The ebb and flow of populations

Economic growth and wars have shaped migration patterns in the Middle East. Published in MEED, 30 April 2014

Across the world, about three in every hundred people are migrants. The reasons people move from the country of their birth are many and varied, but among the most common are the desire to gain an education, find a job or flee a war or natural disaster.

Rich countries tend to attract the most foreigners, at least when measured as a percentage of their total population, with 11.5 per cent of people in high-income countries classed as migrants by the Washington-based World Bank.

In the Middle East, however, this benchmark is frequently and easily surpassed. Across the Arab world as a whole, some 7.4 per cent of the population were migrants in 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available. But in Qatar, which has the highest proportion of expatriates of any country, the rate is 10 times as much, at 75 per cent. Kuwait is not far behind, at 70 per cent. The only other countries that can compete with such figures are microstates such as Andorra, Monaco and the Cayman Islands, where the rates are between 65 and 72 per cent.

Population mix

The unusual population mix of the six GCC states has been a notable feature of these countries for many years, and these days even those with the lowest proportion of migrants – Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – have rates of more than 25 per cent, which puts them in the top 25 countries around the world.

But while Qatar and Kuwait have long attracted high levels of migration, it has not always been a feature of all the Gulf states. In 1970, migrants made up just 6 per cent of the Saudi population, and in Oman it was 8.7 per cent. The big change came in the wake of the oil boom of that decade, when the authorities decided to make a big push to expand their economies and develop their infrastructure. Instead of employing locals to carry out the low-skilled work required, they brought in large numbers of foreign workers, often from south and southeast Asia.

That started a trend that has continued to this day. As a result, the number of migrants in Oman increased from about 63,000 in 1970 to 826,000 by 2010. For Qatar, the rise was even more dramatic, from 68,000 to 1.3 million over that period, but Saudi Arabia has seen the greatest rise in terms of absolute numbers – the kingdom was home to 357,000 migrants in 1970 but as many as 7.3 million by 2010. In total, the number of migrants in the GCC states increased from a little over 1 million in 1970 to more than 15 million by 2010. Including the other Gulf states of Iran, Iraq and Yemen adds a further 2.7 million migrants to that total.

The Gulf is not the only corner of the Middle East to play host to large numbers of expatriates, however. In 1970, there were more migrants in the Levant than in the GCC, and while the numbers have not grown quite as fast in the intervening decades, migrants still account for a large segment of the population today. Migrants made up 49 per cent of the total population in Jordan and 50 per cent in the West Bank and Gaza in 2010. Lebanon, too, was well above the global and regional averages, with 17 per cent.

Since then, the figures in these countries are likely to have increased substantially due to the tumultuous events of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. The number of people fleeing the violence in Syria had reached 2.3 million by December 2013, according to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and has continued to rise since then. Most of these refugees end up in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

In early April, the UNHCR said the number of refugees fleeing from Syria into Lebanon had passed the 1 million mark, compared with 18,000 just two years earlier. Lebanon now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world and many towns and villages are home to more refugees than nationals. Such a huge influx in such a short period of time puts massive strains on all aspects of the country’s infrastructure and society, and Lebanon does not have the luxury of oil-fuelled wealth that the Gulf states enjoy. Antonio Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees, says that as a result of the flood of refugees, Lebanon is now close to reaching the population it was expected to have by 2050.

Before civil war broke out in 2011, Syria had been host to more refugees than most countries, not least because it was home to many Palestinians who had fled Israel and the Occupied Territories in various wars since 1948. That also explains the historically high numbers of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories themselves.

War and economics

As all these statistics highlight, the region’s population flows are as much a product of warfare as they are of economics. Both factors have been at play in Iran over recent decades. During the 1990s, the Islamic Republic had been home to more refugees than any other Middle East country, partly as a result of conflict in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. In more recent years, Iran has seen a substantial net outflow of people. From 2003 to 2012, an estimated 850,000 more people left the country than arrived, probably as a result of refugees returning to their home countries and some Iranians leaving because of the worsening domestic economic environment.

Even though it has hosted large numbers of refugees, Iran also has a big local population, so the proportion of migrants has never crossed 7.6 per cent in the past 40 years. Today, the country’s population stands at about 76 million and the proportion of migrants is just 2.9 per cent.

That is a similar level to Yemen, where migrants make up about 2.3 per cent of the total. The only countries in the region with substantially lower migration levels are Iraq and the North African countries of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, where the rates are well below 1 per cent.

Libya exception

One outlier in North Africa is Libya, which, like the Gulf states, is oil-rich and has a small local population, which has meant it both needed and could afford to pay for migrant labour. However, the 2011 revolution led to a lot of workers from neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere fleeing back across the borders for safety, and it remains to be seen how many have stayed away and how many have returned as the instability has persisted.

There have also been some changes of circumstance for migrant labourers in the Gulf, most notably in Saudi Arabia, although in this case it is because of bureaucracy rather than violence. A much-publicised crackdown on illegal foreign labour in the kingdom in 2013 seems to have led to a dramatic decline in the number of migrants living there, although it is hard to be certain of the numbers. Local media reports suggested that as many as 1 million people left during an amnesty period that ended in November 2013, and more will have gone as the government’s crackdown picked up momentum in the following months.

“If you live here, you notice it,” says one expatriate executive in Riyadh. “A couple of years ago, the fellow working the check-out [counter] at the supermarket was almost certainly from India or Bangladesh or somewhere like that and now it’s almost certainly a young Saudi. I think this is a permanent change.”

Localisation push

The drive to get more locals into work is not just a priority for the authorities in Riyadh. All of the GCC states are pursuing similar policies, which may well reduce the demand for some types of expatriate labour in these countries in the years ahead. But, notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which the Saudi authorities have pursued illegal migrants, the change is likely to be a gradual one. Even if other governments do clamp down with as much force, the reality is that many foreigners will continue to try to slip through the net and stay in the country.

It may not be as welcoming a region as it once was, but for as long as there are lots of jobs that locals would rather pay someone else to do, there will continue to be a high proportion of migrants in the Gulf.