Although the history of Middle Eastern labor migration to North America is not as well known as that of Irish and Southern European immigrants, Yemenis were working in Detroit by the 1920s and Palestinian and Lebanese diasporas existed around the globe before the end of the nineteenth century. North Africans were migrating to France by the thousands during World War I, and by the tens of thousands after World War II. Yet it was not until the 1970s, with the advent of the Middle East oil boom, that rates of inter-Arab and Asian-Gulf migration took off. The new requirements for labor as well as the vast differences in wealth between sending and receiving countries fueled the process. Male workers from Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia headed to Libya. Others from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Yemen sought their fortunes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Migrant workers, mainly from the greater Indian subcontinent, competed for menial jobs in the Gulf.

By the late 1980s, oil prices had dropped significantly and many development projects had either been completed or were being scratched. Soon thereafter the Soviet Union collapsed and the Gulf War broke out.

Two interesting trends emerged as a result of these historic developments during the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely, women’s increasing participation in migration and the widespread adoption of replacement migration, i.e., the wholesale replacement of one national group of workers with another. These two trends proceeded apace during the 1990s — so much so that they came to mark the decade. Let us examine each of them in turn.

Feminization of Middle Eastern Migration

From the bars of Beirut to the hotels of Hammamet; from the cabarets of Cairo to the escort services of Eilat, Eastern European and ex-Soviet women are everywhere. Not so long ago “male” and “migrant” were practically synonymous in the Middle East and North Africa. That is no longer the case.

The economic devastation that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc affected women disproportionately. In 1991 alone, 80 percent of those who lost their jobs in the former Soviet Union were women. [1] Hundreds of thousands have since attempted to escape these dire economic straits by whatever means necessary. Many decided to try their luck as mail-order brides, exotic dancers or cocktail waitresses in Western Europe or East Asia. [2] Others were smuggled into the Middle East by the Russian mob or other unsavory traffickers. Wherever they went and however they got there, an alarmingly large number ended up as sex workers (widely nicknamed “Natashas”), living under conditions of indentured servitude. [3]

The flood of Soviet “Natashas” into the sex trafficking networks of the Middle East represents the most mediagenic form of the feminization of migration in the region. It is not the only form. Just as alarming has been a rise in the importation and exploitation of Asian female domestic workers in Lebanon and the Gulf. Upwards of 170,000 Sri Lankan women work as maids in Lebanon alone. As the authors of one study in Beirut noted: “Many families, even those with modest incomes (teachers, tradesmen, etc.), have ‘their’ Sri Lankan. It is considered good form to have a servant at home.” [4]

Not all foreign servants suffer at the hands of their bosses. But when employers do turn hostile, maids from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Bangladesh find themselves with little recourse but to hide with friends or flee to their home embassies. The maids’ passports are often confiscated upon arrival; their legal status is practically nil; few if any labor laws apply to their situation. The agencies that recruited them have a financial stake in seeing that they stay put on the job. Thus, their only protection from overwork, sexual abuse and non-payment of wages is the benevolence of their employers.

Publicity back home surrounding just such abuse of Filipina maids in the Gulf and Hong Kong led to a ban on Filipina emigration to the region in 1995 (which was later rescinded). In August 1996, the Filipina maid Sarah Balabagan returned home to a hero’s welcome after spending two years in a UAE jail. She received international attention after allegedly murdering her abusive octogenarian employer in self-defense. [5]

The migration of Asian maids into the Middle East appears to be producing mixed results back home. Granted, the monetarization of their contributions to the household economy gives many of the female migrants a greater say in spending decisions. In the case of Sri Lanka, there is even some evidence to suggest that the dowry system may be weakening. Women there are less likely to be considered a drain on resources in the wake of the exodus to the Gulf and the resulting remittance income. On the other hand, working at jobs considered low-grade while separated from children for years on end takes its toll. As one important study stated, “a substantial number of the maids return home more exhausted than liberated. Maltreatment, hard work and loneliness do not easily promote increased self-esteem and assertiveness.” [6]

The feminization of migration applies equally to emigration from, as well as immigration to, the Middle East. This is particularly true of emigration to Europe, given that Turkish and North African women comprise an ever larger proportion of the immigrant population. The closing of European borders to legal south-to-north movement in the mid-1970s brought to a close the heyday of male-dominated migration. From that time on women migrants began to gain ground. Family reunification and the tendency for men to be over represented among returning migrants increased the ratio of women to men. In Germany alone women went from comprising 34 percent to 46 percent of the Turkish immigrant population between 1973 and 1989. [7]

