Bahrain will become next month the first GCC state to give foreign workers the same employment rights as its own citizens. Under the new law, which takes effect on Aug 1, expatriates will have the freedom to move between jobs and to leave employment without the fear of arrest or deportation. "We already have the best trained workforce in the Gulf, but by levelling the playing field, and providing incentives to companies to hire Bahrainis, our aim is to improve our competitive edge," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa al Khalifa, the chief executive of the country's Economic Development Board (EDB). As local oil resources have dwindled in recent years, the island's rulers have worked hard to diversify the local economy. Heavy industry and manufacturing have grown steadily, while financial services now provide 27 per cent of GDP. The EDB has pushed ahead with its reform agenda in recent months after the publication of its Vision 2030 charter in October. While many countries have issued similar blueprints, Bahrain's programme is backed by a rolling six-year National Economic Strategy that provides firm interim targets. "Essentially, it is a set of aspirations for Bahrain, to rally people around the same plan and ensure we are working toward the same goals," said Sheikh Mohammed. "We need a civil service where the left hand knows what the right hand is doing." The EDB, chaired by Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the crown prince, was set up in 2000 to encourage foreign direct investment in Bahrain. It is now the chief instrument of economic reform in the kingdom. One hallmark of these reforms is the creation of semi-autonomous government bodies. In the case of the labour market, an independent regulator and a -labour fund, known as Tamkeen, have been hived off the Ministry of Labour. Tamkeen has funnelled the proceeds of a monthly tax of 10 Bahraini dinars (Dh97.44) on foreign workers into training Bahrainis for priority industries such as banking, aviation and health care. A sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, was also created in 2006 to manage government assets. Its portfolio includes Gulf Air, Alba, an aluminium producer, the telecommunications operator Batelco and a 30 per cent stake in the McLaren Formula One racing team. "What distinguishes us from other sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf is our transparency and the way we operate," said Talal al Zain, the chief executive of the fund. "Yes we are 100 per cent owned by the government, but we operate like a private sector company. Our board members and management are all from the private sector." Where many investment boards have cut marketing budgets in the past year, the EDB has deliberately targeted private investors, advertising its "Business Friendly" logo on London taxis and in international titles such as The Economist. Last year, the country was ranked 18th for ease of doing business by the World Bank. Bahrain also rose nine points in the UN's human development index last year, to 33 of 179. The government budget is still heavily dependent on oil revenues, however, while the average private-sector salary is still less than 300 dinars a month, and shortages of housing and jobs have stoked unrest among the country's poorer communities. firstname.lastname@example.org
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