Fearing a resurgence of unrest across the Middle East after Ramadan, the governments of the Gulf are starting to clamp down on the entry of foreign workers.
Kuwait, which in May barred visitors from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan on national security grounds, last week announced that it was temporarily suspending the issuing of commercial-visit visas from September 1. While Labor Minister Mohammad al-Afasi said the move was aimed at preventing expats from flooding the labor market, analysts said it was probably influenced as much by fears that foreigners could stir up trouble.
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Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said he expected other countries belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups six of the region’s Arab monarchies, to take similar steps.
“Some analysts in the region predict it will be a very hot fall, so it is necessary to increase these types of measures,” Karasik told The Media Line. “The GCCs need to insulate themselves from the supposed impending shock wave.”
The crackdown comes as the GCC states wrestle with their heavy reliance on foreign labor, thus restrictions on entry is often inseparable from their economic agenda. For instance, Saudi Arabia, which is home to some eight million expats out of a population of 26 million, is requiring some 300,000 firms to limit employment of foreigners and replace them with Saudis by the end of November.
While the Saudization plan, known as Nitaqat, has been framed by the
government as principally an economic program designed to provide
employment and stem the flow of money out of the country, officials
haven’t hesitated to cite foreigners as a security risk.
“The number of foreign workers should be brought down to a reasonable
level, so they don’t pose a danger to national security,” Major General
Muhammad Abusaq, a member of the Shoura Council’s security committee,
told the Arab News
earlier this month.
Except for Bahrain, which was shaken by anti-government protests this
year before a GCC security force restored order, the Gulf has steered
clear of the Arab Spring revolts that have brought down the leaders of
Egypt and Tunisia and threatens others. But the region’s leaders – all
of them monarchs – are worried that the turmoil hasn’t run its course
and may get renewed impetus when the Ramadan fasting period ends about
Because they threaten to bring a pan-Arab or Islamic political agenda
along with their badly needed labor and skills, Arab expatriates are
likely to bear the brunt of the crackdown, rather than Westerners or
Bahrain acted in March to restrict entry as the island state’s Shiite
majority staged mass protests against the Sunni monarchy. The government
suspended flights from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, all countries with large
Shiite populations. Bahrain accused Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah
organization of being behind the unrest.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has required expats living in
the six-nation confederation to get an official identity card. The card
is required for transactions with the government and will enable
authorities to keep closer tabs on the activities of citizens as well as
the expats who make up close to 90% of the population.
The Emirates Identity Authority, popularly known as Emirates ID, then
said last week that it would link ID card registration of expatriates
with the issuance and renewal of their residence visas to enroll all
expatriates in the country by the end of 2013.
“The UAE sees expat laborers as national security threat because the
country is drowning in expats. They want to have more Emiratis in jobs,”
said Karasik. He said that if Arab expats are expelled, the economy
won’t suffer because there is plenty of interest from Asians to work in
the Gulf. “If they kick out one nationality they can always bring in
Qatar meanwhile is reported to have barred the entry of most Algerian
passport holders, according to Arabian Business, prompting complaints
from the Algerian Foreign Ministry. Analysts said Qatar is limiting
entry to Algerians to protest their country’s neutral stance of the
civil war between Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and rebels. Qatar has
been a strong supporter of the rebel cause.
As the Arab Spring creates new leaders and new alliances across the
Middle East, visas could be a pawn in the diplomatic gain. Karasik said
there is a long tradition of using travel documents, noting that Kuwait
barred Yemenis in the first Gulf War for siding with Iraq after it
But the crackdown, even if it avoids non-Arab expats, could hurt the
Gulf’s economies, which depend on foreigners to do everything from
constructions work to accounting. Business executives say expats are
more experienced, better trained and cheaper than locals.
When Kuwait announced plans to restrict commercial visas, the local
Chamber of Commerce and Industry and many big companies voiced their
objections, the Arab Times