Hardly more than a decade has passed since Egypt’s pioneering emigrants first offered their skills to the nascent development of neighboring Arab countries. Measured against the volume and impact of its labor contributions, this seems a short time indeed. In that time, the limited opportunities once available only to Egypt’s most educated elite have mushroomed to require the talents and energies of tens of thousands of urban craftsmen, public employees and rural unskilled laborers. From these masses of temporary sojourners have come massive transfers of wages and remittances to Egypt’s thirsty economy. Such transfers amounted to $2 billion in 1979—revenues equivalent to the combined returns that year of Egypt’s cotton exports, Suez Canal receipts, tourism and the value added from the Aswan High Dam. [1] Cumulatively impressive, the sums diminish to more modest proportions when divided among their innumerable owners and measured against the frugality of their lives abroad.

A decade older, this large-scale circulation of Egyptian labor to the capital-rich Arab states of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf now bears many hallmarks of a maturing social phenomenon. There is greater patience among the scores of men now milling outside Arab embassies here in Cairo. Airline ticket offices have branched out across the Egyptian capital, Cairo airport has been allocated yet another 36 million Egyptian pounds to expand its facilities, and travel agencies have multiplied—not to receive more Western visitors but to facilitate and profit from the departure of their countrymen. (Some shadowy agencies have victimized would-be emigrants; eight such operations uncovered in September 1983 had stolen 3 million Egyptian pounds from thousands of workers.) Investment companies now directly appeal in newspaper ads to Egyptian returnees for a share of their savings. Perhaps the surest sign of this maturation is that President Husni Mubarak’s government now boasts a minister of state for migration affairs and Egyptians abroad.

A latecomer to the ranks of major labor exporters in the Middle East, Egypt is now the region’s dominant supplier of professional, skilled and unskilled Arab workers. With a population surpassing 45 million persons, and its estimated labor force of 13.7 million, Egypt is certain to maintain this foremost position in the years to come. [2]

This outpouring of Egyptian labor followed immediately after successive government decrees relaxed the stringent controls on emigration that existed through the mid-1960s. Exit visas were, until then, difficult to obtain, although an expatriate community of 11,021 Egyptians, most of them professionals, were reported residing in Kuwait in 1965. The devastation of the Canal Zone cities in the 1967 war and the ensuing deterioration of the Egyptian economy impelled Nasser to ease some restrictions on emigration. The 1969 coup d’etat that hoisted Col. Qaddafi to power in Libya brought with it enhanced political coordination with Egypt and resulted in thousands of Egyptian workers filling government posts and construction sites in that country. Thousands of others followed their predecessors to Kuwait, almost tripling the resident Egyptian population there by 1980 to 30,421 persons. Far smaller numbers were scattered throughout Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Gulf, and Sudan by the early 1970s.

In the wake of the 1973 October war, quadrupled oil revenues and the vast development schemes of the oil rich states created an unprecedented demand for labor. President Anwar al-Sadat, as part of his policy of infitah (open door), lifted all labor migration restrictions. What had been a trickle of Egyptians leaving for employment abroad now grew to tidal proportions. The transformation of Iran and Iraq from net labor exporters to the Gulf to major labor importers themselves accelerated this growing demand throughout the region. Egyptians directly replaced thousands of Omanis who departed Bahrain for their own country after Sultan Qaboos’ 1971 palace coup and his expensive investment initiatives that followed. The number of Egyptians in tiny Bahrain alone grew from 600 to 3,600 between 1971 and 1977, increasing their share of that country’s total working age population from 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent. [3] Scores of thousands of others found employment in the labor markets of Saudi Arabia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Qatar through the 1970s. Kuwaiti statistics on emigrant labor permits issued by nationality illustrate this rapid increase in Egyptian workers overseas. Egyptians ranked sixth in number of labor permits in 1972, behind Jordan, Iran, India, the Arab Gulf and Pakistan; in 1976, Egyptians ranked first with 20.6 percent (6,336) of all labor permits issued that year. [4] By 1979 this proportion had reached 24.3 percent, with 9,110 workers. Only one year later, 13,700 Egyptians received their first-time work permits in Kuwait’s private sector.

