WPR: Migrants and expats make up a huge part of the labor force in the Gulf. What have the Gulf countries’ policies been regarding migrant labor and how have they evolved over time?
Karen Young: All of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, have relied on imported labor to build their economies over the past 40 or more years. Migrant labor has been an inherent part of economic development. The institution of the “kafala” system, which requires all migrant laborers to have a local sponsor, has preserved citizenship rights and benefits for nationals, while providing job opportunities for many foreigners from countries in economic crisis but little hope for social or political mobility in their host state. The reason why Gulf rulers created the kafala system in the early days of state formation was to give citizens an opportunity to create wealth and to jumpstart infrastructure development. Kafala also went hand-in-hand with commercial agency laws, so that any foreign business that wished to import a product to a Gulf state would require a local partner. The privilege of citizenship has been institutionalized from the beginning of state formation within the Gulf.