x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Conference to focus on destabilising effects of economic migration to Gulf

Some view move as a precursor to further empowerment of the Federal National Council while others say more needs to be done.

ABU DHABI // A regional security conference in Bahrain next week will confront the problems presented by increased numbers of people fleeing nations hit hard by the credit crunch for the UAE and other Gulf countries, where the crisis has been less severe. The Manama Dialogue will draw ministerial delegates from across the Gulf - and representatives of nations with an influence on Gulf security, such as the UK, US, Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan - to discuss the destabilising effects of such changing populations. The three-day conference, to be held from Dec 12 to 14, was organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Governments in the region need to address the issue of their rapidly changing populations, said Dr Mamoun Fandy, senior fellow for Gulf security at the IISS. "One of the Gulf's biggest problems is this demographic imbalance. The very nature of the Gulf societies are changing very rapidly," Dr Fandy said. "The financial crisis very much affects the movement of people and the shape of demographics in the Gulf will be shifted further. All of that puts a lot of pressure on the Gulf states. They need to really think about the problem."

Although all Gulf countries need to address the issue, the UAE, whose population is 80 per cent expatriate, is particularly vulnerable, Dr Fandy said. In his National Day address Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, identified the population imbalance as a major challenge and stressed the importance of preserving the nation's identity. Dr Fandy said the biggest threat to security stems from the expatriates who have lived in the country for decades.

The changing population mean identity, sect and religion must all be considered as possible sources of friction, he said. "How will these frictions pan out? Will the state be able to manage conflict? Where are the remedies being suggested? This is the biggest challenge for the Emirates and the Gulf." Emirati leaders and intellectuals have warned that globalisation is eroding the UAE's heritage and culture, but the imbalance requires planning for long-term integration and the creation of "some sense of harmony", Dr Fandy said.

Tensions have already flared in some parts of the Gulf as overseas workers begin to ask for more rights. Kuwait introduced a minimum wage for foreign workers after a summer of violent protests by migrant labourers unhappy with poor wages and delayed salaries. Discussions at the Manama Dialogue will also focus on Iran's nuclear programme, the organisers said. A series of closed sessions at the conference will tackle the proliferation risk, as Gulf countries pursue civil nuclear programmes to generate electricity.