the other parts of the Gulf, the media industry is vibrant and Kuwaiti social media is quite in the face. Kuwaiti media makes no bones of an anti expat bent bordering on anti-expat racism and xenophobia and has been constantly reporting on the negatives of the expat presence in the country.
Kuwaiti citizens receive generous cradle to grave welfare from the government and there are citizen only hospitals in the country in order to maintain exclusivity. Social Distancing for the region is routine even in the pre pandemic times as an institutional distance has been manufactured between the citizenry and the expatriates in terms of rights and redressal except for Oman.
There is a large community of the ‘Bidoon’ or the stateless whose families failed to register as per the citizenship act of 1959 requirements (that calls for families to have been based in the country prior to a 1920 cut-off date to be eligible for nationality), when Kuwait became independent in 1961. The culture of systemic transience is ingrained and thus the lens is applied to the expatriate communities who are often multi-generational.
The first Indians from Kerala and Goa (then called Luso-Indians as they were under Portuguese Rule) went to Kuwait to work in the oil fields of the 1940’s.
There was a Kuwaiti Government funded Arabic School in Bombay run for the large merchant community in the 1950’s. The exchanges between India and the region were beneficially bilateral until the oil era fashioned manpower as our main export. The Kuwaiti Royal Family still owns posh real estate on the Queens Necklace in present day Mumbai.
The new expat law in the Kuwaiti Parliament calls for the inversion of the current demographic ratio of 70 percent expat and 30 percent locals to 30 percent expatriate, in a knee jerk reaction to COVID-19 where most of the infections are low income migrant workers. In this reduction scheme are they planning to send back doctors and paramedics who have served the country during the crisis? That would be a critical answer to decipher.
There have been heart wrenching stories of migrant workers from South Asia under the pandemic lockdown not having any food to eat as incomes have dried up. Most migrant workers had been restricted to industrial areas in the Gulf to prevent a community level spread. During the Islamophobia Twitter fracas, several Kuwaiti commentators had commented how Indian workers were treated well in hospitals in the country as opposed to a minority community in India. Many workers have decided to stay put as they will be hit unemployment back home as they are often the sole bread winners and the repatriation ticket is often above their pay grade when they have not earned a single dinar for the last few months.
With a 1.5 million expat population in Kuwait, and USD 4.8 billion in remittances in 2018 with the new expat law, 800,000 Indians (majority Malayali) would have to head back home which would mean an exponential fall in remittances and a political earthquake in a pre-election year in Kerala. Such an exodus would be seismically greater than the expulsion of Indians from Burma in 1962 and Uganda in 1972. I hope Dr S Jaishankar and his top team have a strategy in place to soften the blow on a political level by coordinating with the critical stakeholders in Kuwait City.
Labour histories of the gulf are varied with multiple theatres and frames of analysis. A nuanced understanding of the region with an eye on history is necessary to understand the future in a deeply conservative yet paradoxical society where super cars and camels co-exist and designer haute couture from Paris is worn under an ‘Abaya’. A post pandemic, post oil gulf would be an Indian gulf (once again) as we were present before oil and we shall be present in the region in the post hydrocarbon era albeit in smaller numbers. The western Indian Ocean maritime neighbourhood shares a deeply intertwined past with us, and it shall be the anchor to a collaborative post pandemic configuration.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.