Gulf countries tighten entry rules

Fearing new wave of Arab Spring unrest, officials aim to limit entry of foreign workers; new policy framed as economic program.

August 25, 2011 17:00
4 minute read.
Thousands march in Bahrain

Bahrain protest 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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 August 29.

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 Asians.

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 others.”

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 invaded Kuwait.

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 reported.

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