A Question of Numbers

Paradoxically, given the scale of this labor movement, the historical responsibility of the Egyptian bureaucracy for the centralized planning and allocation of domestic factors of production (including labor), and a developed tradition of demographic enumeration dating from the last century, accurate and comprehensive figures for this number of Egyptians working and/or residing abroad are non-existent. Nor can such statistics be found in the public records of almost all labor importers, including Saudi Arabia and Libya, where Egyptians are most predominant. The notable exception is Kuwait, whose annual labor statistics are valuable resources for interpreting the dynamics of labor mobility and expatriate employment.

Such deliberate omissions of data are born of political calculation. Few governments involved in this massive transfer of labor desire the accountability and public review implied by such information. The consequences and risks of this data gap for labor and development planning are enormous. Egypt’s limited budget resources for labor training and skills upgrading may be misallocated to sectors whose labor needs are well met, while capital investments may suffer from delays in implementation or diminished productivity due to critical labor shortages in other sectors. Such shortages have indeed affected Egypt’s agricultural, construction, and specific industrial sectors. The real and supposed costs of Egyptian emigration are still politically sensitive issues in Egypt, which explains the Mubarak administration’s continued reticence on the subject.

Published estimates and regional distributions of Egypt’s emigrant population and labor force are tentative at best. Now considerably outdated, the 1978 International Labor Organization figures nevertheless identify the direction and magnitudes of the Egyptian labor streams as well as their composition. Libya and Saudi Arabia absorbed three quarters of Egypt’s emigrant population in the Arab states, then totaling some 600,000 persons. The sex ratios and crude activity rates (working Egyptians/total resident Egyptians) reveal that this emigrant population was largely composed of single males or married couples in which both spouses were employed, usually as professionals. Unaccompanied females, single or married, are generally prohibited from entering other Arab countries for employment. The official government estimate of its entire emigrant population, distributed globally, was 1,425,000 in 1976. This figure, however, was only the shortfall between the number of Egyptians actually counted in the 1976 census and those expected on the basis of demographic projections, themselves later revised. [5]

Subsequent migrations and the projected labor needs of Arab development programs point to substantial increases in the number of Egyptians in recent years working throughout the region. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Iraq have greatly augmented their stocks of Egyptian labor since the late 1970s. Egyptian workers have also moved to other labor-exporting countries—notably Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Sudan—replacing their nationals who have departed for higher salaries in the Gulf. Absolute figures are unavailable, but many observers now place the total expatriate population of Egypt at between 2 and 2.2 million persons. Of these, probably 1.2 to 1.4 million are in the Middle East.

Of this total expatriate population of more than 2 million, what are the net losses to Egypt’s active labor force? Perhaps as many as 1.6 million professionals and workers, assuming a crude activity rate of 0.75. This ratio, higher than that given in Table I, reflects growing sensitivities in Arab capitals to the size and permanency of their non-national populations. Entry restrictions on dependents who accompany working migrants and growing preferences for bachelors, as specified in job advertisements, have surely raised this activity ratio. If this estimate of 1.6 million persons is correct, then approximately 11.5 percent of Egypt’s total labor force is now working abroad, as compared with an estimated 5 percent in 1976. [6] Such a percentage places Egypt historically alongside Turkey, Yugoslavia and Portugal, who were exporting roughly equivalent proportions of their labor forces to western Europe by the early 1970s.

Sectoral Gains and Losses

These gross figures reveal nothing of the distribution of skills and education among this emigrant population, nor of the real impact of their absence for Egypt’s own economic and social development. Highly educated professionals (doctors, teachers and engineers) have long comprised a disproportionately large number of Egypt’s emigrants. This characteristic is shared by nearly all the labor exporters of the region, including the Palestinians, and corroborated by the historical experiences of many developing nations. This has meant that more than 30,000 Egyptian teachers, 1 in 7, held positions abroad in 1978. [7] Most of these are officially seconded by the ministry of education under formal agreements signed with the Arab governments that receive them. Critics decry the depletion of university faculties and, inter alia, educational standards; proponents of liberal migration policies point to their previous under-utilization. The last five-year plan, meanwhile, has forecast 327,200 additional university graduates between 1978 and 1982 seeking their careers in the Egyptian labor market. [8]

