In an earlier piece in Muftah, I wrote about the reasons why migrant workers would not be joining the revolutionary movements that have emerged in other Arabian Gulf countries. In this piece, I extend that argument to demonstrate why the citizens of Dubai and the other resource-rich Gulf countries with small indigenous populations (i.e., the rest of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait) are unlikely to take to the streets in protest any time soon. While recent regional uprisings may threaten the continued rule of many of the Middle East’s entrenched regimes, the rulers of the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have little to fear. In fact, these “stable” Gulf countries seem to be leveraging their vast economic and in some cases military resources to prevent revolution from spreading in the region; most recently, the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia, sent troops to Bahrain to quell several weeks of raging protests in the island nation, to help ensure that country’s ruler, Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa, remains in power, and, most importantly, to prevent the uprising in Bahrain from spreading to other Gulf nations.
Dubai’s Gilded Cage
Because of their relatively privileged economic position, the citizens of Dubai, as well as the other emirates of the UAE (seven in total, with Abu Dhabi being the richest) are unlikely to stage a massive (or even minor) show of public discontent with their governments. While civil liberties are certainly restricted, this is of little concern for the average Emirati, who receives welfare benefits unheard of outside the Gulf. These include free schooling, through the doctorate level, in any public and/or private school in the world, land allotments, interest-free loans to build homes, and cash payments to Emiratis who marry other Emiratis. As a result of these benefits, these individuals typically have little need to work, and little reason to ever consider taking the lowest paying and most menial jobs. Nationals of Qatar and Kuwait enjoy similar benefits.
Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that economic growth in the Gulf region has been largely built on the backs of expatriate workers, who represent a range of nationalities and socio-economic levels. From professionals to laborers and maids, the efforts of these individuals have been largely responsible for the vast economic wealth enjoyed by Gulf countries and their citizens. In Dubai, the city with the largest foreign contingent, expatriates comprise more than 90 per cent of the population, accounting for 99 per cent of the private sector workforce and 90 per cent of the public sector workforce. Given these staggering numbers, it is would be nearly impossible for Dubai’s nationals to displace the army of foreigners brought in to build and run the Emirate, at any time in the near future.
Because of the large numbers of eager and willing expatriate workers as well as the economic largesse of Dubai towards its citizens, even before the 2008 economic meltdown, the official unemployment rate amongst Emiratis was a staggering 17 percent. The vast majority of Emiratis who do hold down a job, work in the public sector, where wages are high, holidays are plentiful and hours are short. As demonstrated by the numbers above, precious few male or female Emiratis work in the private sector, as their salary expectations are far in excess of those of Filipino or Indian expatriates, who are willing to do the same work at much lower rates. At the same time, with regards to positions at the higher end of the market, Emiratis often lack the required academic and technical skills. This reality has been the norm since the first oil boom in the 1970s and has yet to change, despite the increasing emphasis on education and affirmative action programs to encourage Emiratis to join the private sector.
As government sector jobs become saturated, many assume that increasing numbers of Emiratis will soon have to seek work in the private sector. With high unemployment and a bourgeoning young, increasingly educated population, which will reach working age in a few short years, many commentators believe that a social crisis is imminent. According to these estimates, young Emiratis will likely find themselves educated but unemployable, in an environment where government jobs are scant and the private sector is uninterested in employing them. These assumptions, however, rely on a basic, faulty assumption, namely, that Emiratis will seek jobs for the simple sake of working, rather than because of any economic need. As demonstrated above, the Emirati government is more than willing to provide its citizens with generous economic support and there are no signs that this trend will end any time soon. As a case in point, despite Dubai’s current, massive debt, the government has maintained its welfare programs. As such, for the average Emirati, any desire to work is based less on considerations of economic survival and is more of an existential issue connected to personal fulfillment. Given the high unemployment rate in Dubai, it appears, however, that the vast majority of Emiratis have yet to experience such an existential crisis.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman
A former UK ambassador to the UAE summed up the political rationale behind the generous economic policies of some Gulf nations: “The social contract is that you [are] given things by the sheikh and in return you give the sheikh your allegiance.” While some Gulf states have successfully put this philosophy into action, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman have historically been less willing to dole out economic benefits on such massive scales. As the on-going unrest in these countries demonstrates, when the sheikh fails to thoroughly provide for his subjects, his legitimacy becomes questionable and social unrest, particularly amongst the poorest and most oppressed of his citizens, looms. Nonetheless, the current large-scale protests amongst the disenfranchised and poor Shia citizens of Bahrain, the smattering of protests in Oman, and the many terrorist attacks and recent demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, particularly amongst its persecuted Shiite population, all reveal the seething social and political discontent that exists within the region and that will inevitably erupt to the surface in the absence of robust, state-sponsored economic and social welfare programs.
While the government of Dubai may have some concerns about the high unemployment rate amongst its nationals, this reality also gives the government a great deal of satisfaction, reflecting the success of state policies aimed at basing the country’s social and economic development on an expatriate work force and thereby quieting any democratic notions held by its citizens. In the Emirates, expatriates do the work nationals will not or cannot do, providing the basis for the good life enjoyed by Emiratis. As such, while the rest of the Middle East demands freedom, the pampered citizens of Dubai and other Gulf states have found little reason to trifle with notions of civil liberty and freedom.