Since Abu Dhabi began exporting oil in 1962, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been experiencing a historically unprecedented economic boom that has generated a multitude of employment opportunities as the infrastructure drastically improved and the oil industry grew. Oil production in the past few decades has necessitated a large inﬂux of expatriate labor to ﬁll jobs that the national human resource base could not meet; production reserves are estimated at 98 billion barrels and output levels are at around 2.8 million barrels a day. As a consequence, the small national population with its large natural resources established natural incentives for the creation of an enormous foreign labor market. Based on this, the UAE’s population has been experiencing a dramatic increase in numbers as large waves of migrants - mainly western expatriates and cheap migrant laborers – regularly arrive seeking work opportunities. Notably, between 1980 and 2010, the UAE’s population grew from an estimated 1 million to over 8.3 million residents. And while the population as a whole experienced massive growth, the migrant population grew much more rapidly in comparison to the native population, coming to constitute 7.3 million of the total inhabitants of the UAE, which is over 85%. With natives thus comprising a minority within their own society, non-citizen residents have come to be perceived as a challenge to both emergent identity and national security, prompting the UAE’s use of harsh and restrictive migrant labor policies.
The securitization of migration discourse in the UAE is strongly tied to its youth as a nation. With the UAE’s formal independence dating back to only 1971, Emirati national identity is still rather loose and undergoing formation. With no real strong-standing historical registers of nationhood, the Emiratis rely on genealogy and traditional dress as markers of shared identity. Concurrently, the diverse multinational culture that has emerged in this small Arab oil state has turned English into the principal language, raising fears about the loss of native language and its related loss of cultural meaning. Students at branches of the many foreign schools in the Emirates are taught western values and cultural norms that critics have described as a type of “intellectual imperialism”. Thus, despite their wealth and privilege, its easy and common for Emiratis to feel ethnically, linguistically, and culturally overwhelmed in their own country. This, in turn, makes it natural for the local population to support a strong government drive to adopt securitized policies towards migrants.
Gulf policies towards non-citizen residents are also securitized because of the UAE’s geographic context. The country is heavily dependent militarily on the United States while at the same time, it has been increasing its own assertiveness with regards to its foreign policy in the Middle East. Recently, the UAE ordered the most sophisticated missile defense system sold by the US, making it pivotal to US efforts to assemble a regional missile defense network and simultaneously reducing the Emirates’ dependence on foreign forces. Furthermore, since 2011, it has sent police to help the beleaguered government of Bahrain, supported operations against Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, joined the GCC diplomatic effort to broker a political solution to the unrest in Yemen, and financially backed rebels in Syria. With such heavy involvement in troubled regional affairs and a significant portion of the its military and territorial integrity still being dependent on the US, the issue of non-national residents in the UAE easily comes to the forefront of any security considerations.
The two main migrant populations in the Gulf are perceived to present different forms of insecurity to the local population. On one hand, the Western group is most likely to challenge established local social practices revolving around questions of dress, language, romance, and religious pluralistic equality. On the other hand, the large groups of often exploited construction and domestic workers raise concerns about strikes, criminal activity, and other issues that could disrupt the normal flow of society. Taken together, it is therefore understandable that for the UAE, regulating the large non-national majority is viewed as a core question of national security.
But despite the potential security threat they represent, foreign labor in the UAE is also indispensible. Policies such as Emiratization, aimed at localizing significant segments of the workforce, have been mostly unsuccessful for a number of reasons including the national population’s lack of interest in taking unskilled labor jobs, and their inability to so far supply a large enough population to replace the western professional class. The sheer pace and ambition of social and economic growth in the UAE therefore means that at least for the foreseeable future, the UAE’s growth must continue on a foundation of foreign workers.
The dependence on foreign labor therefore means that the Gulf States take a very different stance towards the securitization of migration than their counterparts in the western world. Whereas countries such as the United States and Europe securitize migration by restricting their migrant numbers, the UAE cannot do so without choking its grand ambitions for rapid development. Securitization of migration thus becomes a question of information and internal management, rather than of reducing overall numbers. The UAE focuses on controlling and confining migrants within their country while maintaining the stability of the social fabric for their own citizens.
In this regard, the UAE has set up a system of foreign worker sponsorship, known as the “kafala” system, in which non-citizens residing in the Gulf become temporary contractual laborers with little to no recourse for permanent settlement or citizenship. They enter the country as guest workers under fixed-term employment contracts and are obliged to leave upon the termination of their work. Large amounts of biometric data are collected with significant health checks being required in order to reside legally in the UAE. In the case of laborers and domestic workers, immigration sponsorship laws grant employers extraordinary power over the lives of their workers, giving them no right to organize or bargain collectively and designating penalties for going on strike. For both laborers and professionals, letters of no objection from employers are needed for many aspects of life ranging from applying to get a loan, transferring to a new job, to obtaining visas for travel. While the government has started implementing new laws to provide foreign workers with more freedom, government intervention on day-to-day life is still widespread. For these reasons and because migrants have no prospects of ever gaining citizenship, migrants know from the beginning that their time in the country is limited and dependent on work, and their stake in society is correspondingly limited. Ironically, although it is securitization that has engendered the lack of expats emotional investment in the UAE, this lack of attachment and loyalty is what reinforces the government’s need for securitizing its country.
As the Gulf has transformed itself into a dynamic engine of global growth, it has increasingly come under the scrutiny of Western governments who have rushed to take advantage of the vast economic opportunities. And while the UAE has generally been able to abide by the legal norms governing Western business practice, the legal norms that define migrant worker rights in the Gulf are being compared to international norms that they do not meet. Many critics of the UAE’s migrant labor laws state that in their protection of the native population, Emirati labor laws leave foreigners vulnerable to a wide range of abuses. Most common are the abuses directed at unskilled laborers, who often suffer from withheld wages, difficult working conditions, and contracts that differ from what they agreed to in their home countries. While these complaints are undoubtedly serious, it must also be taken into consideration that the UAE is dealing with significant pressure to improve their fealty to human rights on one hand while at the same time, addressing local citizen concerns that the identity and social cohesion of their country might be undermined should migrants be able to acquire citizenship. It is these significant push and pull factors that have created the restrictive policies around migrant labor that exist in the Gulf today.
In conclusion, although the problem of migrant workers rights in the UAE is undoubtedly severe, it results from the securitization of migration, which is common in countries as diverse as the UAE and the United States. The UAE’s unique dependence on migrants forces it to respond to securitization by controlling the lives and futures of their foreign labor population. The United States, Europe, and many western nations, respond to securitization by instituting increasingly restrictive immigration policies, harsher border controls, and criminalizing illegal migrants. What becomes clear is that within any context, securitizing the legal status of non-national workers encourages coercive government tactics that make foreign workers unhappy in their own unique ways.
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