The movement of Middle Eastern and North African women into Europe, like that of Asian maids into the Gulf, has also produced mixed results. Consider the case of Morocco. On the one hand, exposure of ever greater numbers of Moroccan men and women to European nuclear family structure and cultural norms is credited — at least in part — with contributing to increased education among Moroccan girls and a decline in Moroccan fertility rates. [8] On the other hand, Moroccan women in Holland have suffered from higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts during the most recent recession. Various forms of racial discrimination have also been instituted since the 1980s to keep Moroccans and other minority immigrants from “competing” for good jobs with their Dutch colleagues. [9]

The problem is not confined to the Netherlands. Moroccan women ranked behind only Dominican, Russian and Brazilian women in the numbers of Swiss “dancer” (nude dancers employed in stripper bars) visas awarded in 1994. [10] Further anecdotal evidence of the hazards of female migration comes from Italy. There, most of the 130,000 Moroccans in the country ply their wares as informal sector itinerant traders. Unfortunately, many Moroccan women have also been trapped into plying their wares in the sex trade, lured into indentured servitude with false promises of jobs as cleaners or maids. [11]

Wherever they come from and wherever they end up, female migrants are even more vulnerable than their male counterparts. All of the usual swindles and forms of corruption are visited on both equally. However, the female migrants must also run the patriarchal gauntlet. They can never be sure that their male employers will not sexually abuse them; they have no guarantees that their employment agencies will not force them into the sex trade. Most appallingly, they can never be sure that they will not literally be sold to the highest bidder, whether on the streets of Beirut or on the boulevards of Tel Aviv.

Replacement Migration in the 1990s

Labor migration in the Middle East during the 1990s was marked most emphatically by the mad scramble of replacement migration. The reasons for the emergence of this trend differed from regime to regime, but usually stemmed from a general unease about foreign laborers’ growing sense of entitlement, particularly Arab-origin immigrant laborers. This was especially true for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (the other GCC nations had always preferred Asian labor). Arab laborers tended to enjoy higher wages than Asian laborers, while also increasing social costs by bringing along their families, unlike Asian laborers who tended to migrate alone. [12]

The trend towards replacement intensified early in the decade following the 1990-1991 Gulf war. Kuwait set out to exchange its now suspect Palestinian population for Egyptian and Asian laborers.

The exodus from Kuwait of approximately 350,000 Palestinians and Jordanians and 110,000 Syrians — socially and economically disruptive though that was — paled in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s repatriation of as many as 800,000 Yemenis. Ostensibly, the Saudi regime claimed to be punishing the Yemenis for their government’s official neutrality during the Gulf war. In fact, the Saudis had grown uncomfortable with the too cozy, proprietary relationship between many Saudi employers and their Yemeni work force. The recent unification of the two Yemens also left Riyadh uncertain about its continuing influence over the new nation. Equally suspect were the political attitudes of the now unified Yemeni laborers. So in the fall of 1990, under cover of the looming crisis in the Gulf, Riyadh pulled the plug on Yemeni labor migration in order to emphasize the kingdom’s independence from reliance upon any one labor source, while also reasserting their influence over affairs in Yemen. [13]

The next important example of the trend toward replacement labor was Israel’s decision in 1993 to punish the West Bank and Gazan Palestinians by finding a substitute for Palestinian labor from the Occupied Territories. By 1996, the number of foreign workers in Israel reached 300,000, mainly from Thailand, China, Romania and Bulgaria. As many as 100,000 foreigners are thought to be working in Israel without a permit. In contrast, the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel in 1996 dropped to a record low of 40,000, down from a peak of 180,000 in 1989. [14]

It was Libya’s turn next. In the fall of 1995, Muammar al-Qaddafi claimed to be protesting the Oslo peace accords when he announced the expulsion of 30,000 Palestinians. More likely he was responding to the fact that there were between 1-2 million foreigners in Libya (compared to just 5 million Libyans), even though unemployment among Libyan nationals hovered around 30 percent. Riots in Benghazi prior to the deportation orders undoubtedly piqued the sense of urgency. Qaddafi is also reported to have hoped to use the necessity of flying all of the deportees home as a way to begin breaking the UN embargo on flights into or out of the country.

