These days economic migrants are watched as closely as swallows in the Amazon: newcomers who are indicators of the region. A UN report out this week says the number of migrants living in the Gulf has risen by a fifth over the past five years to reach an all-time high of 15.1 million people this year, as The National reports today. Although the numbers must be read with a pinch of salt, they serve as a timely reminder that the GCC is increasingly grounded amid regional economies.
The forthcoming World Migration Report 2010, the work of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), says that despite the recent spike in migrants to the GCC, arrivals may have reached a plateau - and remittance flows from the region may be on the decline.
Although migration and international labour mobility combat poverty in neighbouring states and can actually be major forces for cultural growth, the report may cause policy-makers in the GCC and elsewhere to rethink their approach. A looming fear, no doubt, will be high projected figures for the region's youth unemployment in the coming decade; a vacuum that will need to be filled soon, and perhaps at a cost to migrant workers.
By the report's numbers, Saudi Arabia hosts the largest number of migrants at an estimated 7.3 million this year, followed by the UAE at 3.3 million. One eyebrow-raising statistic is that about 70 per cent of the UAE population is migrant workers: in fact, other reports indicate that the proportion of expatriates is far larger.
But more work on accurate numbers, particularly in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, needs to inform public policy. New circumstances call for new analysis. The "particularly acute" impact in Dubai in 2009 saw infrastructure projects worth $582 billion frozen and an estimated 20 per cent of temporary contractual jobs made redundant, the report says. Dubai's numbers may be counterbalanced elsewhere in the Gulf, but more comprehensive studies should follow.
The Gulf has been an economic haven for migrants, but there are no guarantees in the future, particularly for migrants themselves. As Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the IOM, said: "The best way to regulate temporary contractual labour is to make sure migrants are ready for the situation before they leave home." If and when that happens, the GCC must also be ready.