Much of the Gulf emirates’ economic growth and prosperity has ridden in on the backs of foreign labor. At the end of January, Bahrain’s labor minister Majed al-Alawi came out with a warning: An “Asian Tsunami” threatens to swamp the Gulf emirates, he said, because of their heavy dependence on foreign workers. The danger they posed, he said, was “worse than an atomic bomb.”
Employed today in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region are 17 million foreign workers, most of them from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The coming decade will see their numbers balloon to 30 million, the Bahraini minister estimated.
With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the migrant worker community in these countries exceeds the indigenous population. But even Saudi Arabia employs 8 million foreign workers, who make up half of the population and nearly 60 percent of the work force, compared with 90 percent in the other Gulf states.
And that is not all. Development planning projects will require the import of more foreign workers because, as the Bahraini minister foresees, the local labor force will not be able to replace them – even in the long term.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf experts comment that this over-reliance on imported workers is the outcome of the religious and conservative nature of Gulf societies. Instead of opening up to outside influences, these societies have in the last twenty years become increasingly hidebound.
Relatively liberal compared with its neighbors, Kuwait has fought a losing battle since the 1990s against fundamentalist Muslims taking over more and more seats in the elected parliament. Democracy is their instrument for dictating their perspectives on state policy.
The imams’ iron grip retards policy-makers
In Saudi Arabia, the clerical establishment has accumulated enormous power in the last three decades. Today, it fully controls the state education system and the judiciary; it commands forces able to impose religious norms and public conduct on the population.
The clergy’s iron grip on schools, for example, has prevented the improvement of teaching standards and the raising of a young generation qualified to integrate in a modern economy.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America and subsequent soul-searching, Saudi government heads pledged to cleanse the education system of negative messages and introduce improvements. Those pledges remained mostly unfulfilled. The imams refuse to give any slack. Educational reforms must therefore be an uphill and drawn-out process.
In the region as a whole, the Islamic clerical establishments are still powerful enough to petrify conservative social mores and dictate restrictions on the work place and professional callings.
Certain white collar professions are socially stigmatized and women’s employment in mixed places of work is strictly forbidden. In this rigid climate it is impossible to develop the vocational training frameworks for filling essential jobs.
While unemployment levels soar, young men of Gulf emirates refuse jobs which society deems inferior, and are supported in their contempt for such work by their families.
Inflexible religious constraints and the consequent prevalence of foreign workers have the effect of tying the hands of the Saudi and other Gulf governments when rapid responses are called for. Decisions of state – on foreign and even on internal issues – are increasingly influenced by considerations of the impact on the imported work force and its countries of origin.
The imams’ vise is preventing Gulf regimes from breaking loose enough to forge independent domestic, economic, defense and foreign policies commensurate with their national interests in a region strongly shadowed by an advancing Iranian nuclear threat.