The COVID-19 pandemic has hit people and economies worldwide, sparking a global recession and financially destabilising millions of people. In the Middle East, dipping oil prices have only worsened the threat to the economy. Businesses are shutting down, and many are trying to survive by cutting the salaries or laying off of workers. Large segments of the workers in these countries are expatriates, and many have struggled to make ends meet as unemployment soared.
The development of the Gulf countries has always been intertwined with their large expat populations. These workers are often vital to the economy, not just as part of the workforce but also as consumers by enabling successful malls, restaurants and other forms of recreation and tourism. Countries like Saudi Arabia gain valuable non-oil revenue in the form of increased Value Added Taxes (VAT) and by imposing a monthly fee on migrants who want to sponsor family members.
Many of these workers are from developing Southeast Asian countries such as India and Pakistan, and contribute greatly to their home country’s economy in the form of remittances, i.e sending money back home. Those who are facing unemployment or salary cuts are eager to be repatriated, especially since in many Gulf countries visas, rent, and even phone lines are linked to jobs, and expats have little to no social safety nets to fall back on.
“Panicked” Indians applying to go back home crashed the Dubai aviation ministry’s website for applications in the process. The consulate says it has received around 200,000 applications for repatriation of expats from as many as 12 countries.
For some, closing businesses are forcing them to go home. For others, the cost of education is the major concern. The Emirates group, Uber’s Middle Eastern counterpart Careem, and hotels are some of the few major employers considering laying off large portions of their staff or reducing salaries.
Dubai has been one of the hardest hit, as expats form an estimated 92% of the population. Dubai based movers estimate that they’re getting up to seven calls a day to ship belongings abroad. It is extremely hard to gain permanent resident status in countries such as the UAE, and the costs of living and education are quite high and often provided by employers, which has made leaving the only option left for many laid-off workers across all fields.
The UAE has tried to offset the damage by granting automatic extensions to expiring work permits, waiving of work permit fees and fines, and providing interest-free loans and repayment breaks.
Meanwhile, governments in Kuwait and Oman are trying to mould the exodus into an opportunity to boost local employment. On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian government has been criticised for not taking enough measures to protect the local workforce.
While the Gulf countries have been trying to decrease their dependence on oil wealth and foreign workforce, it is not something that can be accomplished soon, especially given the great dependence of the Gulf economies on both those factors.
There is still too unavoidable a gap between the current skill of local workers and the training needed to compete with foreign professionals, making it hard to simply employ domestic workers in place of foreign ones. The pandemic, however, might not leave much of a choice.