Job nationalization: How does it affect expats?

  • Arab workers at office
Published on 2023-02-13 at 10:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
The phenomenon of “workforce nationalization” happens when expats are systematically replaced by locals in various jobs. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have come into the spotlight in recent years for implementing nationwide job nationalization measures.

What is the rationale behind workforce nationalization?

The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – have been strengthening workforce nationalization measures since around 2020. The private sectors of these countries have been largely dependent on expats since the 1970s, but after the global post-Covid and post-Ukraine War economic downturn, they decided to reduce unemployment among local citizens.

The only way to achieve this is to give the jobs held by expats to local citizens. This is also a way to encourage women's employment, as non-expat women in Gulf countries, even if they are largely university-educated, haven't joined the workforce in large numbers yet.

In Kuwait, the policy of “Kuwaitization” aims to reach a 50:50 ratio of expat to local workers by 2025 and a 30:70 ratio by 2030. The Siasat Daily reports that in 2022, the number of expats working in Kuwait's public sector plummeted by 70%. Expats in the education sector have also recently been targeted, with over 200 heads of departments being demoted in January and about 1,800 teachers to be terminated in the next few months. They will be replaced by Kuwaitis who have been awaiting promotions for many years.

In Saudi Arabia, a similar process of “Saudization” (called “Nitaqat” in Arabic) is part of the broader strategic framework of Saudi Vision 2030. As reported by The Saudi Gazette, its first phase began in December 2021, and its second phase just began in January 2023. Arab News reports that, at the end of the first phase, that is, in the third quarter of 2022, capital market institutions managed to make Saudis become 77% of their entire workforce. In this second phase, various sectors, from computer repair businesses to marine engineering to marketing, must reach a “Saudization” ratio of 70%-100% by different deadlines in 2023 and early 2024, says the immigration firm Fragomen.

In Oman, the “Omanization” movement has barred expats from 207 job categories: HR officers, grocers, ambulance drivers, legal clerks, psychologists, and occupational safety inspectors in the energy industry, among others. The Gulf News reported in late 2022 that jobs in five core sectors of the economy (oil, banking, telecommunications, hospitality, insurance) have become considerably localized since 2020. For instance, nearly 95% of jobs in commercial banks are now staffed by Omani citizens.

What do expats think about workforce nationalization?

Behind these quantitative targets are individual expats with attachment to their countries of adoption, hopes and feelings of disillusionment. Some have shared their opinions and feelings on the forum of and when solicited on social media.

Solicited for his testimony on the Facebook group “Expats in Oman,” a Greek expat named Daniel says that he hopes that “Oman can find a balance between supporting its citizens and allowing expats to continue to contribute to the country.” He used to live in Oman, but he has recently decided to relocate to the UAE for more expat-friendly work opportunities in the hospitality industry.

When Daniel was in Oman on an e-visa, he struggled to find a job in this industry – but in the UAE, he was able to get a good job with an expanding, multinational restaurant company. While a nationalization policy called “Emiratization” also exists in the UAE, it is less intense than Omanization. As reported by the Khaleej Times, private companies are required to increase their number of Emirati workers only by 1% every 6 months.

Daniel believes that in Gulf countries, expats and tourism should be considered as valuable as natural resources like oil. When he sees new apartment complexes being erected in Muscat, he wonders who will buy them if the population of expat buyers is dwindling. He found Oman to be “a great country with a great culture and hospitality” to live in, but he thinks it should “invest in expats in order to ensure a sustainable future” and to be “the future of the Middle East.”

Another expat in Oman, Hyder from Pakistan, was solicited on the same Facebook group. He is of the same opinion as Daniel that Oman should follow the UAE's current economic and immigration model. That is, he believes that expats bring investment “that plays a major role in any country's economy,” so retaining rather than replacing expats can bring Oman as much prosperity as the UAE has.

Other countries might not have official nationalization policies, but preference is still given to locals over expats in indirect ways. On the forum of, Mithié, a French expat in Morocco, says that he finds it quite normal that in this North African country, local candidates are preferred over expats as long as they have the required skills. He says it's important in order for young local graduates not to suffer from high unemployment rates. In various European countries, the “labor market test” is also an indirect form of prioritizing locals. This test checks if no local candidate can be found for a specific role before a company is allowed to recruit an expat.