Arab-Arab Migration: The two sides of the coin

The GCC is the major destination for the majority of migrants from Egypt, Jordan and to a lesser extent Lebanon. But despite the GCC’s growing immigrant population, their reliance on Arab immigrants has been continuously decreasing over the past few decades.

History of Arab migration to the GCC

Countries such as  Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have been promoting emigration to the GCC since the middle of the 20th century. Since the oil boom in the 1970s, large numbers of emigrants from these countries have found their way to the GCC. Economic difficulties at home such as poverty and unemployment along with political instability were the major factors pushing the migrants out of their countries. This emigration was supported by governments to ease the pressure on the local labor markets, reduce unemployment and increase economic development through remittances sent back home. Meanwhile, the GCC countries lacked the skilled labor force for rapid economic development and attracted, with job opportunities and higher salaries, a large number  of skilled migrants, mainly from neighboring Arab countries.

Arab populations in the GCC are growing…

Since then, the Arab population in the GCC has grown rapidly. At times political and social factors in the region, such as the first Gulf War, have slowed down this growth. Yet Arab migrants in the GCC have continued to increase. Between 1990 and 2015, the Arab migrant population in the GCC more than doubled. By 2015, the GCC countries together hosted more than 5 million migrants from the Arab world, almost half of whom were Egyptians. Accordingly, the GCC is considered the preferred destination for the majority of migrants from Egypt and Jordan. 73% of Egyptian migrants and 67% of Jordanian migrants live in the GCC. Meanwhile only 1 in 4 Lebanese migrants live in the GCC.

Figure 1 – The GCC is the main destination for Arab migrants

…But to a lesser extent than non-Arab populations

At the same time, the GCC’s dependence on foreign labor has continued to increase. The immigrant population in the GCC has gradually increased from 23% in 1975, to around 35% in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, 50% of those living in the GCC are immigrants.

Figure 2 – 50% of those living in the GCC are immigrants

Despite that, the contribution of Arab immigrants (as a proportion of total immigrants) in the GCC has been decreasing. This is evident by the decreasing proportion of Arab immigrants among the total migrant population. In 1975, 72% of all expats in the GCC were Arabs. Today, Arabs constitute only 22% of the immigrants residing in the GCC. This is mainly due to higher reliance on Asian workers since the 1980s. These workers offered lower expectations for salaries and working conditions particularly for lower skilled jobs, and no aspirations to be actively involved in the political process. As a result, even though Arab migration to the GCC has been expanding over the past 50 years, the expansion of the immigrant population in the GCC is mainly due to the increase of non-Arab migrants.

The Characteristics of Arab immigrants in the GCC

Historically, Arab migration to the GCC has been male-dominated. Even today, the majority of Arab immigrants in the GCC, equivalent to 66%, are males. However, Arab immigrants to the GCC today are more likely to be high-skilled, and have received a higher education or have extensive specialized work experience including architects, financial experts, engineers, technicians, scientists, health professionals, and IT specialists.

Over the years, the proportion of unskilled Egyptian migrants travelling to the GCC has decreased. While there are still a flow of low-skill Egyptians, there has also been an increase of Egyptian scientists, technicians, and sales and service staff in the GCC. Similarly, a number of Lebanese emigrants to the GCC over the past 20 years have increasingly come from a skilled and professional background. While there are no official statistics on the skills and jobs of international migrants in the GCC, factors such as the presence of family members give an indication. GCC countries grant family visas mostly to high-skill workers while it is harder for low-skill workers to move their families. For example, the high proportion of family dependent visas among Jordanian immigrants in the Gulf suggests a higher share of high-skilled workers.

Arab immigration to the GCC has been undergoing a number of changes since it first began in the 1970s. Many Arab countries still depend on migration to the GCC to help with unemployment and economic development. Remittances from migrants in the GCC also provide vital support for their families in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Palestine. On the other hand, the GCC have been gradually reducing their reliance on Arab immigrants, particularly the unskilled migrants. A growing skilled local workforce along with the drop in oil prices will likely make it harder for Arabs to migrate to the GCC.

Read more on the migration patterns in the Arab world. 


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