Virus Forces Persian Gulf States to Reckon With Migrant Labor

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Kuwaiti talk show panelists were holding forth on an issue that the coronavirus has pushed to the forefront of national debate: whether their tiny, oil-rich monarchy should rely as heavily as it does on foreign laborers, who have suffered most of the country’s infections and borne much of the cost of its lockdown.

“Go to malls in Kuwait — would you ever see a Kuwaiti working there?” said one guest, Ahmad Baqer. “No. They’re all different nationalities.”

Not long after, a South Asian man slipped into the camera frame, serving tea to each panelist from a tray. He appeared three times during the program, his presence unacknowledged except by one panelist who waved away a fresh cup.

In the Middle East’s wealthiest societies, the machinery of daily life depends on migrant laborers from Asia, Africa and poorer Arab countries — millions of “tea boys,” housemaids, doctors, construction workers, deliverymen, chefs, garbagemen, guards, hairdressers, hoteliers and more, who often outnumber the native population.

They support families back home by doing the jobs citizens cannot or will not take. But as oil revenues plummet, migrant labor camps become coronavirus hot spots and citizens demand that their governments protect them first, the pandemic has prompted a reckoning with the status quo.

Hostility toward foreigners is growing louder. So are questions about how to replace migrants with citizens and calls for reforming the way foreign labor is imported and treated.

“The two things that Gulf countries depend on the most, oil prices and foreign workers, these two have been hard hit with the coronavirus,” said Eman Alhussein, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The coronavirus has unleashed all these issues that have been put on the back burner for a long time.”

For many of the Arab states’ foreign workers, who sent more than $124 billion to their home countries in 2017, the coronavirus’s fallout is bleakly straightforward.

Tens of thousands have lost their jobs during government-ordered lockdowns, leaving them to ration dwindling food supplies while their families struggle without their remittances. Others have fallen sick as the coronavirus tears through their meager, crowded dormitory-style housing.

Like migrants in Latin America, Eastern Europe, India and beyond, some are heading home empty-handed.

ImageVolunteers filling boxes with essential household supplies for those in need in Adeliah, Kuwait, last month.
Credit…Stephanie Mcgehee/Reuters

“There are no people, no work,” said Muhammad, 39, a taxi driver in Dubai who has had to stop sending money to his family in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “In three months, if it’s the same as this, I’ll go home.”

Globally, the World Bank estimates that remittances will fall by about a fifth this year, from $714 billion last year to $572 billion.

With oil prices slashed and tourism gone, host countries in the Persian Gulf, which account for more than a tenth of the world’s migrants, may have to revise their relationship with foreign labor.

“Before, there was enough to go around,” said Karen Young, a Gulf specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “But now states are working with half of what they had three months ago, and the cuts are coming. There’ll be more discussion about what the state provides to citizens and noncitizens.”

Even fantastically rich Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where legions of foreigners serve tiny local populations and build government megadreams like Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, are likely to shed hospitality and construction workers as tourism evaporates and development slows.

If foreign bankers and consultants leave, so will the expatriate bartenders and interior designers who depend on them.

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Credit…Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Oil-dependent countries with many middle-class or poor citizens, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, can no longer guarantee the high living standards and subsidies that their citizens take for granted.

Analysts said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s lofty plans for diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy with tourism and flashy concerts will shrink, with the Saudi finance minister warning last week of “painful” spending cuts.

Across the Gulf, much of that spending goes to employing citizens in steady, well-paid government jobs that double as a social safety net. Roughly two-thirds of all Gulf nationals work for their governments, despite state efforts to push them into the private sector by offering companies perks to hire locally and charging expatriates extra taxes.

Saudis already check in hotel guests, sell perfume at Riyadh malls and welcome restaurant diners, occupations foreigners dominated a few years ago. There and in Oman, local taxi drivers are now common. The coronavirus could accelerate those trends.

Still, analysts doubted locals would take low-paid, low-status work such as housecleaning.

“Saudis won’t want to take jobs they perceive as being below their qualifications,” said Yasmine Farouk, a Middle East fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noting that many businesses still prefer to hire foreigners, seeing them as cheaper and more productive, with fewer labor rights.

Whatever its long-term impact, the coronavirus has spotlighted the lopsided way their societies work. At the mercy of their visa sponsors, laborers have few protections, working long hours for little pay, often in scorching heat. Employers can withhold or delay wages with impunity. The crowded shanties and dormitories where many live bred coronavirus outbreaks that advocates say could have been minimized if conditions were better.

“What this crisis has really exposed is the systematic discrimination in the Gulf,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s shown how terrible it can be for the society as a whole.”

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Credit…Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

In Kuwait, where political discourse is freer than in other Gulf countries, debates have erupted on social media over how to reduce the quantity and increase the quality of migrant labor.

Commentators and politicians are urging the government to overhaul the politically connected visa brokers who traffic laborers into the country, creating an unregulated shadow economy. And Saudis on social media have criticized businessmen over migrants’ overcrowded housing.

“These people are almost starving now that life has stopped in Kuwait,” a Kuwaiti television host, Ahmad al-Fadli, said recently. “Is it their fault? No, it’s the fault of those who brought them here.”

But xenophobia is also escalating as expatriates are blamed for spreading the virus. A well-known Kuwaiti actress, Hayat al-Fahad, has taken criticism for saying Kuwait should expel migrants, who make up two-thirds of Kuwait’s population, “into the desert” to save hospital beds for Kuwaitis.

“Why, if their countries do not want them, should we deal with them?” she said.

With fear of foreign deliverymen rising, some Saudis have volunteered to deliver food and necessities during the crisis. Even as some point out that many doctors in Saudi Arabia are non-Saudis, others blame migrants for the virus’s spread, calling them ungrateful for failing to observe social distancing.

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Credit…Stephanie Mcgehee/Reuters

What inclusive policies there are could buckle under pressure from angry citizens and overstretched resources. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be able to keep providing free health care for foreigners, while Qatar, which pays their wages even at private companies, cannot do so indefinitely.

Caught at the end of these falling economic dominoes, some foreign laborers are demanding to go home, but for many debts to visa sponsors and fines for residency violations stand in the way.

Though some Gulf countries have agreed to pay for repatriation flights, a few home countries are resisting because they lack the resources to care for or quarantine returnees. One exception is India, which has organized a huge evacuation effort aimed at bringing back hundreds of thousands of Indians, mainly from the Gulf.

But many will stay, perhaps taking lower-paid jobs in construction or cleaning, said Froilan Malit, Jr., who is researching Gulf migration at Cambridge University.

Cora Tarcena, 53, who worked as a secretary at a luxury car garage in Dubai making about $950 a month before the lockdown, has little choice: her family in the Philippines depends on her salary.

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Credit…Katie McQue

Now out of work, she does not know how she, her two adult daughters and their three roommates, who live in a single room crammed with four bunk beds, will eat or make rent. But if she can get another visa, she said, she will stay.

In the Philippines, “I’d just clean the house and I’d be without income,” she said. “I am ashamed to ask my children for money.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Katie McQue from Dubai.

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