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Mapping Syrian Skills in the Gulf: The Case of Qatar

Research Papers
© Jwan KhalafDownload Publication


The paper begins with a review of the stages of Syrian emigration to the Arab oil-producing countries, before and after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, as well as the trends of Syrian emigration to the Gulf states, and size of Syrian immigrant communities in each. Despite the lack of sources on the number of Syrians in these countries and the lack of accuracy of the sources that are available, the paper estimates the number of Syrians in these countries at fewer than 600,000 immigrants in 2011. The figure rose to between one million and 1.5 million across years of conflict. About 14% of these work in the top professions, and 11% as specialists and technicians. The study also examines the characteristics of the Syrian emigration to the Gulf states (the temporary nature of the immigration, the difficulty of organization, and having to work in other areas of specialities than their own, etc.). The study concludes with the presentation of the most important results of a questionnaire in which seven Syrian elites took part.



In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of Syrians migrated to the Americas and Europe to escape military service in the Ottoman Empire. Many of them succeeded in trade and other businesses and often settled in their respective countries. Similarly, since the 1940s, Syrians also began to travel to Arab oil-producing countries (such as the Gulf States and Libya) in search of jobs to improve their living conditions. However, permanent settlement in these countries was only a possibility for a very small minority, given the strict restrictions regarding residency. More recently, after the Syrian revolution became increasingly militarized, following the regime's suppression of the protests and the entry of foreign armed militias, coupled with the massive destruction of Syrian cities and towns, millions of Syrians of all ages and social backgrounds fled the country in the hope of finding safe refuge. Those who managed to enter the Gulf countries were, in fact, mostly family members of Syrians already residing in the Gulf. However, even these family members were only admitted in limited numbers, compared to the number of refugees in Syria's neighbouring countries, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.


  1. Stages of Syrian Immigration to the Arab Oil Producing Countries

The waves of Syrian immigration to the Gulf countries often oscillate in tandem with the fluctuations in the global oil market. As oil prices rise, immigration to the Gulf rises as a result of increased demand for jobs. Conversely, when oil prices fall, there is a decline in development projects and a decrease in the demand for foreign workers. It is possible to divide the movement of Syrian labour to the Arab oil-producing countries into five phases:

Phase I: Generally described as the traditional phase, this began in the 1940s and 1950s and continued until 1973. The number of immigrants, most of whom were skilled workers or professionals, was limited at that time.

Phase II: This began after the sharp rise in oil prices in the aftermath of the October 1973 War, which dramatically increased[1] the revenues of the oil-producing countries and the demand for labour in various sectors, especially in development projects (construction, roads, etc.). At this stage, an increasing number of Syrian migrants, with different skills, were pouring into the Gulf countries, especially construction workers.

Phase III: This phase began in the second half of the 1980s. Oil prices had dropped, and the Iran-Iraq War had broken out, leading to a significant drop in oil revenues and a cut in expenditure on development projects – many of which were completely terminated. The demand for labour declined, particularly Arab labour, which was replaced by a cheaper labour pool from India, Pakistan and South East Asia. Consequently, the number of Syrian migrants to the oil-producing countries, particularly the Arab Gulf countries, declined and many had to return to Syria.

Phase IV: This phase can be traced to the beginning of the new millennium when oil prices began to rise anew. This phase prolonged from 2000 to 2008, where the price per barrel shot up to about $95. As a result, a new wave of Syrian immigrants poured into the Gulf countries, albeit to a lesser degree than that witnessed in the 1970s, as the use of Asian labour was now firmly entrenched in these Gulf countries.

Phase V: This took place on the heels of the global financial crisis of 2008, which was accompanied by a sharp deterioration in oil prices[2]. Consequently, large numbers of Syrians began to return home after the decline in development enterprises and the increasing difficulties in finding job opportunities in the Gulf countries.

After the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, the regime resorted to using all types of weapons to suppress the protests that broke out throughout the country. On the one hand, armed militias from different parts of the world appeared in Syria and intervened in the conflict (Hezbollah and Shiite militias from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries, as well as the Sunni extremists who formed organizations such as al-Nusra and ISIS and others). As a result, for many Syrians, fleeing to other countries proved to be their only choice.