The greatest migration, though, has not been among professionals. The construction and maintenance of vast infrastructure projects in the capital-rich Arab countries have required armies of skilled technicians, semi-skilled machine operators, and unskilled laborers. In 1980, 44 percent of all those Egyptians who received their residence permits for first-time employment in Kuwait were accepting work in the construction sector. [9] The pattern in Libya, Saudi Arabia and among Kuwait’s Gulf neighbors has been similar. The result has been a dramatic increase in construction wages at home, coupled with a rapid turnover in the ranks of Egypt’s construction labor. Large numbers of farmers and agricultural laborers, many of whom were previously underemployed, have either moved directly to construction sites abroad or done so after gaining some experience, capital and contacts on domestic building projects. Local labor contractors in Egypt are responsible for only some of the recruitment for construction positions abroad.

Prior to 1973, Egypt’s own construction sector was itself moribund. Less than 200,000 were employed in construction in 1971. Egypt itself experienced a boom in domestic building after 1973 and this, along with the emigration, account for shortages that have appeared in specific skill categories. Traditional channels of skill formation—apprentices learning through prolonged on-the-job experience—were woefully inadequate to meet this escalating demand. Increased Egyptian government investments, foreign aid projects, private development capital in real estate (principally Arab and Egyptian), and considerable home-building generated by workers’ remittances all contributed to the problem. Quality and punctuality diminished only somewhat—a tribute, in part, to learning abilities and the success of training centers established by the public and private sectors. Equally significant is the widespread introduction of new building technologies and the substitution of capital for labor by private contractors at home. The sight of streams of unskilled laborers carrying headpans of concrete along hand-tied, wooden scaffolding, common to construction sites here only a few years ago, is much rarer today.

Large and expanding numbers of Egyptian expatriates also found work in general and social services, financing, consumer services and wholesale/retail trades. As present construction projects run their course and the basic infrastructural designs of the capital-rich Arab states near fulfillment, the broad services sector in the Gulf will most likely increase its present share of Egypt’s emigrant labor. The ever growing demand there for consumer commodities and services, augmented by the service and intermediate/capital goods requirements of new industries, will insure steady growth in this area for several years to come. These trends, coupled with the private sector’s domination of services and trade, are most significant for the future of Egyptian labor emigration.

Egypt has the most broadly developed and skilled industrial workforce of any Arab country, so it is not surprising that a large proportion of Egyptian emigrants find employment in manufacturing activities. If Kuwait’s experience is any indication of trends among the other Arab labor importers, then the manufacturing sector is the third largest employer of Egypt’s expatriates, behind construction and consumer trade services respectively. It is Egypt’s smaller private industries, and not its established public enterprises, that have been most affected by the departure of skilled and semi-skilled production workers. The reason for this lies not in wage differences—indeed, private employers often pay higher wages than their local, public sector counterparts. In part, it stems from the security consciousness of most production employees. Public enterprises offer job security, pensions and accident/illness benefits to employees and their families unmatched by most private manufacturers. Production workers I interviewed in a major public-sector industry in Egypt expressed this consideration to be a high priority in their evaluation of alternative employment and emigration. These workers know that most private enterprises in Egypt are still small-scale, family businesses that only rent their workspaces and lay off employees in close response to production needs; their concern for security is understandable. In order to protect their own productivity levels, many public enterprises have drawn up regulations prohibiting the rehire of any production workers who resign or leave. Those contemplating a sojourn of several years abroad risk being unable to return to their former jobs. This may be only a slight deterrent to workers in Cairo or Alexandria, where other opportunities may be available, but it is a serious consideration in provincial cities and rurally based industries where the alternatives are few.

Constraints Limited

No such restriction applies to non-production and management employees. Unpaid leaves of absence, renewable for up to four years with guaranteed rehire and retention of seniority and pension benefits, provide a strong incentive for temporary emigration. Such liberal policies reflect the considerable overstaffing that exists for these employment categories in many public enterprises, a legacy of government employment guarantees formerly given to army conscripts and still offered to university graduates. These employees are easy to replace and have minimal training requirements (beyond formal education certificates for management personnel). These positions also pay considerably less than production jobs, which helps explain the willingness of such employees to depart. Factory productivity suffers not at all, and assertions of the supposed occupational immobility of Egypt’s public-sector employees do not correspond with the reality. [10]

