Foreign labor in the Gulf: the new culture shock

The oil boom of the last 15 years has brought a steady stream of foreign workers into the Arab countries of the Gulf, not only from the rest of the Arab world but from Iran, Africa, South and East Asia, and even Western Europe. These foreign laborers (Arab and non-Arab) are now estimated at at least five million, and their number is daily increasing. This sudden injection of foreigners into a conservative and traditionally closed society has created complex social and psychological problems, not only for the local inhabitants but for the foreign laboring class itself. These are just beginning to be comprehended.

In several Gulf countries (Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) the foreigners now outnumber the natives. The UAE, for example, has a population of around one million; 800,000 are foreigners. In neighboring Bahrain 73 percent of the work force is foreign. In the UAE the Indian population alone outnumbers the Arab nationals. Indeed, a foreign visitor to Abu Dhabi could easily learn more Urdu or Bengali in 10 days than Arabic.

One can easily understand the anxiety of the native inhabitants, faced with this carnival of nations, over how to preserve their national and cultural identity. The local Gulf newspapers are full of complaints over the damage which foreigners are wreaking on religious and cultural life. Examples abound, but perhaps one of the most bizarre was the incident in January when one of the large Gulf hotels organized a Western-style costume ball, complete with disco dancing, to commemorate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, a solemn religious occasion in the Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia even religious celebrations are prohibited on this day.

If the foreign workers have brought the benefits of their labor and skills to the Gulf, some have also imported modern vices little known in the region before their arrival. These include armed robberies, drug abuse, prostitution, and rape.

Previously along the Tapline Route in Saudi Arabia one could leave bags of wheat unguarded for days for scheduled truck pickups with the certitude that they would not be stolen.

Not all the influences are negative, however. Some foreigners are assimilating wearimg Arab dress, learning Arabic, and even converting to Islam. Between 1976 and 1979 there were over 2,000 conversions to Islam among workers in Saudi Arabia alone; more tham 1,800 of these were Koreans, but they also included Indians, Africans, Filipinos, and Europeans.

Nor are all the problems faced by the local Arabs. A substantial portion of the foreign labor force is subject to diverse forms of exploitation and abuse. Many so-called employment agencies, formed in India, Pakistan, the Far East and elsewhere, have amassed fortunes by shipping workers to the Gulf. The fees charged for securing jobs in the promised land of oil and wealth cam go as high as four months of the workers' salary. Meanwhile, ad hoc companies have sprung up in the Gulf for the purpose of sponsoring and importing the labor. Government permits are needed. In most Gulf countries a permit is a passport to easy wealth , and trade in sponsorships is a flourishimg one; some are sold for fees as high as $1,200 per laborer. Often the worker has little to say about the transfer of his sponsorship. Efforts by Gulf governments to put all end to these indignities have so far shown few results because of the laxness of labor and immigration laws.

The problems of many of the foreign workers do not end with their arrival. Once in the Gulf their illusioms evaporate after they discover that the salaries they were quoted (often several times the equivalent of what they would make at homes disappear in the face of an astronomical inflation rate and standards of living far above what they can afford. Disappointment and bitterness follow as they are obliged to live in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Loneliness, despair, amd fear of returning home without succeeding have even led to suicide in a few cases.

The presence of such a large foreign work force has political, as well as social, implications. The mere concentration of such a large group of uprooted foreigners opens the door to outside political influences. One indication of the threat felt by the local people over just this issue was the rumor, recently circulating in the Gulf, that the Korean work force, estimated at about 130,000 in Saudi Arabia alone, and composed of well-trained and highly disciplined young men, was nothing less than a secret army sent by the US (or some other Western power) to occupy the oil fields in case of trouble. So widespread was this rumor that the South Korean President, Choi Kyuha, had to deny it in an official statement during a state visit to Saudi Arabia in May, 1980.

At a less spectacular level, the presence of the foreign workers is changing relations between employee and employer. Although there are no labor unions in the conservative Gulf countries, the governments have had to pass new labor laws and to establish labor courts for workers' grievances.

The traffic in human labor has affected Gulf relations with the supplying countries as well. In February 1980, for exaniple, India protested a labor law im the United Arab Emirates which would have led to the deportation of Indians. Any attempt to cut back onforeign labor will incvitably have adverse effects on the poor third-world countries who rely on the remittainces of the workers, often to help offset the higher price of oil. This is bound to have political repercussions internationally.

The Arab League and the Gulf countries themselves are concerned to alleviate these problems, but there are so many special interests involved that little has been done to date.

Louay Bahry is adjunct associate professor of political science at the University of Tennesseem .

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