The refugees fled the bloody conflict to neighbouring countries at first (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan). Furthermore, many tried, and continue to try, to migrate to other countries in Europe, America and elsewhere, despite the countless risks and difficulties. With regards to the Gulf countries, these states only opened themselves to a limited number of family members of Syrians who had been residing in the Gulf prior to the crisis, in addition to some members of the business community.

Non-GCC citizens must meet a myriad of requirements in order to be admitted to a GCC country, many of which do not apply to Syrian refugees. For example, one of the most important requirements for acquiring a visa is that one must hold a prior employment contract with a public or private institution. Notwithstanding these restrictions, following the strong criticism directed at these countries in light of reports of Syrians risking their lives to reach Europe, coupled with the fact that some Gulf citizens started to raise questions regarding the policies of their own government, GCC countries began to provide visas to more family members of Syrian residents and expand support for Syrians already living in the Gulf region. However, according to one report, "there are still serious obstacles to opening the door wider for new Syrians who are migrating for economic reasons." In fact, some reports claim that such opportunities are diminishing. The policies adopted today by the governments of these countries focus on reducing the number of expatriates via a series of actions, such as shifting towards the knowledge economy; reducing unskilled labour; eliminating surplus labour; and increasing the participation of women citizens into the economy, etc.

The GCC states, however, compensate for these strict requirements by providing generous financial assistance to refugees in their places of residence, especially in Lebanon and Jordan. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are among the largest donors of humanitarian aid. They have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in food, shelter, clothing, medical care and educational programs to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, as well as in Syria.


  1. The Geographic Distribution and Size of Syrian Immigration to the Gulf States

The majority of Syrian emigrants have chosen Saudi Arabia as a favourite destination, followed by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The number of Syrian immigrants to Arab oil-producing countries before the October 1973 war was estimated at 66,000. Approximately 40,000 of which were in Saudi Arabia, 13,000 in Kuwait and 7,000 in the United Arab Emirates[3]. However, this number increased dramatically following the 1973 oil crisis. In 1975 alone, the number of Syrians who left the country was estimated at more than 70,000 – 3.7% of the Syrian labour force for that year.[4] Due to the cumulative waves of migration and the various channels through which they took place (regular work requests, visits, departure from other countries than Syria), in addition to the fact that there was a lack of official agencies in Syria that were supposed to asses and organize migration, estimates on the number of Syrian emigrants became increasingly difficult and less accurate. Nevertheless, the figures of the General Federation of Trade Unions in Syria indicate clearly the increasing emigration: the Federation estimated in 1982 that 200,000 of its members had left the country to seek employment[5]. Not all emigrants, though, are members of the Federation, as many, especially in the rural areas, are not enrolled in it.

Some studies conducted on different regions of Syria substantiate the fact that the majority of Syrian emigrants are moving to Saudi Arabia. In a field study conducted in the late 1980s in the region of Qalamoun (one of the most migratory regions to the Gulf), about 60% of the migrants went to Saudi Arabia, 25% to Kuwait, and 10% to the UAE[6]. Another study conducted in the province of Hama found that about 70% of migrants were heading to Saudi Arabia[7]. The most important factor for choosing Saudi Arabia was the availability of greater job opportunities, proximity, and ease of transportation, including land transportation.

Estimating the numbers of migrants to the Gulf countries became more and more difficult on the eve of the Syrian revolution in 2011. There was a dearth of accurate data as the Gulf countries insisted on banning the dissemination of information on the number of expatriates in the GCC in general, but particularly because of the campaigns directed towards the GCC countries for blocking Syrians from seeking refuge. Therefore, in order to provide approximate estimates of the numbers of Syrians in these countries, this paper will rely on sources and references that vary in accuracy and from different years.