Certain private-sector Egyptian industries have not been so fortunate. Particularly hard hit have been the woodworking and furniture manufacturers, characteristically very small establishments. Calling it a “dangerous phenomenon,” the Chamber of Woodworking Industries of the Federation of Egyptian Industries repeatedly emphasized the unavailability of trained manpower by the mid-1970s and attributed the shortage to emigration. A delegation for this chamber, largely composed of artisanal producers and skilled workers, gave “eyewitness” accounts of more than 40,000 workers in the woodworking trades “in some Arab states” that it toured in early 1976. [11] A separate poll of 25 furniture producers in Cairo and Alexandria in 1979 revealed that their aggregate employment was half the level of five years earlier. [12] Similar shortages were not mentioned in the annual reports of the other industrial chambers with large private-sector participation, such as leather and shoe products or metalworking and engineering. Undoubtedly, many junior craftsmen and artisans in the woodworking industries have sought employment in other Arab countries as a shortcut to the capital accumulation necessary to establish their own workshops in Egypt. The resultant labor and production constraints to public and even private manufacturers in Egypt are thus temporary and limited.

Foreign governments have sought significant numbers of Egyptian farmers to replace their own nationals on state farms depleted by rural-urban migration. One arrangement, drawn up between Egyptian and Iraqi ministries after 1975, has sent many hundreds of fellahin to the southern, irrigated reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Numerous others have brought their experience to land reclamation projects in Libya, Kuwait and elsewhere.

As in the case of emigration to construction projects abroad, farmers and other rural Egyptians are departing directly from fields and villages in large numbers. Instances of rural migrants first crowding into urban areas and then abroad are insignificant in comparison with direct emigration. For those lacking a contract, illegal entry into Saudi Arabia for work purposes is common enough. The pretext of performing al-hajj or al-‘umra suffices to get one to Jidda and beyond. Contacts with friends and relatives already there usually lead to informal employment and, with luck, a later contract. In one recent village study of 100 returned Egyptian emigrants, 74 of them had illegally entered Saudi Arabia for work under such a guise. [13] Clandestine emigration across the desert to Libya had been common until deteriorating political relations and increased military presence along both sides of the border after the mid-1970s made this less feasible.

Certainly the emigration of thousands of Egyptian small farmers and landless agricultural laborers has left its mark upon rural society and the agricultural economy, although the nature and degree of this impact remains less clear. Agricultural wages have risen considerably given reduced labor supplies, and prima facie evidence points to the greater participation of women and children in farming tasks formerly the domain of men alone. One study estimates that total employment in agriculture has declined in Egypt by 10.5 percent between 1971 and 1979. [14] There is little evidence, however, that agricultural production has suffered, due in part to increased work by other family members and partly to pre-existing underemployment in the sector. Remittances invested in tractors and irrigation pumps have, moreover, reduced the labor requirements on many farms. The summary implications of this for Egypt’s rural poor are correspondingly uncertain. Some have undoubtedly benefited from higher day wages in agriculture and/or construction, but demand for their labor may also be down. Any generalization is risky: shortages in labor on the one hand and opportunities on the other seem to be highly localized phenomena. More certain is that few of the rural poor have enriched themselves personally through emigration. Initial expenses of some 500 pounds ($600) for visas, contract and transportation are out of the reach of those who would benefit most.

Farm emigration has, most interestingly, led to a significant tightening of the cultivable land market in Egypt, both in sales and rentals. Remittances from expatriate small-holders are frequently used to pay off debts and provide a cash reserve for large and inopportune expenses, such as weddings, animal (water buffalo) replacement, home construction, medical costs and so forth. As a consequence, formerly unavoidable forced sales of land parcels have now been markedly reduced. Family cooperation, moreover, often ensures the continued farming of existing holdings, so the land rentals of departing fellahin have also diminished. Remaining large and small farmers are thus left to lament the loss of traditional opportunities for expanding their own farm operations through lease and purchase. As a result, even very small holdings, often fractions of an acre, have remained viable not as miniature agribusinesses but in supplying much of the basic food needs of their owners. This observation is significant for economic analyses that summarily equate small holdings with rural impoverishment. It is also noteworthy that rural emigrants overwhelmingly return to their rural origins, and not to the major urban centers of Egypt.

