Gulf Cooperative Council

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Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries [The GCC is a political and economic union of Arab States bordering the Persian Gulf, namely Bahrain, Kuwait,  Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates]

that have extraordinarily high proportions of migrant labor. With migrants comprising 54% of the workforce in Bahrain, 90% in Qatar, and 70% in Saudi Arabia, the labor of migrant workers represents a significant portion of the economies of these States. Benefits of importing foreign labor are clear: foreign workers provide both a basic workforce and specialists to compensate for the limited number of nationals with required skills and attitudes, stimulate the domestic consumption of goods supplied by local merchants, and boost local property markets.


Many of these foreign workers traveled to the Gulf from South and Southeast Asia after the discovery of oil and natural gas resources began lifting the region’s economy. Bahrain was the first Gulf State to discover oil in June 1932. It was also the first to reap the benefits that came with increased revenue, and experienced marked improvement in the quality of education and health care. Qatar also experienced an oil boom due to the discovery of crude oil and liquid natural gas reserves, which currently account for approximately 80% of the country’s exports. Significantly beyond the oil wealth in Bahrain and Qatar, Saudi Arabia can produce 10 million barrels of crude oil per day.


While oil and natural gas have provided the bulk of these States’ resources, the three countries are also actively diversifying their economies resulting in the mass migration of foreign workers to the region. Migrant workers in Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are employed in a variety of sectors including construction, manufacturing, seafaring, and agriculture, and provide a workforce to compensate for the limited number of domestic nationals.


Most migrant workers arrive in the region with the hope that they can send remittances home to support their families. Instead, they often face many hardships on arrival such as lower-than promised wages, poor living conditions, scant legal protection, passport confiscation, debt, physical abuse and fear of deportation at a moment’s notice. At the root of this problem is the kafala (sponsorship) system, a deeply seeded structural system that causes, permits, and in some cases encourages violence towards migrant workers. The kafala system requires that migrant workers be sponsored by employers in order to live and work in the region, enabling employers to exert significant control over their employees’ lives. As the system ties migrant workers to their employers, it often increases their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. The system exists in all three countries to varying degrees, and is justified as a means to prevent workers from leaving before employers recoup initial investment costs associated with recruitment fees.





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