Recent headlines have underscored the plight of thousands of guest workers fleeing across Libya’s eastern and western borders.
Even in more peaceful times, an American visitor could land in the airport of any Arab capital and wonder what happened to all the locals amid the Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino faces. Even in Yemen, one of the Arab World’s poorest countries, Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian street sweepers are found everywhere.
Widespread unemployment and the lack of opportunities for young adult workers have fuelled recent protests all over North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, many jobs have gone to outsiders such as guest workers from Africa, East Asia, and Arabs from poorer countries.
The World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 estimates that last year India provided the most guest workers, 4.9 million, to the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Pakistan took second place, with 2 million. Together, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Iran, and Indonesia contributed 3.6 million workers to the GCC nations of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Within the Arab World itself, workers of poorer countries such as Yemen and Egypt migrated to those with oil wealth in North Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. Together they contributed more than 2.6 million workers.
Upon arrival in Dubai, American students of Arabic searched for hours for people to practice with.
The wealthy Arab nations once employed mostly Arab immigrants, but they have steadily replaced them with more competitive, docile, and reliable East Asians. This process was accelerated in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. To retaliate against Yemen’s support of Iraq, Saudi Arabia expelled more than a million of its workers; almost overnight, the ubiquitous Yemeni mechanics, restaurant managers, and blue-collar workers disappeared from the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh.
Last Friday, a Wall Street Journal story quoted a management consultant who explained that “The Arab employee is seen as someone who is demanding and as someone who poses a political risk. The Indian employee is not.”
Titled “Asian workers displace Arabs,” the story went on describe the advantages of East Asian workers: “Many arrive more skilled, especially as English speakers, a selling point in economies relying more on service industries.”
What’s more, the story continued, “Asians have been easier to lay off and send home, in part because Asian governments exert less pressure on behalf of their workers than fellow Arab governments.”
In echoes of America’s efforts to deal with immigration from Mexico, wealthy Arab countries have exploited the fact that migrant labor willingly performs tasks, at lower wages, that its own citizens will not do. As a result, these workers have become a permanent presence, ranging from 25% of the Saudi population to 76% of Qatar’s. In Libya and Bahrain, respectively, they represent 11% and 49%.These figures are based on the UN report World Population Policies 2005.
Guest workers have faced considerable hardships fleeing the Libyan uprising. The international media and the UN have reported that the flow of refugees across the Egyptian and Tunisian borders has decreased dramatically, raising fears that they are trapped in the middle of combat zones; those now making it across have reported harassment by Gaddafi loyalists. What will they face when new Arab governments have to deal with large and young populations of their own unemployed citizens? Will they be a convenient scapegoat? Even during less turbulent times, East Asian and Arab migrant laborers have often been cruelly exploited.