All Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members share as a common feature a high dependency on a foreign workforce and a persistently high and, in most cases, growing proportion of non-nationals in the resident population. The GCC’s uniqueness, however, does not lie in the high level of immigration as much as in the persistence over time of a high proportion of non-citizens because of numerous factors, including the limited channels for naturalizing foreign-nationals.
The Gulf Labour Markets and Migration programme is based on the acknowledgement that migration to these countries is not necessarily different from migration to other countries in the world with regard to its causes, patterns and consequences. As elsewhere, the number of non-working foreign nationals has continuously grown as a result of family reunification and the emergence of a second generation born in the GCC from foreign nationals. Many guest workers in the GCC turn out to be immigrants, but governments have only recently started to acknowledge this fact. Thus, far from being unique, the GCC countries are subject to demographic, economic, social, political and legal dynamics comparable to those found in other countries that experience(d) significant immigration.
At the same time, adaptation to a situation in which the national population ranges between 11.5% of the total population of the United Arab Emirates and 68% in Saudi Arabia and, therefore, the foreign population ranges between 32% in Saudi Arabia to 88.5 % in the UAE, is not an easy matter. The annual foreign population growth in the six GCC countries ranges from 3.8% in Kuwait (2012) to 12.5% in Qatar (average 2004-2010), faster than the national population which grows yearly between 2.2% in Saudi Arabia (2012) and 3.8% in Oman (2012). In some GCC countries, the age group 0-14 years old grows much faster for foreign nationals – 8.1% per year in Kuwait (average 2005 – 2012) and 9% in Bahrain (average 2008-2010) – than for the national population (respectively, 3.9% and 2.2% for the same periods). This clearly indicates that the issues are structural and that the policies of reducing reliance on foreign nationals, at most may have (slightly) reduced the pace of increasing discrepancy between the growth of the national and foreign workers and populations.
Despite questions concerning international human rights standards and the situation of foreign nationals in GCC countries, the influx of (temporary) immigrants continues and the absolute numbers and relative percentages of foreign-nationals vis-à-vis nationals in all GCC countries remain at least stable and in most cases actually continue to grow. This happens notwithstanding the declared policies to reduce the share of foreign workers and to increase the participation of nationals in the workforce.
The GLMM programme is based upon the assumption that in order to improve migration legislation and practices also by improving transparency and accountability, it is necessary to convincingly show GCC policymakers that an understanding in full of all major aspects of migration is in their interest in order to undertake policy reforms that, among other things, narrow the gap between international human rights standards and the present situation of foreign nationals, and consolidate the rule of law. Ultimately, improving the situation of the migrant workers will enhance the efficiency, competitiveness and sustainability of the GCC economies.
While the production of knowledge concerning the two other major destinations of global migration – North America and Europe – is enormous, knowledge production on GCC migration, while recently increasing, is still in a state of infancy in terms of availability of reliable and comparable data, and of general, comparative and case studies as well as policy papers.