Kuwait will soon be cracking down on expats, but will the country be shooting itself in the foot by doing so? Of the Gulf state’s 4 million inhabitants, roughly 2.9 million are foreign workers. But on Saturday, Kuwait’s Social, Labor, and Planning Minister Hind Al-Sabeeh said that expatriate residency permission will henceforth be linked with academic qualification. She added that contractors will be forced to exit foreign workers immediately after their projects are concluded, and to encourage Kuwaitis to enter into the private-sector workforce.
But even more controversial was last week’s decision by the Civil Service Commission to force expats of all nationalities who are over 50 to leave the country as of March 1, 2016. The age limit will apply to foreigners working for the Kuwaiti government and to all professions where Kuwaitis can fill vacancies and are on the waiting list.
The elephant in the room, however, is that most Kuwaitis lack the qualifications to fill skilled positions, and consider unskilled positions beneath them. According to a source cited by Al-Anba daily, the government has a plan on how to deal with the technically-oriented jobs, but the expats affected by the age limit will continue in such jobs until the manpower needs are met. The number of Kuwaitis on the waiting list — at most 20,000 with intermediate and lower qualifications – is far exceeded by the number of expats who will be affected.
According to the Central Statistical Bureau, in 2014 the unemployment rate among Kuwaitis reached 5%, while that of foreigners was just 2.4%. And a staggering 84.1% of Kuwaitis work in the government sector while just 9.8% work in the private sector. But as a sign of how much attitudes need to change, about 44% of the unemployed Kuwaitis do not accept jobs in the private sector if offered to them. Of foreigners, 69.4% work in the private sector, 18.7% work in the household sector, and only 7.5% work in the government sector. But even highly-educated foreigners have a tough time finding a job outside of the government. Recent statistics from the Public Authority for Civil Information show that 38,196 of the 108,878 expats with a university degree are working in the public sector, while 79,277 are unemployed.
Besides stressing that the government will crack down on illegal border entry and residence-visa scams, Al-Sabeeh mentioned a plan to encourage Kuwaiti youths to be part of small and medium companies. She also added that an automation system will be used in determining the number of workers needed for the companies and projects. As such, it looks like Kuwaitis with dubious academic credentials may be “distributed” to fill private-sector jobs for which they may not be qualified. This automated scheme would be bad news for firms, whose productivity would be hit if they can’t hire the talent they need. Reforming the country’s education system (and scaling back the easy route for Kuwaitis from school to cushy government jobs) would be a far better idea, although there wouldn’t be any immediate payoffs.
The most likely outcome is that firms will continually have expats work in Kuwait on a temporary, per-project basis. For example, last week Kuwaiti officials agreed to simplify procedures for recruitment of about 60,000 workers from abroad to facilitate an environmental fuel project. However, the companies involved must use a quota of Kuwaiti personnel among the estimated workforce, and ensure that foreign workers leave the country after completing their assignments.
But an enforced brain drain will hardly help if Kuwaitis can’t — or won’t — pick up the slack.