From an unpublished research on immigrants from different countries of the world in 2011, we can draw the following data regarding the emigration of Syrians:

Table 1: Syrian emigrants in different countries in the world in 2011

Australia and Iceland




Arab countries








* Among them there are more than 60,000 in the U.S.A only.

** No data is available on emigrants in Asia and Africa.

Source: A table on Syrian emigrants from all over the world in 2011, arranged by a researcher (who wishes to remain anonymous) based on unpunished estimates, most of which is not published.

Table 2: Syrians in the GCC in 2011

Saudi Arabia




Oman and Bahrain






Not available


Source: the data is taken from the Arab countries column in Table 1.

Other sources (mostly media sources) provide somewhat different data but confirm the same trend:

- Al-Arabiya Net indicated, on 9 September 2015, that the number of Syrians in Saudi Arabia before 2011 was less than a quarter of a million. "Today there are three-quarters of a million Syrians living in Saudi Arabia, including 200,000 residents and more than 30,000 who have entered Saudi Arabia on a temporary visa and stayed there… Half a million Syrians entered Saudi Arabia when the Saudi authorities permitted Syrian residents to bring in their family members to live with them in Saudi Arabia and benefit from basic social welfare. " Technically speaking, however, Syrians in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are not recognized internationally as refugees, as local authorities treat them either as residents (if they have a job contract) or as temporary visitors who have to renew their visitor visa periodically.

- Multiple sources indicate that Kuwait has received about 120,000 Syrians, since the beginning of the crisis. Accordingly, the current number of Syrians in Kuwait is approximately a quarter of a million.

- According to UAE data, the UAE has granted residency permits to more than 100,000 Syrians since 2011. Prior to 2011, the Syrian population totalled around 140,000, which means that more than 240,000 Syrians currently live in the UAE[8].

- As for Qatar, available data indicates that the number of Syrians before 2011 ranged between 30,000 and 39,000 people[9]. After the revolution, however, Qatar received between 19,000 and 25,000 Syrians[10]. According to this data, the number of Syrians in Qatar today ranges between 50,000 and 60,000 people. It is important to note that the Qatari authorities have decided not to deport Syrians until the situation in Syria stabilizes.

- No data is available on the numbers of Syrians in Oman and Bahrain. It is known, however, that their numbers are small in these two countries compared to the rest of the Gulf countries. This is due to the limited oil revenues in the two countries, but also because, unlike the nationals in the other Gulf States, the citizens of Bahrain and Oman make up a sizeable proportion of the labour force, including manual work.

Hence, we can estimate, albeit with some degree of doubt and reservation, that the number of Syrians in the Gulf countries at present is between 1 and 1.5 million. Furthermore, it is estimated that nearly half of them entered these countries after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Most of those who arrived after 2011 were family members who joined their relatives in those countries. However, a small number of Syrians in the Gulf are business people who have moved their businesses from Syria to the Gulf.


  1. Professions Occupied by Syrians in the Gulf States

Syrians in the Gulf work in various professions. However, most of them work in construction, transport, and occupations that require manual labour. In light of the lack of reliable data on the distribution of the jobs that Syrians occupy in each of the Gulf countries, this paper will only analyze those jobs in one Gulf state: Qatar. In turn, we assume that the jobs of Syrians in Qatar do not significantly differ from other Gulf countries.

Table 3: Economically active Syrians (15+ years) in Qatar according to their occupations (June 2015)



Percentage of the categorized processions

High professions



Technicians and specialists



Management and intellectuals









Ordinary labour



Total of the categorized occupations



Non-categorized occupations






Source: unpunished Estimates

According to the table above, some 14% of the economically active Syrians are employed in the higher professions (detailed below), while roughly one-third are employed in manual occupations, and about a quarter are employed by state agencies and other private and public-private institutions.

As our research largely focuses on the skills and competencies of highly-educated Syrians, we will detail below the high-skilled, technical, and specialized professions occupied by Syrians.[11]


Table 4: Syrians who occupy high occupations in Qatar (June 2015)

Directors / Managers

Experts& academics





number #











Consultant / adviser








Director General






Civil Engineer














Chief Editor






Electric Engineer






Lawyer / paralegal








Head of Department






Mechanical Engineer










Oil and Chemical Engineer










Agriculture Engineer
























Source: Ibid.

