Indian Diaspora

Indo-Gulf Migration: Oasis or a Mirage?

31 Mar, 2014    ·   4361

Kuhan Madhan assesses the potential effects of the implementation of Saudi Arabia's Nitaqat Law on India's socio-economic landscape

Kuhan Madhan
Kuhan Madhan
Research Intern
India is a recipient of $70 billion in remittances with over 30% of that amount flowing in from the Gulf countries. The Indian migrant population in the Gulf is almost 6 million, making it the second-largest Indian expatriate community in any single region. However, this might not remain the same, as the gulf nations, in the wake of the Arab Spring, are attempting to address the unemployment issue among the natives via indigenisation laws. Saudi Arabia’s Nitaqat law is one such edict, which tries to classify domestic enterprises on the basis of localisation of labour.

This time, the cause célèbre over the indigenisation law is due to the significant migrant lay-offs and the decreased remittance inflow to India. In this context, what are the potential problems the migrant community would face? What are the resultant larger socio-economic complexities India will have to address?

Nitaqat Law: The Scheme of Things
Saudi Arabia intends to achieve only 10 per cent naturalization via the Nitaqat law and therefore the feasibility of the law taking effect is quite high - regardless of the lack of skilled nationals. Riyadh plans to create 1.12 million jobs to employ 92% of the Saudi nationals in 2014. Kuwait plans to repatriate 100,000 workers and replace them with local workers. Indians form 35% of the collective populations of Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. The indigenisation laws therefore have the potential to send home a significant chunk of population. Once an oasis for the unskilled blue-collar workers, today, it also hosts approximately a large number of white-collar professionals from India.

Though the Nitaqat law caused a panic wave among the blue-collar workers, its implementation would have a profound effect on the white-collar professionals as well. This because those nationals who traditionally benefitted from a rentier economy, are only willing to take up lucrative jobs in the government, finance and banking sectors, which is currently dominated by Indians. But has the skill development of the Gulf nationals taken place in tune to their demand for more opportunities?

The answer is no. Similar laws have been implemented in other Gulf States over the past two decades, but barring Oman, all gulf countries have just taken baby steps in training the natives to replace immigrants. The cost of such an operation is high and the levels of success and sustainability of the same, given the global economic crisis, is yet to be seen.

Implications for the Indian Immigrants
The implementation of the Nitaqat law bears implications for the unskilled and/or semi-skilled labourers. The immediate effects would be losses of jobs and opportunities otherwise Indian migrants. While Kerala will be substantially affected, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar too will have to bear the brunt, reducing the contribution to the State’s GDP. The large pool of unskilled labour will require rehabilitation and the states, especially Kerala, have no infrastructure to absorb or cushion such repatriation. The problem becomes multi-layered when migrants from UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, who came in to fill the shoes of the human resource shortage in Kerala, and who work for wages much lower than the locals, pose a threat to incoming Gulf expats.

Noticeably, a majority of the returnees are Muslims. In this regard, there are two important developments that need monitoring. First, the increasing orthodoxy of the society, on which studies on Diasporic religious practices undertaken by Ginu Zacharia Oomen shed light on how religion sustains and perpetuates transnational links between home and the host nations. Another study says, “By embracing an overtly Islamic and a Gulf oriented modernity and way of life, Muslim migrants re-nourish themselves at an imagined and sentimentalised heartland of Islam, intensifying the process of communalisation and community closure.” Already, Islamist groups like the Popular Front of India (PFI) have started demonising the society using the Sharia law as a reference and inciting hatred on the consumerist culture that is growing in the region.

Secondly, bitter skirmishes between Muslim radicals and Hindutva ideologues have been a growing phenomenon. Empirical investigation on the Hindu-Muslim riots in India has shown correlation between economic growth and ethnic violence; and this will be more pronounced in regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where annual migration to the gulf has been close to 8000 people. Additionally, these states have a history of communal riots and tensions, coupled with a poor track record in creating good socio-economic conditions.

Another notable area of difficulty permeating the migrant community, especially the blue-collar workers, is that of the psychological losses that separation from family members brings to the household. The wives and families of the emigrants face numerous social and psychological problems termed the ‘Gulf Wives’ and ‘Gulf Parents’ syndrome. White-collar professionals who temporarily migrate face problems of ‘nomadic families’ and ‘forced return’ from the host land. As of December 2013, 19,163 Keralites have returned from the Gulf and the number would skyrocket in the coming months. India must be prepared to deal with this issue, and ready contingency plans to prevent larger repercussions.

Embracing the migrant class
During India’s economic crises in the 1990’s, it was the slow but steadily growing remittances from the workers in the Gulf that gave India a ‘saving face’. Distinguishing the Diaspora on the basis of the work they perform, but expecting remittances is hypocritical. The difficulties faced by the migrant communities need to be studied to prevent further alienation of a class which has been treated as a money making machine by their homeland and a social parasite by their host nations.