The West Closes Its Borders: an Opportunity for the GCC Countries

US presidential candidates have been battling fiercely of late, revealing huge gaps between Democrat and Republican supporters over issues such as taxation, financial sector regulation, firearms ownership laws, and US policy in the Middle East. Despite significant differences among the electorate over what constitute effective and morally desirable policies, one area of agreement among both left-wing and right-wing voters is the desire to diminish the opportunities for foreigners to work and settle in the US. In fact, even the para-fascist candidate, Donald Trump, and the traditional socialist, Bernie Sanders, share the view that migrant workers damage the interests of US citizens. This is a bizarre development for a country that was founded on immigration, and that transformed into an economic powerhouse by opening its doors to migrant workers, as recorded in one of the verses from the sonnet etched on the Statue of Liberty, in the world’s financial capital, New York: “Give me your tired, your poor.” 

Europe is arguably undergoing an even stricter tightening of its borders, and not just because of the refugee crisis, but also due to the economic difficulties the European Union (EU) countries are currently facing, dating back to the global financial crisis of 2008. In both the US and EU cases, the desire to close borders is largely based on xenophobia and demagoguery, rather than any sound economic rationale. As an illustration, anti-immigration activists often make inaccurate claims about foreigners, most notably that non-citizens are more likely than citizens to commit crimes and terrorist acts, to receive welfare support from the government, or engage in a litany of other forms of disagreeable behavior.

This is familiar record which usually pops up after economic crises; it is human nature to look for external scapegoats for domestic problems, and migrant workers often find themselves flavor of the month. Perhaps the most famous example of this regrettable line of thinking occurred in the 1930s, when the Great Depression of 1929 gave birth to the fascist movements which went on to play a role in World War II, wherein over 50 million innocent lives were lost.

The current wave of irrational xenophobia sweeping across the West offers the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states an economic opportunity. The Gulf countries have for long appreciated the positive role that migrant workers play in building and operating a modern economy. In the GCC, foreign workers represent over 75% of the work force, and they include people from all races, sexes, nationalities, and religions, and they are drawn from all the rungs of the skill ladder.

This opportunity is quite timely in that the GCC countries are actively looking for ways to diversify their economies, and to build the human capital of their own citizens. The idea is to work with the high-skilled foreigners that are now being denied the opportunity to work and settle in Western countries due to the latest bout of border-tightening. Citizens of developing countries who study in the top Western universities, and typically try to migrate post-graduation rather than going home for economic reasons, are now likely to seriously consider the GCC countries as an alternative. Muslims are especially ripe for canvassing, as their rejection from Western countries is based on entirely ephemeral factors unrelated to their abilities and character; this is analogous to the rise of the US, which opened its doors to persecuted migrants leaving the Old World.

Realizing the full potential of this golden opportunity requires the GCC countries to make use of the Singaporean experiment, meaning that they have to evolve the current system of employing migrant workers. The key principle is the “nationalization” of foreign skills and technologies: when the Singaporean government wanted to gain a foothold in petrochemicals, it quickly surmised that competitiveness required highly-skilled locals. Importing the skills was not an option due to the high wages that would be necessary, while the local labor pool could not be relied upon exclusively as they lacked the skills.

The Singaporean government developed an import/local hybrid solution based on gradually rolling back the role of migrant workers, as local ones acquired the requisite skills. They focused on attracting leading global scientists close to retirement age, and they gave them lavish laboratories, and large salaries, subject to the condition that they develop a new generation of Singaporean scientists. The preference for older scholars was because they were not afraid of training Singaporeans to replace them; in contrast, young foreigners would understandably face a conflict of interest when it came to directing the next generation. Further, to accelerate the skills nationalization process, the government would attach its highest caliber youngsters to the foreign scientists. Finally, the foreigners were monitored and held accountable for the progress of the Singaporeans under their tutelage.

The GCC countries are suffering from a shortage of domestic STEM talent, which is considered to be the basis for a knowledge economy. As such, they may wish to adopt the Singaporean model, because under the current system, in most cases, when foreigners’ contracts end and they return home, their skills depart with them, leaving little trace in the hosting GCC country. Migrant workers are understandably unconcerned with developing local talent unless they are contractually required to do so, and are accordingly held accountable. In principle, acquiring foreign talent should be easier and less costly at present, in light of the West’s decision to tighten its borders.

The GCC countries have recently demonstrated a capacity to nationalize military skills, via their participation in various military endeavors in the Middle East, chief among them Operation “Northern Thunder”. They are yet to focus their efforts on equivalent achievements in the economic domain, arguably due to basking in the oil boom. Falling oil prices are a game changer, and the proliferation of xenophobia in Western countries presents the GCC countries with a golden opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If America no longer wants your tired, your poor, then perhaps they can find refuge in the Arabian Gulf. 

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