As the table above shows, nearly half of Syrians working in the higher professions are engineers in various fields (most of whom are civil engineers, according to the table). More than 36% are directors and officers of departments, while 13% work in medical professions.

More than 38% of the technicians and specialists work in electrical, mechanical, and electronic engineering, while more than a quarter work as technicians in various construction professions. A large number of those whose jobs were not specified in the table are of the last two categories. The following table provides further details:

Table 5: Syrians working as technicians and specialists in Qatar (June 2015)

Technicians: electrical, Mechanic, and Electronics

Construction technicians

Other technicians

Unidentified technicians












Electrical technician


Plaster technician


Metal technician


General technician


General specialist




Installation technician


Surveying technicians




Agriculture specialist


Computer technician


Décor technician


Security technician




Social specialist


Electronics technician


Marble technician


Oil fields technician






Cable technician


Welding technician


Dental technician






IC technician


Maintenance technician


Steel technician








Glass technician




























* Including technicians in the fields of natural treatment, lab, chemistry, pesticide, design, photograph, etc.

Source: the same source above.

Based on the data above, and assuming that the composition of the professions occupied by Syrians is similar throughout the Gulf countries, we can estimate that the total number of Syrians working in the higher professions ranges from 140,000 to 200,000 people. Meanwhile, the total number of technicians and specialists ranges between 110,000 and 165,000 people.


  1.  The Distinctive Characteristics of Syrian Immigration to the Gulf States

The emigration of Syrians to the Gulf differs from emigration to other countries in terms of several defining features. Below are the most significant ones:

1.            One of the characteristics that distinguish migration to the Gulf from migration to other (non-Arab) countries is the temporary residence and the constant travel, to and from Syria. This is because Syrian migrants are unable to settle in Gulf countries as there is no guarantee of permanent jobs. On the other hand, the immigration of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians to North America and that of North Africans to France and other European countries has often entailed permanent settlement. The flow of migration of workers from Arab labour-exporting countries to Arab oil-producing countries, however, is rather similar to the internal migration within one country. Often what occurs is that workers leave their villages without completely severing ties with them, while often leaving their families behind. They usually visit their homes depending on the season and availability of work. Generally speaking, this represents the experience of immigrants in the Gulf as employment contracts are usually limited to a certain period, and one cannot reside in a Gulf state without a contract of employment.

This particular characteristic has resulted in close ties between Syrians in the Gulf and their country of origin. For example, many Syrians feel involved in events taking place in Syria, and consequently, often feel obliged to provide material assistance to areas affected by conflict. Syrians in the Gulf have no hope of acquiring citizenship, as is the case with Syrian refugees in any European or North American country, so their connection to the homeland persists.

2.            In the Gulf countries, it is often very difficult to establish political groups or unions. On the one hand, migrants do not work in modern industry. Industry in the oil countries is almost exclusively limited to oil extraction and refining, and sometimes includes the petrochemical sector. Only a few Arab immigrants work in these industries, which means that there is no broad Arab (including Syrian) working class in Arab oil-producing countries. On the other hand, immigrant workers are widely spread over a large number of professions, structured around an employer and a limited number of employees. As a result, there is a lack of socialization and class-consciousness among workers. A number of workers often share their work performance with their bosses to satisfy them and to keep their jobs. This often helps to soften the differences between workers and their employers who they depend upon for occupational and residency purposes.

However, this did not deter forms of solidarity to emerge amongst Syrians following the outbreak of the conflict, especially since the Gulf States, in general, supported the revolution against the Syrian regime. Despite the restrictions imposed on financial transfers for Syrians in some Gulf countries (allegedly for combating terrorism), they have always found ways to send remittances and aid. The most popular way to send assistance was via family and relatives. Remittances were mainly sent to the residents of the migrants’ villages or towns.