Finally, unknown numbers of Egyptian emigrants are known to have found their way voluntarily and, in some cases, forcibly into the armed forces of their host countries. Non-nationals comprise a significant proportion of military enlistments in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, although secrecy again cloaks the numbers. There have been widespread rumors for some years that young Egyptian arrivals were occasionally dragooned into Libya’s perennially shorthanded army. Many young men explained their unwillingness to seek work in Libya in light of this possibility. News that scores of Sudanese emigrants who had been drummed into Qaddafi’s invasion forces had eagerly surrendered to Chadian troops last summer corroborated these fears. [15] Rumors now circulate in the foreign press of thousands of similarly forced Egyptian enlistments into Iraq’s combat forces, but this seems far less likely. Iraq has a much larger male population of its own upon which to draw. More importantly, it is unlikely to jeopardize its political rapprochement with and vital military assistance from Egypt by press-ganging hundreds of emigrants into the battle lines, It is more likely that some are serving in rear logistical and supply units.

No Gold Rush

Critics here have often caricatured the remittances sent and salaries brought back by Egyptian emigrants in the Gulf in metaphors more appropriate to the Klondike gold rush. Even serious analysts speak of returnees “laden with money,” having “made it” and spending it lavishly on “dazzling” arrays of conspicuous consumer items. The critics’ fingers, however, are usually pointed within their own narrow reference group—such as university professors—for such behavior does not characterize the more limited savings and hard-headed expenditures of the vast majority of Egypt’s returning workers.

Among these returnees, home improvements and the modest acquisition of durable goods, such as fans, carpets and refrigerators, are the rule. Some contribute so that they or a parent may perform al-hajj once in their lifetime; others set aside savings for their children’s education. For many, these savings and prudent investments are regarded as old-age security and pension funds. Farmers clear outstanding debts and forestall sales of their productive assets.

This is not to belittle the social costs of arrogant consumption by Egypt’s elite returnees, but to appreciate the diversion of remittances into productive enterprises. Emigrants abroad and returnees show a keen eye for local investment opportunities, as the growing numbers of private transportation vehicles, tractors and poultry operations evidence. There are instances of individual villagers risking equity capital in joint productive investments with their village councils. Aggregate statistics reveal substantial participation by Egyptian investors in private manufacturing and real estate developments at home. A substantial portion of this capital is generally assumed to come from remittances. In hopes of attracting its share of these monetary transfers, Bank Misr announced in September 1983 the formation of an investment and development company, 51 percent of its authorized capital of 100 million pounds ($82 million) reserved for emigrant Egyptians and returnees. Tender offers for shares in other investment projects grow more numerous in the daily newspapers. While no one has compiled a detailed analysis of the role of remittances in Egypt’s current development, there is mounting evidence that this positive impact is considerable.

The Opposition Stays Home

Hopeful commentators had seen Egyptian emigration as a “safety valve” for the domestic pressures of rising unemployment as well as political unrest. Some suggested wishfully that “the migration of potentially dissatisfied elements might have greater than proportional benefits for domestic stability.” [16] The pervasive public malaise and strident political opposition of 1981, culminating in President Sadat’s assassination, put such notions to rest.

Ironically, it appears that labor migration from Egypt has taken away many more supporters of government policies than opponents. This is especially true with respect to adherents of Islamic fundamentalist philosophies. Labor migration is a selective social process, appealing predominately to those with social and material aspirations for whom the rewards of greater income offer fulfillment and security. Persons not aspiring to such ends are less inclined to go. The rejection of materialist consumption and moderation of personal desires are central tenets of fundamentalist social philosophies; it is most unlikely that they would choose to leave. Moreover, such activist groups in the vanguard of social change disdainfully regard emigration as a selfish opting out of the domestic political arena. No self-respecting sympathizer would seek such an escape from his political responsibilities at home, and none I have known has ever desired to.