Palestinians were not the only foreigners deported from Libya in 1995. Tens of thousands of Egyptians, Mauritanians and especially Sudanese workers were also expelled. Iraqis recruited expressly for the purpose replaced the 8,000 or so Palestinians who had been teachers. Ironically, the resulting skilled manpower shortages in the wake of the expulsions grew so acute that by early 1997, the government in Tripoli was placing ads in Cairo newspapers offering any qualified Arab the opportunity to settle permanently in Libya. [15] By mid-decade the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations had become the biggest proponents of replacement migration. Clumsy neologisms to describe the process of nationalization began popping up in reports from around the region: Saudi-ization, Omanization, Kuwaitization — even Iranization — appeared in the literature.

The GCC countries spent the second half of the 1990s experimenting with a policy “cocktail” of two parts repression to one part incentive in order to decrease the foreign population and increase the percentage of their nationals in the labor force. [16] Employers of illegal foreigners in Saudi Arabia were themselves threatened with a $13 a day fine and up to three months in jail (this was raised to six months in 1998). In October 1996, Riyadh barred (with several job category exceptions) foreign laborers from driving or owning cars. The next year they refused to renew foreign work permits for a variety of occupations, ranging from the banking to the agricultural sectors. In 1997 a Kuwaiti government report advocated that all foreign workers start paying for their own health care costs. [17]

Raising visa costs and restricting the importation of dependents represent two other means of discouraging the flow of foreigners to the Gulf. Bahrain vowed in 1996 to hike work permit fees for foreigners in order to raise money for job training for Bahraini nationals. The tactic is used in Jordan as well, where between 15-30 percent unemployment among Jordanians in 1996 led to a hike in the price of foreign work permits. Kuwait instituted a tax of $200 per foreign dependent brought in, while also raising the minimum age of foreign workers from 18 to 21. [18]

The incentive side of the coin in the Gulf entails the periodic granting of amnesty to foreign workers with irregular papers. They are allowed to stay if they can regularize their status; but if they cannot, they may still leave by an appointed date without incurring fines or jail time. Saudi Arabia experimented with a free-departure amnesty in 1997. Approximately 400,000 of the 700,000 illegal foreigners reportedly left the country. Another 167,000 foreigners got their papers back in order. [19]

Despite the various initiatives aimed at making inroads into reducing the number of foreigners in the Gulf, the prospects for nationalization of the region’s labor force appear slim indeed. In 1997 in Kuwait, foreigners held 99 percent of the private sector jobs and 42 percent of the public sector ones. Kuwaiti ratios are not out of line with the Gulf region as a whole. As one report put it, “There are more than 7 million foreigners among the GCC’s 10 million laborers, and foreigners make up 90 percent of the work force in the UAE, 83 percent in Qatar, 82 percent in Kuwait, 69 percent in Saudi Arabia, and around 60 percent in Bahrain and Oman.” [20]

The Gulf states’ desire to decrease dependence on immigrant labor stems from several factors: the long downturn in petroleum prices, irritation at the growing costs associated with provisioning immigrants, the unsettling imbalance between a public sector bulging with nationals and a private sector dominated by foreign labor and last, but not least, the growing concern over maintaining social stability and labor docility. Together, these factors have led the GCC regimes to attempt to nationalize their labor forces more completely.

As of this writing, the implementation of the replacement labor schemes has stalled. Nationals refuse to take lower paying jobs in the private sector and continue to demand their right to public employment. But as mentioned above, such sectoral imbalances are only one of the factors driving nationalization schemes. The programs might be judged more successful if viewed in terms of their role in maintaining social stability and labor docility. The GCC regimes have pulled the rug out from underneath the foreign labor force — at least for the immediate future. Although they have not gone so far as to criminalize migration outright, they have definitely made it clear that they will only tolerate a disciplined, docile and “surveillable” body of foreign workers. Previous claims that Arab-origin foreign workers could once make to better treatment and priority hiring were blown away by the Gulf war. The sense of a shared “Arabness,” engendered by the cross-border movement of millions of Arab migrants, no longer holds the same promise of transcending national divisions. [21] Today Arab immigrants are obliged to think of themselves as no better off than the tens of thousands of Indians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians and Filipinos in the Gulf. From now on, they are all interchangeable, temporary workers with little in the way of rights to be demanded from the host nations.


