Migration Policies across the GCC: Challenges in Reforming the Kafala
Much of the debate over immigration policy in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar) revolves around the kafala, or sponsorship system. In recent years, scholars, activists, and policymakers have all debated the urgent need for kafala reform. In its current form, the system is not sustainable. Initially designed to ensure a steady supply of labour for economic development, the kafala system has come under growing criticism from non-governmental and human rights organisations. Such criticism reached new heights when Qatar was awarded the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. With this decision, Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were exposed to greater scrutiny for their labour conditions and policies. While all GCC countries share a variation of the kafala system, each country has attempted to implement a different set of reforms at various times over the last decade. Results from these reforms have been marginal and limited in scope. In most cases, the reform agenda has faced significant opposition from a coalition of domestic groups and economic interests that underlie public support for the status quo. This chapter provides an overview of the kafala system in the GCC countries and the different reforms that have been attempted. We draw on original survey data from across the GCC to better understand the varying conditions across these countries and how interests shape the challenges to reform. Finally, we return to the motivating case of Qatar, which has recently implemented changes to its labour laws. Using quarterly survey data, we explore the degree to which citizens’ perceptions and support for these reforms have changed over time. We conclude by drawing lessons for the broader GCC and speculate on the opportunities for reform in the future.
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