In many nations around the world, inequality is a major theme in politics, economics, and culture, and serves as an adversary to visions of development, sustainability, and quality of life that has emerged in an increasingly globalized society. Addressing it has become a goal of those affected but a nuisance for those it benefits as governments debate the implementation of populist practices to combat systemic inequality. In recent years, political equality has come into question by way of popular uprisings in the Arab Spring, income equality has been pursued through social welfare in many Western nations, and the demand for minorities’ rights has fuelled socio-cultural movements all around the world.
Inequality is a recurrent topic and deserves to be such, however, some cases of disparity are disregarded and, thus, continue to be unresolved. A notable example of this is present in the societies of Middle Eastern nations, as the region was recently named the most unequal in terms of income in the world. Some of these nations have an abundance of natural resources such as oil and natural gas that account for a significant amount of wealth and power, and subsequently act as catalysts for systemic inequality. The region’s income inequality affects political and social life as well, as it alienates people based on certain unchangeable factors like that of origin, faith, and ethnicity.
Data has shown that as of 2020, in the Middle East, the top 10 percent earned 56 percent of their nation’s respective income, while the bottom 50 percent earn only 12. This is telling in comparison to other regions of the world. For example, in Western Europe, this figure only amounts to 37 percent, and in the United States, where income equality is a heavily debated topic, it is 47 percent. Additionally, the Middle East’s top 1 percent is responsible for 23 percent of its income, which is almost two times that of the bottom 50 percent. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman contribute to this income imbalance the most, all residing oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.
These countries happen to also be popular destinations for migrant workers, markedly from South and Southeast Asia, where people seek better opportunities to provide for their families. In fact, expats range from 32 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia up to 86 percent in Qatar and 89 percent in the United Arab Emirates. Such workers significantly provide each nation’s respective economy and infrastructure, accounting for more than half of the labour force in every country, but remain severely under-compensated for their work.
The imbalance of merit in Middle Eastern societies, namely the aforementioned Gulf societies, is all a result of how they are built. These nations value their citizens and reward them accordingly. They provide subsidies in housing, education, healthcare, and energy to nationals and enjoy some of the highest GDPs per capita on Earth. However, this is done by failing to acknowledge the millions of residents who are not citizens. These people often work in far from suitable conditions for long hours, and further, are given very few rights or assistance. They are continuously exploited for cheap labour even as they willingly contribute to advancing their host’s prosperity.
The biggest fault, albeit, is not the current situation for many of these workers, but their futures’. This is primarily because migrant labour is regulated by the ‘kafala system,’ which essentially subdues workers to the jurisdiction of citizens by giving sponsors control over both the worker’s employment and immigration status. Moreover, the path to citizenship in these countries is nearly impossible, meaning that workers’ plight is reinforced by the system they help maintain. Many people live in this society, where they are denied the same benefits as their neighbours, and there is no way they can work their way up to earn those benefits, no matter the circumstance.
With the pandemic, nonetheless, things might begin to change. Many Gulf nations are experiencing what is being dubbed an ‘expat-exodus’ as migrant workers flood back to their homes amidst falling oil prices and subsequent economic fallout. This return home for foreign nationals in the Gulf is expected to continue until 2023, a major hindrance to host nations’ economies. Population in the region has already declined 4 percent, with the most noteworthy development occurring in the United Arab Emirates as the pandemic led to 8.4 percent of the population abandoning the nation. Possibly, these nations will reconsider their treatment of foreigners as a result of this development and their momentous contributions to their growth and stability. It is, though, a long road for workers to receive the rights they deserve, and the pandemic has only shed a flash of light on the progress needed for this to be accomplished.
While inequality is a topic of high priority in other nations around the world, very few are quick to speak on behalf of the discounted labourers in the Gulf. Western nations, especially, are known to address issues of the same essence within their own borders or with their neighbours, but neglect the dilemmas faced in Middle Eastern countries. One theory focuses on the wealth of oil that Gulf nations possess. Because of their heavy oil production and supply, counterparts of Middle Eastern nations often do not acknowledge shortcomings or defects with these nations’ governance. This ends up only supplementing the inequality faced by ill-equipped migrants who are simply trying to survive and provide for their families in their home countries.
If, as the rest of the world moves towards equality and justness, the Gulf moved in the same direction, many migrant workers would benefit and live better lives as a result. This is only possible, however, if Gulf nations recognize their faults and work to reverse them by giving migrant labourers more opportunities and benefits like those of their own citizens. As they account for a large part of the nation economically, they should be compensated with religious freedom, citizenship, or simply better working conditions. The pandemic may help with this, but it is essential that other nations help push this and foster change where it is needed, in the places where it is disregarded the most.
Edited by Helia Mokhber
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.