Ralf Roletschek / Wikimedia Commons

United Arab Emirates: A Pro-Immigrant Powerhouse

The UAE is “a nation of immigrants," and has become one of the world’s top economies

September 25, 2023

Travel to the outskirts of Dubai, beyond the glitzy towers and man-made lagoons, and you’ll find the “other side” that’s been just as instrumental in building the city. My driver and I were recently visiting one such area, Dubai Investments Park, on the city’s far south side, when we stumbled on a large housing barrack. Known colloquially as “work camps,” such projects house thousands of developing world immigrants. Their parking areas are full of worker shuttles that transport migrants back-and-forth from construction jobs. The entire setup is a feature of a pro-immigration mindset that has benefited the United Arab Emirates.

UAE is among the world’s wealthiest countries, with a GDP per capita exceeding $45,000. But native citizens only comprise around 10% of its population. The rest are foreign migrants–the UAE hosts a higher rate of migrants than any other country–and this open but managed system has driven economic growth.

The territory that now comprises the UAE was for centuries a backwater (but without much water). Discovery of oil in the late 1950s propelled the country’s growth, and since then its economy has become more complex, focused on trade, tourism, and business services, and helped greatly by its liberalized tax policies. But the main factor that has propelled the UAE from a barren desert to a 9-million-person country in five decades is its immigration approach. Global poverty and instability have created a huge demand for migration into stable, productive countries. The UAE has built such a system, and more crucially, allows people to enter it.

Scott Beyer's route from Amman to Dubai.

Their immigration system is not, however, a free-for-all, although it is very different from the U.S. Prospective foreign workers need an employer sponsor. In some cases, there are quotas, but generally the country will grant a visa so long as no citizen is determined eligible for the job. Migrants account for much of the private workforce, while citizens work in government. 

Recently, the UAE has expanded migration opportunities for higher-skilled workers. It allows “gifted students, exceptionally skilled foreign workers, and people with public investments” over a certain threshold to stay in the country for up to a decade. Citizenship, though, is harder–one must be “nominated” by the monarchy.

Indian migrants account for by far the highest share of UAE workers. Indian culture is prominent, and “it is probably easier for Hindi- or Urdu-speakers to get around many neighborhoods in the UAE than Arabic-speakers,” writes U.S. News and World Report

Others migrate from Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia. According to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Kristian Alexander, African migrants have also flocked to the UAE and other Gulf states, with at minimum over 3 million Africans living in the Gulf countries. Anecdotally, I found that many people I met while traveling Africa expressed a desire-a dream, even-to work in Europe or the U.S., but could not get visas. So many of them were opting for UAE.

“Several surveys have shown that African migrants, in particular, perceive a strong sense of safety and a high level of comfort living in the UAE and other [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries,” writes Alexander, “especially compared to the insecurity of their own countries or crime-ridden Western capitals.”

Yet migrants to the UAE face challenges and discrimination. The immigration system, and its tie to employer sponsors, limits the economic mobility of migrants upon their arrival. They are told to work in specific industries, and until recently, could not legally cross over to other employers. Migrant workers are vulnerable to both sex trafficking and forced labor, but authorities focus near-exclusively on the former. Overseas recruiters charge migrants high fees that are generally forbidden by both the UAE and countries of origin, but in practice not penalized. 

A 2015 reform of the sponsorship system allowed migrants to end employment themselves, and laws restrict deceptive recruitment practices. But human rights watchers say that the reforms are often insufficient or unenforced, and working conditions are poor. 

Further, participation in society is limited, with both government and socially-enforced discrimination common. Various immigrants I’ve spoken with, from Pakistani cabdrivers to a Nigerian fashion model, complained of this and other aspects of UAE living, but said the negatives were outweighed by the greater economic opportunity. 80% of UAE citizens also favor a more open approach to immigration, higher than the international average.

Overall, the UAE’s reliance on migrant labor has been great for the country. Abundant labor means things get done quickly, with many large master-planned projects, for example, going from groundbreaking to having completed projects in a year, thanks to around-the-clock work shifts. And the sheer population growth, especially of many well-heeled immigrants looking to escape their own repressive countries, means near-endless demand.

For immigrants it’s also good: while life is not easy living in cramped camps and working all day in the heat, salaries are far higher than what they would earn in their homelands. Mass immigration has also made for an interesting culture. The UAE gets knocked as having “Disneyfied” urbanism that doesn’t encompass “real” city life. But living for several weeks in the centers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, I found that they have a surprisingly dynamic street life driven by a mosaic of global cultures, from Indian restaurants to Filipino grocers.

The UAE’s context is very different from that of the U.S. While historically pro-immigrant, we now have labor shortages due to strict work visa policies. H-1B visas allow skilled and specialized workers to temporarily work in the U.S., but are capped at 65,000 annually (though there are exceptions). Employment Sponsored Visas are limited to around 140,000 per year–measly numbers for a 332-million-person country. Reduced immigration shrunk America’s working-age population by 2 million. In recent years, more high-skilled workers have headed to Canada, which has attracted as much as 10,000 qualified workers away from the US in a single day. Paradoxically, many of the aspiring U.S. immigrants who can’t find a legal path to entry sneak illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border, meaning they enter unaccounted for.

The UAE, on the other hand, issued nearly 80,000 long-term residency visas last year and 3.4 million new residence permits. While it’s far from an unregulated system, the UAE quite literally is “a nation of immigrants,” and as a result has become one of the world’s top economies.

Cover image use authorized under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Graphic Credit: The Market Urbanist.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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