Vulnerable Populations and Tourism in the Middle East Hard Hit by Covid-19

The impact of Covid-19 has been catastrophic for the Middle East, and particularly devastating for vulnerable populations (migrant workers and refugees). Tens of thousands of migrant workers have lost their jobs and have been repatriated, which has had a negative impact on their home countries and their families who depended on remittances. Other migrant workers were left stranded due to border closures. As the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) closed their borders with little notice, allowing only nationals to re-enter, hundreds of thousands of residents were left stranded overseas, with little indication as to when they could return. For example, over 200,000 UAE residents had been stuck overseas since March when the border closed, and the government began to issue re-entry permits for their return only on 1 June.  However, anecdotal reports state that many residents were denied permission to return multiple times before it was granted. More distressingly, many low-skilled migrant workers who had lost their jobs remained trapped in the GCC, most with limited financial resources, which leaves them in precarious situations.

Covid-19 has reminded the GCC members — unique in their need for huge foreign workforces that in many states constitute the majority of the population — that their dependence on migrant workers is a double-edged sword. Their presence has facilitated the economic development of the region, and in fact has been a key driving force of many aspects of their economies. Yet the economic diversification that has been actively pursued also depends of nationalization of the workforce, something which the GCC states, perhaps with the exceptions of Bahrain and Oman, had been unable to achieve to any meaningful extent. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example, have used the pandemic as a reason to reduce their migrant workforces, hoping to create more jobs for nationals and further their nationalization programs. Covid-19 was also a stark reminder that the poor conditions under which many migrant workers live pose a public health risk as they enabled the disease to spread rapidly among communities.

The impact on refugees has also been significant. Border closures have meant that resettlement and other legal migration pathways for refugees have been temporarily suspended, prolonging the uncertainty for many vulnerable families. It has also meant that refugees and internally displaced people, who use irregular means to escape conflict and violence due to a lack of sufficient legal pathways, are trapped in dangerous situations.

With borders of most Middle Eastern countries closed, international travel has been halted. This has perhaps had the greatest impact on GCC states, particularly those of the UAE’s two largest emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Qatar, all of which have become global transit hubs. The cessation of international travel has had a significant impact on the tourism industry throughout the region. Dubai’s tourism industry, which had been growing steadily over the previous decade — particularly among Chinese nationals who made up the majority of tourists to the city until lockdown — has been greatly affected. The fact that the lockdown coincided with the peak tourist season in the region has been a double blow, as the summer months see far lower tourist numbers as temperatures exceed 35°C, so while Dubai has announced the recommencement of tourist flights in July, it is doubtful that many tourists will take advantage of this. Even as borders begin to open and international travel recommences in the region, the international public health guidelines for air travel combined with mandatory quarantine on arrival in many Middle Eastern countries and extreme safety measures on airplanes may mean that tourism, and in fact most international travel, may not recover to pre–Covid-19 levels until a vaccine is found.



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