Most GCC countries depend on millions of foreign workers to keep their economies moving. Their presence is often the cause of debate, and sometimes controversy. In this op-ed for oxgaps.org, Oxford graduates Froilan T Malit Jr and Ali al Youha argue for a four-tier approach in dealing with the issue in the United Arab Emirates, as the country moves forward with plans for a knowledge-based economy.
Over the last four decades, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has transformed its small-scale economy based on fishing and pearling sectors into one of the largest GDP/capita economies globally. Today, the UAE hosts 8.2 million temporary labor migrants (90% migrant population) fueling the UAE’s aspiration of becoming a “knowledge-based economy”. Through its relatively good record of governance and political stability, the UAE has continued its economic expansion, which inevitably triggered massive influxes of temporary labor migrants to its sovereign borders.
While temporary labor migration has directly contributed to the UAE development, it has also generated various security and labor market regulatory challenges for the UAE government. UAE policymakers recently emphasized the dire need to reduce and control the scale, type, and quality of temporary labor migrants. They also highlighted the limited success of Emiratisation programs in increasing UAE nationals’ labor market participation in the private sector. This particular dilemma has not only triggered labor policy concerns, but also raised critical issues about the complexity of temporary labor migration on the labor market.
Given the aforementioned constraints, the UAE government ought to adopt and implement a multi-level approach to capitalize on its existing “untapped” high-skilled UAE national human capital while optimizing skilled workers from the expatriate populations. The following four-tiered proposal provides a holistic approach in optimizing the potential contributions of temporary labor migration in the long-run.
The first layer of this proposal revolves around the critical roles of good governance and strong institutions in development. While there are government-specific programs that aim to incorporate young UAE nationals into the labor market, limited priority is focused on identifying national high-skilled UAE professionals based on meritocratic criteria. Most importantly, the UAE government has to shift its policy focus from a quota/numerical targets to more substantial quality-based roles for UAE nationals in the private or quasi-government sectors. This is particularly important because capitalizing on the existing “untapped” high-skilled UAE national manpower will not only further contribute to good governance and institution building, but also enable the new generation to maximize the benefits of its regional economic position, modern infrastructure, and existing human capital supply.
The second layer works on building a coherent labor admission policy. Currently, the UAE government lacks a labor admission policy with sufficient regulation to fully control the massive inflow of temporary labor migration into the country. This shortcoming, in particular, raises labor market challenges for the UAE government as temporary labor migrants—of all skill levels—often lack the required industry knowledge and regional/local understanding to effectively operate in the labor market. To a large extent, the UAE government has to deeply rethink temporary labor migrants’ future role in the UAE labor market and their overall long-term interests in the country. This goal therefore both helps UAE policymakers link existing governance and the institutional framework, and it also formulates a coherent labor admission policy in the long-run.
The third layer urgently calls for the UAE government to develop a much more comprehensive agenda on labor research and policy development. The UAE government needs to invest strategically in establishing a unified emirate-wide data collection and policy centers in order to conduct evidenced-based policymaking and recommendations on labor admission policy. Furthermore, the UAE policymakers need to properly explore the type, scale, and capacity of UAE nationals in the labor market to build good governance and sound institutions in the long-run. By focusing on this particular layer, the UAE will be able to identify key practices and challenges critical in regulating core industries in the UAE labor market.
The final layer suggests that the UAE needs to focus on developing deeper collaborations with major labor-sending countries, particularly those in Asia. Given the UAE’s heavy reliance on manpower, combined with the labor-sending countries’ economic and political interests in labor migration, the UAE government should actively pursue multilateral cooperation to better optimize its diplomatic relationships with labor-sending countries. The ongoing international labor discussions—including the Abu Dhabi Dialogue on Migration—chaired by the UAE is certainly a positive step towards strengthening its multilateral cooperation. Yet there is more work to be done: the UAE government has to further identify its primary interests with these labor-sending countries and link them directly into their knowledge-based economic vision.
Temporary labor migration is a collaborative and shared responsibility between governments, nationals, and expatriates. Therefore, good governance and strong institutions, combined with highly trained human capital, are critical pre-requisites to achieving a sustainable knowledge-based economy. With the complex global migration flows entering into the UAE labor market, the UAE government needs to develop stronger policies/programs to optimize its existing high-skilled local human capital and effectively utilize its temporary labor migrant inflows to address key manpower shortages. Efficient and positive temporary labor migration in the UAE can only be achieved through comprehensive policymaking along with collaboration of all stakeholders.
Froilan T. Malit, Jr. is the Director of Labor Research at the International Gulf Organization, a Dubai-based civil-society organization, and a Visiting Researcher at the American University of Sharjah. His primary research interests focus on government, temporary labor migration, and low-skilled labor in the Gulf Cooperation Council region. He holds an MSc in Migration Studies from Oxford University and an MPA/BSc (Honors) in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.
Ali Al Youha has been a Co-Founder of Tamashee and Managing Partner at Allinque Personal Assistance since 2012. He spent five years working in mergers and acquisitions and private equity with the United Arab Emirates’ government-investment vehicles. He holds a BA (Summa Cum Laude) in Economics from Boston College and an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy from Oxford University.