[1] New York Times, January 11, 1998.
[2] There are about 100 professional Russian belly dancers in Cairo, and they are threatening to displace Egyptians because, as non-Muslims, they can dance with fewer clothes. Also, most have been trained in dance. Most of the Russians signed six-month contracts with Moscow agencies for fees that may be only half what Egyptian dancers earn. Migration News 2/7 (July 1995).
[3] The Israeli case is probably the best documented in the region, thanks to the efforts of the Israel Women’s Network. See especially Martina Vandenberg. Trafficking of Women to Israel and Forced Prostitution (Jerusalem: The Israel Women’s Network, 1997).
[4] Marie Odile and Xavier Favre. “Invisible But Real; The Beirut Slave Trade,” Le Monde Diplomatique (June 1998). The emigration of Sri Lankan women started on a large scale after 1977. The literature on Asian-female migration to the Middle East is considerable. See, for instance, Michele Beasley et al, “Punishing the Victim: Rape and Mistreatment of Asian Maids in Kuwait,” Middle East Watch/Women’s Rights Project 4 (August 1992); Grace Pundyk, “Run for Your Life,” The New Internationalist (May 1998); Lina Bou Habib, “The Use and Abuse of Female Domestic Workers from Sri Lanka in Lebanon,” Gender and Development 6/1 (March 1998); Grete Brochmann, Middle East Avenue: Female Migration from Sri Lanka to the Gulf (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).
[5] The UAE court spared her life in exchange for 100 lashes and $40,000 in blood money, so that “Balabagan is now a millionaire, having received more than a million pesos from a French non-government group called the Save Sarah Balabagan Movement. A German movie company has offered her $5 million for the rights to her story.” Migration News 3/9 (September 1996).
[6] Brochmann, op cit., p. 164.
[7] Hania Zlotnik, “The South-to-North Migration of Women,” International Migration Review 29/1 (Spring 1995).
[8] Youssef Courbage, “Demographic Transition Among the Maghreb Peoples of North Africa and in the Emigrant Community Abroad,” in Peter Ludlow, ed., Europe and the Mediterranean (London: Brassey’s, 1994).
[9] Helma Lutz, “Migrant Women, Racism and the Dutch Labour Market,” in John Wrench and John Solomos, eds., Racism and Migration in Western Europe (Oxford: Berg 1993).
[10] Migration Information Programme, Trafficking and Prostitution: The Growing Exploitation of Migrant Women from Central and Eastern Europe (Budapest: International Organization for Migration, 1995).
[11] The figure comes from Mostafa Kharoufi, “Effets de l’émigration vers l’Italie des Beni Meskine (Maroc occidental),” in Benchérifa et al eds., Migration internationale at changements sociaux dans le Maghreb (Tunis: Université de Tunis, 1997). The author described the fate of the women during the public presentation of the paper cited above.
[12] Seteney Shami, “Emigration Dynamics in Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon,” paper presented to the IOM/UNFPA Policy Workshop on Emigration Dynamics in the Arab Region, October 7-8, 1996, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 17.
[13] Gwenn Okruhlik and Patrick Conge, “National Autonomy, Labor Migration and Political Crisis: Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Journal 51/4 (Autumn 1997).
[14] “Israel Replaces Palestinians with Guest Workers,” Migration News 1/11 (November 1994).
[15] “Libya Expels Guest Workers,” Migration News 2/10 (October 1995) and 2/11 (November 1995); “Libya Expels Palestinians,” Migration News 3/3 (March 1996) and 4/2 (February 1997).
[16] “Gulf States Face Unemployment Problems,” Migration News 2/3 (March 1995); “UAE Expels Migrants,” Migration News 3/11 (November 1996); “Foreign Workers in the Middle East,” Migration News 8/6 (June 1998); “Gulf: Qatar,” Migration News 5/4 (April 1998).
[17] “Gulf States Face Unemployment Problems,” Migration News 2/3 (March 1995); Migration News 4/8 (August 1997).
[18] “Gulf States’ Foreign Workers,” Migration News 1/2 (February 1996); “Israel and Jordan Debate Foreign Workers,”Migration News 3/9 (September 1996); Migration News 2/12 (December 1995); “Middle East: Nationalize Work Force?” Migration News 4/7 (July 1997).
[19] “Gulf: Qatar,” Migration News 5/4 (April 1998); “UAE: Seven Percent Depart,” Migration News 4/2 (February 1997); “Middle East: Crackdown,” Migration News 4/11 (November 1997).
[20] “Foreigners in the Gulf,” Migration News 3/5 (May 1996).
[21] See the important contributions to this line of thinking suggested by Seteney Shami, “Transnationalism and Refugee Studies: Rethinking Forced Migration and Identity in the Middle East,” Journal of Refugee Studies 9/1 (1996).

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "Recent Trends in Middle Eastern Migration," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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