October 18, 2016

Middle East’s Migrant Population More Than Doubles Since 2005

2. Economic growth attracts migrants to Persian Gulf

Despite a recent drop in oil prices and the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the economies of Persian Gulf countries expanded between 2005 and 2015. This economic expansion in countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain has encouraged millions of migrants to move to the Middle East in search of economic opportunity.

Overall, the number of non-displaced, international migrants living in the Middle East grew by 61% between 2005 and 2015, from about 19 to 31 million. (Non-displaced, international migrants are the remaining migrant population after displaced migrants are removed from the total foreign-born population provided by the United Nations. Most non-displaced, international migrants have moved for economic opportunity, but some may have also moved for other reasons including to join family or to study.)

At the country level, UAE saw the largest absolute increase in the number of non-displaced, international migrants – up by an estimated 4.8 million over the decade, as the population of this group increased from 3.3 million in 2005 to 8.1 million in 2015. Saudi Arabia had the second largest increase in its non-displaced, international migrant population, up an estimated 3.9 million over the same period, rising from 6.3 million in 2005 to 10.2 million in 2015.

By contrast, Qatar and Oman saw the largest percentage increase in their non-displaced, international migrant populations, each rising more than 150% during the decade.

Many migrants come to Persian Gulf countries as manual laborers on one- to two-year work visas. Most come from South Asia (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan) and elsewhere in East Asia (Indonesia and Philippines). Some renew their work visas and live in the Middle East for years. The Gulf nations also attract a sizable number of business, educational and medical professionals from Europe, North America and elsewhere. And increasingly, international students from around the world are studying at newly established and expanded universities and colleges in the Persian Gulf region.

A less pronounced increase in non-displaced, international migrants occurred in Israel. There, the total number of international migrants increased by 79,000 between 2005 and 2015. Some people moved to Israel for economic opportunity, while others have moved for religious or family reasons.

Today, several Persian Gulf states have majority foreign-born populations, mostly due to their high number of economic migrants. In fact, all Gulf Cooperation Council countries saw an increase in their share of foreign born between 2005 and 2015. About three-quarters or more of UAE (88%), Qatar (75%) and Kuwait (74%) populations in 2015 are non-displaced, international migrants. Meanwhile, about half (51%) of Bahrain’s population were foreign-born workers in 2015. Oman (41%) and Saudi Arabia (32%) have relatively smaller shares that are foreign born, but that are still significantly higher than the share found in many European countries or the United States.