First of all let me confine the scope of current discussion to Gulf Cooperative Council which comprises of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Recently Jordan and Morroco have shown interests in joining GCC. I think that in few years Libya and Egypt too will join the league and GCC will become a economic powerhouse to reckon with.
Infrastructure and Oil and Gas sectors have created enormous job opportunities in this region, bucking the recessionary trend. Tax free salaries, high rise buildings and massive cranes working day and night and the debt crisis are some of the first few things which comes to mind when we talk about Dubai and Middle East in general. Beyond the glossy buildings, massive oil rigs lies some not widely discussed softer issues unique to this region.
Religious freedom is the widely discussed of the issues. Dubai, the most liberalized of the GCC nations has allowed church and temple but in some of the countries practicing your own religion even in privacy of your home can be an offense. Though there may not be any official record of imparting punishment on account of practicing religion, but several stories, incidents are heard when people were deported or were held in prison for few days
Some raw facts- Recently Qatar government has increased the salaries only of Qataris working in government run companies by 50%-100%. Even before this move it was widely known fact that for a given post, a citizen will be given a much higher salary (30% to 50% high) as compared to a non citizen across all GCC nations.What amuses and sometimes baffles me is a not so officially discussed fact that Western expatriates are paid more as compared to their South Asian counterparts for the same position ! I agree that a $1000 monthly saving will mean a lot to a South Asian in his country of origin and perhaps it wont be considered something significant for a Westerner but that does not justify the implicit racism. As a consequence some unwritten rules are being followed, such as in a certain area only so and so nationals are allowed to stay, live etc.
The expatriate population in Saudi Arabia is close to 30% (8.4 million), whereas in Qatar 1.45 million expats constitutes 89% of the population. Qatar's population has more than doubled post 2006 Asian Games and is expected to double again in the run up to 2022 FIFA World Cup. The population of Emiratis in UAE is close to 11%, i.e 0.9 million, with 8 million expats. The newly constructed residential and commercial buildings in Dubai or Doha can easily accommodate at least two times of the current total population or at least ten times of the current local population. Owing to enormous profits reaped by consistently high crude prices many projects are being announced and will be undertaken in the decade ahead. So all this implies that the region needs expats to execute those projects, to fill on those buildings and multiplexes, in short to keep the region alive, nothing significant. But interestingly none of the GCC countries offer nationality to any foreign nationals, unless specifically approved by some influential member of the royal family.
So, an expat in Middle East will remain expat for ever ! I really dont know how monarchies of all these GCC nations plan to fill in these buildings, malls, restaurants, airports and seaports. On one hand all the Monarchies of GCC have started emphasizing on democracy so as to avoid any anarchy, on the other Socialism is being bred under the shadow of Capitalism, in the name of protectionism. But not everybody who stands to benefit or loose because of protectionism policies can comprehend the subtle difference between racism, socialism and national interest. On one hand GCC nations wants to liberalize, attract talented expatriates from all over the world, following difference religions including atheists and agnostics, on the other they do not seems to be in any hurry to give complete religious or political or even social freedom to them.
Though many cases of human rights violation have been reported in this part of the world, corrective measures were and are being taken from time to time. Although employer's permission is required to leave Qatar or Kuwait or No Objection Certificate is required to change employers within a country, but any reported labor law violations are treated very seriously here and strict actions are taken against employers. So on a piece of paper human rights, labor rights etc seems to be taken well care of.
Comparatively young, small, oil rich GCC nations have been importing thinkers, philosophers, planners and technicians from all over the world to shape their present and future. Can they live without them in near future? Is it possible to artificially implant technical skills within 2-3 years in the local work force of an entire nation? No doubt the money Asian expatriates makes in GCC as compared to their native country is good. General sense of safety and security and labor laws too are practiced religiously here. While a country is most obliged to fulfill the aspirations of its citizens as first priority, but can they simply choose to ignore the expatriates on softer issues such as culture, religion, freedom and politics. Unless the local government addresses these non tangible, human aspects of life, the Expatriates in Middle East will remain in transition.