Bonds of solidarity among Syrians vary somewhat from one Gulf country to another, depending on the country’s position vis-à-vis the conflict. However, the dominant forms of solidarity have been primarily "humanitarian". Although sharp disagreements occurred between supporters and opponents of the regime (but not between sects, ethnic groups, etc.), the prevailing sentiment is opposition to the regime and solidarity with those affected by the conflict.

3.            In the Gulf, there has also been a shift in the nature of work that Syrians are employed in. Comparing the work of Syrians in Syria before their migration to their new jobs in the Gulf States, exposes a shift from relatively high-skilled work to low-skilled work. The pursuit of higher incomes in Arab oil-producing countries has led many professionals, technicians, skilled workers and teachers to accept jobs and working conditions below their true skill levels. Some exceptions occur when migrants acquire new expertise, especially when certain types of work demand certain technical skills. However, despite the consumer lifestyle that Syrian workers develop in the Gulf, the relatively high incomes of Syrians residing in the Gulf allow them to send financial aid back home.

4.            The decline in investments in productive projects in Syria by Syrians in the Gulf necessitates some research on how to invest capital accumulated by these Syrians during a potential reconstruction process. We believe that most of these investments will go towards real estate projects, especially housing, schools and other facilities, while others may lean towards trade – especially imports. Syrian contractors in the Gulf work primarily in real estate, with some having knowledge of road construction, but they have little expertise in industrial projects, and even less in agricultural projects. Consequently, few of them are likely to consider investing in such projects.

5.            Last, one of the characteristics and outcomes of Syrian immigration to the Gulf is the deterioration of the work ethic. Broadly speaking, this includes the glorification of money where the ends justify the means; the contempt for productive manual labour; and the decline in the importance of educational and cultural activities.  As a result, corruption in government and public institutions in Syria has often intensified. This is largely because there is a substantial disparity between the limited salaries of Syrians working in the public sector in comparison to the income of Syrians living in the Gulf. This disparity lays the groundwork for bribery to flourish vis-à-vis deals with foreign companies and Syrian government officials. While Syrian immigration to the Gulf has led to an increase in the number of wealthy Syrians, it has also strengthened a social class that is parasitic in nature. This social class often relies on consumerism, brokerage, real estate speculation, corruption, bribery, and extra-economic coercion to reproduce itself as a class. In fact, this social class often shares the same interests as that of foreign monopolies. We believe that the importance of this class and other Syrian business elites will have a direct impact on the reconstruction process in Syria.


Concluding Remarks on the Views of Syrians Working in the Gulf States

A questionnaire was sent to qualified Syrian nationals in Qatar (one of them in Kuwait), taking into account the proportion of professions that they occupy (for example, the largest proportion work in engineering). Four engineers, two academics, and one doctor responded. Although it is difficult to draw reliable results from a few respondents to a questionnaire, the answers display consensus on a number of important points.  Below are some results from the questionnaire:

1. All respondents have lived outside Syria for more than 10 years, with some of them arriving to the Gulf more than 25 years ago. In fact, they have not visited Syria since 2011 or 2012. Two of the engineers work as contractors for small or medium-sized enterprises; two academics work in social research in government institutions; and the doctor is in charge of a prestigious medical centre.

2. The respondents became increasingly interested in Syrian affairs following the events of 2011, as they were able to update themselves on political and social developments daily. Two of the respondents said they followed the events in order to become better informed, while others spoke of actively supporting the revolution via assistance to friends, family, and civil society organizations. They all provided financial assistance in some form, and some provided in-kind assistance such as blankets and clothing. Initiatives were primarily personal in nature, although some spoke of forming support groups as well.

3. Everyone expressed their intention to contribute to the future of Syria and their fellow Syrians following the end of the conflict, despite one of the respondents being suspicious about how the conflict will be resolved.

4. With regards to the ways Syrian expatriates could help Syria, most of the respondents highlighted reconstruction, financial or professional assistance, or both. Some of them linked the effectiveness of assistance to the cessation of war, the removal of foreign militias, the withdrawal of arms, and the nature of the new regime (equal citizenship, safety, coexistence and acceptance of the other). Moreover, the academics stressed the importance of reforming the education system in Syria.