There is no indication that implicit government encouragement of Egyptian emigration has either enhanced its public support or drawn popular criticism. The alarm and counterarguments voiced by intellectual critics have more ideological than empirical origins. The public consensus is neutral. Emigration is seen as a private decision arrived at through familial evaluations of their own needs, desires and strategies. “Looking into Egypt in 1980,” wrote two Egyptian economists, “the international migration process appears to have been not only accepted, but more importantly internalized by many Egyptian families.” [17] For every family that has one or more members temporarily abroad, there are many more that have considered it and wish for the opportunity. [18]

Finally, the lesson of recent years is that regional politics and migration patterns are not nearly as “inextricably intertwined” as some have concluded. [19] Despite their vehement rejection of Egypt’s separate peace with Israel, Arab states have sought neither to bar Egyptian workers from their labor forces nor to hold those resident as political hostages. This may have represented an effort on their part to isolate President Sadat diplomatically from the Egyptian public, as pronouncements from the Gulf states then indicated. Popular Egyptian opinion saw it differently: The small Arab states were as dependent now on Egyptian labor as they had been on its military might in past confrontations with Israel. Then again, neither did Sadat risk the political embarrassment entailed in calling his countrymen home from these states. Many suspect that had he done so, few would have heeded his summons. [20] Nevertheless, the doomsday specter of a forced, sudden repatriation of hundreds of thousands of expatriates continues to haunt Western discussions of Egyptian emigration. [21]

Future Prospects

Accurate projections of the size, composition and distribution of Egypt’s expatriate labor force among the capital-rich Arab states are fraught with quantitative unknowns and short-lived assumptions. Assertions of the “natural complementary relationship” between and interlinking of the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian labor markets, for instance, may reflect more nationalist optimism than detached analysis. [22] Several Egyptian writers have expressed concern recently at the increasing numbers of South Asians and Southeast Asians (South Koreans and Filipinos) now in the Gulf states. They fear the possible “de-Arabization” of the Gulf and, more specifically, direct competition with Egyptian emigrant labor. This concern is only partly justified. South Asian labor (principally Pakistanis, Indians, Baluchis, Iranians and Bangladeshis) has been present in significant numbers in the border states of the Gulf for several decades. In countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, their cumulative numbers are far greater than those of Egyptians, whom they long preceded. In the 1975 Kuwaiti census, for example, when Egyptians comprised 6.1 percent of its population, South Asians were some 10.2 percent. The rapidly increasing numbers of migrant Asians reflects not only the sensitivities of host governments to the possibility of labor force domination by any single nationality, and Egyptians most particularly, but also the adroit organization and operation of South Asian labor agencies. These large agencies, linking urban centers on the Indian subcontinent with headquarters in the Gulf, suffer no comparable Arab or Egyptian competition.

The recent appearance of thousands of migrant laborers from South Korea and the Philippines in the labor markets of the Gulf is an altogether different phenomenon. These arrivals are indeed found in that same economic sector as many Egyptians—construction. Their competitive success is due, in part, to their willingness to remain isolated from local population centers in distant construction enclaves and then to depart punctually at the project’s completion. Their presence is principally due not to their social behavior but to the technologies they are capable of providing in project bids. Egyptian contractors cannot now compete with the technological application and experience in capital-intensive industries commanded by their South Korean counterparts and sought by Arab clients. Large turnkey projects won by South Korean contractors, such as the Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard $340 million dry dock, completed in 1977, lie outside Egyptian construction capabilities. The new glass and steel offices of the Egypt Arab African Bank in central Cairo, built by a South Korean contractor, brought this lesson home clearly. The notion that Egypt is an essential mediator in the transfer of technology between the West and the other Arab states could not be farther from the truth. [23]

There is, of course, considerable construction demand in these states which will continue to utilize Egyptians, though at reduced levels, in the years ahead. In other economic sectors, non-Arab labor presents far less a threat to the large numbers of Egyptian skilled workers and professionals. In government ministries this is particularly so: There are, for example, two and one-half times as many Egyptians employed by the Kuwaiti government as there are non-Arabs combined.

The development of the wholesale/retail trades and consumer/industrial services holds the greatest medium-term potential for Egyptian expatriate labor. Such occupations place a premium upon Arabic as the native tongue, and numerous job advertisements specify Egyptian nationality. Egyptians received 28 percent of all the private-sector residence permits issued for first time work in the Kuwaiti wholesale/retail trade, restaurants and hotel sector in both 1979 and 1980. [24] The accelerated expansion of employment in Saudi Arabia’s large services sector, also believed to be dominated by Egyptians, augurs well for continued emigration to that country. While Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian nationals appear to be replacing expatriates quickly in clerical and middle-level management positions, it seems certain that the growing numbers of services and trade establishments will continue to require substantial immigrant labor.

