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Contemporary challenges resulting from the demographic profile of GCC states: Labour markets, migration, and national identity

Aims of the project

Historically, the bulk of political economy discourse on the Arab Gulf focused on its geostrategic importance. However, more recently, and in light of the region’s ‘national’ demographic pyramid profile, a considerable amount of the focus has shifted to examining the peculiarities of its labor markets: the ‘emerging strains’, rise of ‘dual labor markets’, and growing levels of ‘structural employment’ resultant from an evident over-dependence on an expatriate workforce and the government job provision mechanism (for citizens) that lays at the heart of the social contract. 

We suggest that a new strand of the literature will coalesce around the theme of the region’s “demographic imbalance” – contextually, the ratio of nationals (indigenous citizens) to non-nationals (expatriate workers and their dependents). Although the non-national component of the region’s population has been subjected to analysis for several decades, what is new is the way in which this potentially ‘value-laden’ frame of reference has (a) expanded to encompass not only labor market efficiency issues and conventional political-security threats but also socio-cultural threats and (b), gained such popular currency.

The purpose of this project therefore, was to offer a frank and detailed examination of the conceptual framework that appears to be coalescing around the demographic imbalance, and to investigate the extent to which there is a disconnect between the perceptions and realities of the threat it actually poses (economically, politically and socio-culturally-speaking).

In addition to an examination of the multifaceted actual and perceived ‘threats’ that the demographic imbalance is considered, in many quarters, to constitute, this project set out to propose and evaluate a series of policy options, many of which are now actively being considered by decision makers in the GCC states. This project gathered experts in the fields to propose and evaluate policy options to address the issues at hand.

Activities & Timeline

March 2012 – August 2012

  • Initial meeting of project personnel, agreement over the themes to be included
  • Literature review to identify and approach academics with a focus on the suggested themes
  • Identification of potential governmental representatives across the GCC to interview
  • Identification of non-governmental experts across the GCC

September 2012 – August 2013

  • Compilation of a progress report describing results from the initial literature review and key outcomes of the first workshop
  • Initial research findings published either in a second progress report to stakeholders

January 2014

December 2014

  • Second workshop to present findings

December 2014 - September 2015

  • Publication of a series of policy briefs aimed at government officials to ensure widest possible dissemination of findings among key stakeholders
  • Publication of academic papers as part of the Middle East Centre Paper Series with potential publication in academic journals or edited volumes

Outcomes and impact
  • Substantive and original contribution to the academic literature on demographic challenges, labour markets and labour migration in the GCC
  • Enhanced understanding of the construction of threat perceptions and their relationship to empirical realities
  • Policy impact through the stakeholder workshops, progress reports and policy briefs
  • Policy-relevant research feeding into national and regional decision-making structures in GCC states

Research Team

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Project Director

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East.


Dr Karen E. Young, Research Fellow

Karen is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and Visiting Fellow at the Middle East Centre.