5. Three of the respondents expressed a desire to look for investment opportunities in Syria after the end of the conflict, while four of them either said that they did not want to invest in the country, or even doubted that there would be viable opportunities for them to do so.

6. Security and political stability were emphasized as key criteria in terms of making a decision to return back to Syria and expand assistance and investments. Some of them demonstrated the need to abolish the security apparatuses or, at least, to better define their role. The majority indicated that a potential political solution must rest on a democratic system based on institutions that ensure the rule of law, justice, freedom and dignity. One respondent, however, said that he was ready to help regardless of whether these conditions or criteria are met.

7. In terms of the avenues of assistance through which respondents preferred to contribute to, each focused on their own areas of specialization. The academics emphasized the need to develop higher education and transform universities into centres of research and creativity – free from political and security concerns. They also expressed a desire to contribute to the development of the community sectors noted in the questionnaire. On the other hand, engineers largely focused on infrastructure, roads and construction. The doctor in the sample pointed out the importance of participating in the reconstruction of the medical system in Syria.

8. Regarding their confidence in effectively delivering support, all of the respondents doubted the presence of reliable institutions. One respondent, however, singled out civil society organizations as a possible channel to deliver assistance.

9. The respondents emphasized the importance of ending the conflict and reaching a political solution as a precondition for making further decisions. At present, some respondents claim to make decisions based on the advice of their close, trusted acquaintances in Syria. Others pointed to global publications, consultants and intermediary institutions as reliable sources.

10. Everyone emphasized their willingness to work with civil society organizations, while two of them expressed willingness to work with all parties, if the appropriate conditions were met.

11. The majority of the respondents said they did not trust the local councils except for those that were properly elected and are not dominated by armed forces.

12. In terms of the factors that discouraged the provision of assistance, all of the respondents emphasized corruption as their primary concern, although some directly linked corruption to larger political and security structures.


[1] The crude oil prices, which remained in the period leading up to the 1973 war between $ 2 and $ 3.5 a barrel, jumped to about $ 12 in the wake of the war (in December 1973) and then to $ 32-34 per barrel in 1980. In mid-1986 prices fell to around $ 12 a barrel again, and this price remained almost unchanged until 1998 due to the volatility of the Iraq-Iran war and its consequences, on the one hand, and to the financial crisis that hit the Southeast Asia economies, on the other. For further details see: Dr Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar Mussa, Haidar Shalab and Shakke, Historical evolution of Oil Prices, 1862-2010, the Kuwaiti Kuwait Journal of Economic and Administrative Sciences, Wasit University, Issue. 18, 2015).

[2] Oil prices fell from $100+ a barrel (in some years) to $77 in 2010 and then to $50 in 2015-2017. The decline in the dollar against other currencies has contributed to the erosion of the revenues of oil-producing countries, as oil is priced in dollars. For example, the nominal price for a barrel in 2010 was $77, while its real price (i.e. after taking the inflation factor into consideration) was $ 61. (See Abdul Sattar Abdul-Jabbar Mussa, op. Cit.).

[3] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “The New Arab Social Order”, Beirut, 1982, p. 64

[4] Mahmoud Abdul Fadeel, Oil and the Arab Unity, Beirut, 1981, p. 29

[5] Bader Ghaya, The Syrian Emigrating Workforce to the Arab Oil-producing Countries, MA thesis, unpublished, Damascus University, 1978, p. 53

[6] For more details, see Khider Zakariya, The Characteristics of the Social Composition in Syria, Damascus University, 1990, Chapter 9

[7] Bader Ghaya, Ibid, P. 57

[8] Ibid.

[9] See the detailed data on Syrians in Qatar below.

[10] The Ambassador of the Syrian National Coalition mentioned the smaller figure in an interview published on September 15, 2015, while Qatar Foreign Minister mentioned the greater figure in an interview published on September 29, 2015.

[11] Please see the distribution of the Syrians onto other professions in detail in the tables of the appendix below.