Certain indicators point to moderately lower levels of expatriate labor as a whole. The continuous replacement of returnees will permit the direct participation abroad of millions of Egyptians, but there are signs that host governments may seek to reduce the turnover of expatriate labor in sectors such as manufacturing where retraining is costly and burdensome. Many skilled expatriates and professionals will, in time, undoubtedly be granted naturalization. Kuwaiti statistics again show this trend: 8,930 were granted Kuwaiti citizenship in 1976 versus 4,662 in 1971. [25] This practice is likely to continue in those Arab states for expatriates who have been resident for many years already. The need for Egyptian emigrants will then decline markedly, but not in the immediate future.


[1] Mahmoud Abdel Fadil, al-Naft wa al-Wihda al-‘Arabiyya (Oil and Arab Unity), Beirut, 1979, p. 51, as quoted in Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Oil, Migration and the New Arab Social Order,” in Malcolm Kerr and El-Sayyed Yassin, eds., Rich and Poor States in the Middle East: Egypt and the New Arab Order (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), p. 39.
[2] The perspective of mass participation taken here is itself a departure from previous studies which have emphasized the emigration of Egypt’s professional elite. See, for example, Ibrahim, op. cit.; Suzanne Messiha, Export of Egyptian School Teachers, Cairo Papers in Social Science 3/4 (April 1980); Amr Mohie-Eldin and Ahmad Omar, The Emigration of Universities’ Academic Staff (Cairo: Cairo University-MIT Technology Adaptation Project, 1980).
[3] J. S. Birks and C. A. Sinclair, Nature and Process of Labour Importing: The Arabian Gulf States of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Working Paper, Migration for Employment Project (Geneva: International Labor Office, August 1978), p. 73, Table 47.
[4] These and other Kuwaiti statistics are derived from the 1977 and 1981 Annual Statistical Abstracts of the Central Statistical Office, Ministry of Planning, Kuwait.
[5] Interview by Georges Sabagh, UCLA, with the late Gen. Gamal ‘Askar, then Director of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, January 1980.
[6] J. S. Birks and C. A. Sinclair, Human Capital on the Nile: Development of Emigration in the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Sudan, Working Paper, Migration for Employment Project (Geneva: International Labor Office, May 1978), p. 12.
[7] Ibid., p. 22.
[8] Ibid., p. 10.
[9] Kuwait, 1981, p. 150, Table 153.
[10] J. S. Birks and C. A. Sinclair, International Migration and Development in the Arab Region (Geneva: International Labor Office, 1980), p. 94.
[11] Federation of Egyptian Industries, 1976 Yearbook, Reports of the International Chambers, p. 48.
[12] Donald C. Mead, “Small Industries in Egypt: An Exploration of the Economics of Small Furniture Producers,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 14 (1982), p. 164.
[13] Fatma Aly Khafagy, “Socioeconomic Impact of Emigration from El-Quebabat Village,” Dirasat Sukkaniyya 61 (April-June 1982), p. 42.
[14] Bent Hansen and Samir Radwan, “Employment Planning in Egypt: An Insurance Policy for the Future,” International Labor Review 121/5 (September-October 1982), p. 538, Table 1.
[15] Le Monde, August 21, 1983.
[16] Nazli Choucri, “The New Migration in the Middle East: A Problem for Whom?” International Migration Review 11/4 (1981), p. 432.
[17] Naiem A. Sherbiny and Ismail Serageldin, “Expatriate Labor and Economic Growth: Saudi Demand for Egyptian Labor,” in Kerr and Yassin, p. 252.
[18] That labor emigration is a strategy of familial consideration for the vast majority of participants and not an individual decision is most significant for analyses of its dynamics and consequences. Further discussion, however, is outside the scope of this report.
[19] Choucri, p. 425.
[20] Ibrahim, p. 64.
[21] See, for example, Hansen and Radwan, p. 541.
[22] Sherbiny and Serageldin, p. 225.
[23] Choucri, p. 424.
[24] Kuwait, 1981, p. 150, Table 153.
[25] Kuwait, 1977, p. 62, Table 54.

How to cite this article:

Robert LaTowsky "Egyptian Labor Abroad," Middle East Report 123 (May 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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