Once a happy hunting ground for job seekers, Pakistanis have seen work prospects in Gulf countries shrink dramatically in recent years, most prominently in war-hit countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
According to figures submitted in the National Assembly recently, as many as 8.7 million Pakistanis have found work overseas between 1971 and 2015, over 84 per cent of which has been in Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia has been the most popular destination catering to 4.3 million Pakistanis (49.4 per cent of all overseas workers) and hence a top source of foreign remittances ($2.89 billion between July-December 2015 according to State Bank).
The second largest country to host Pakistani workers has been the United Arab Emirates where 2.8 million have found work between 1971 and 2015.
Jobs in Kuwait, which had provided employment to 109,951 Pakistanis from 1971 to 2002, have shrunk dramatically in the years following the Arab Spring with only 132 Pakistanis given jobs in 2014 before rising slightly to 155 in 2015.
Despite being a major contributor for remittances, the US has seen only 4,760 Pakistanis find work between 1971-2015, while 12,170 were working in the United Kingdom during this period.
The story in crisis-hit countries, however has been quite different.
Iraq hosted 68,133 workers from 1971 to 2001. After US troops invaded the country in 2003 to oust strongman Saddam Hussain, the war had meant little to no job prospects.
But the situation began to improve 2012 onwards with 2,651 workers having found work there. According to the data provided by the Bureau of Emigration and overseas Employment, 32 Pakistanis found work there in 2012, jumping to 951 in 2013 and 1,041 in 2014. However, the rise of the Islamic State group in 2015 and the corresponding counteraction saw a corresponding fall in Pakistani workers going to Iraq with only 625 people going there during this time.
Syria, where Islamic State has a large footprint and has seen extended global counteraction from the likes of US, France, Britain and now Russia, saw no Pakistanis find a job there in the past five years. That is not to say, however, that Syria was ever a happy hunting ground for Pakistanis with only 346 people finding work there between 1971 and 2011.
It was a similar story in war-hit Libya. Before Muammar Qaddafi fell in 2011, 72,610 people had found work there. And while the trend was on the rise for a while after the dictator was killed, doubling from 1,872 in 2012 to 4,543 in 2013. However, increasing fighting saw that fall from 2,121 in 2014 to just eight in 2015. At the height of the fighting in 2014, around 7,040 Pakistanis had to be evacuated from the country. Around 700 Pakistanis remained in Sirte which were advised in August 2015 to leave as the situation there deteriorated.
Unrest and uprising in Yemen has also affected the Pakistani labour force there. According to the bureau, only 22 Pakistanis were employed in Yemen last year as a coalition of Gulf countries took on rebels. This was down from 137 Pakistanis who found employment there in 2014. As many as 5,420 Pakistanis had found employment in Yemen from 1971 to 2015. Renowned economist Kaiser Bengali blamed the government for not doing enough to ensure protections for Pakistanis working abroad, and for failing to create economic conditions within the country to stop the workforce drain.
“I know many textile sector industrialists in Karachi who have shifted their focus to stock business instead while those in iron and steel industry are now importing goods from China,” Bengali said as he explained how jobs within Pakistan were shrinking and causing more people to explore prospects abroad.
He warned that conflict in oil-rich Arab countries could render a large section of Pakistanis jobless who would have no option but to return home, at which point the country would have another economic crisis on its hands.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2016.