Caught in the Vise

For centuries, the ruling kings, sultans and emirs in the Middle East have plundered their national resources to finance their extravagant lifestyles.

The dramatic wave of popular revolts cascading across the Middle East has already toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As we went to press, Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi, who goes by the laughable honorific title of Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya — currently the longest serving head of state — was hanging on by a thread. Opposition forces have overrun the vast majority of the country and Col. Gaddafi is defiantly threatening a bloody last stand in Tripoli. His brutal 42-year rule will likely come to a violent end in a matter of weeks, if not days.

But these are just the earliest salvos in an uprising that is likely to engulf the autocratic — and they are all autocratic with varying degrees of brutality — Middle East regimes. Already tremors are being felt in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq. It is only a matter of time before protest movements rock the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

It cannot happen soon enough. For centuries, the ruling kings, sultans and emirs in the region have plundered their national resources to finance their extravagant lifestyles. In recent decades, hundreds of billions of dollars in annual oil revenues have been squandered for the hedonistic indulgences of the ruling elite. Instead of using their natural wealth to build up domestic economies, the sheikhdoms import indentured foreign labor for the most menial, as well as the most important tasks. As a result, almost 80% of UAE’s population is foreign, as is 75% of Qatar’s, 68% of Kuwait’s and 54% of Bahrain’s.

When the current regimes of these countries implode, the global impact will not just be economic — on oil, the most common U.S. concern. It will equally be humanitarian as millions of expatriates working in these countries are dislocated. The problem will be especially acute for the 5 to 6 million Indians — the single largest foreign group — who toil in the Middle East, nearly 3.25 million in Saudi Arabia and UAE alone. Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen (see table) between them have another 1.5 million Indian laborers, who will all be caught in the vise should civil strife engulf these countries.

Neither Tunisia nor Egypt had significant Indian presence. Libya has fewer than 20,000. Nonetheless, the Indian government was caught flat-footed when the simmering protest movement erupted there. Thousands of Indians in Libya escaped only by fleeing to the Tunisian border by road. Imagine the gravity of the humanitarian crisis when the number of Indians that has to be rescued is in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Bahrain, which is already at the tipping point, has 290,000 Indians, almost a quarter of the country’s population. Yemen, where the regime is tottering, has 101,000.

There is little evidence that the Indian government has developed any contingency plans to cope with the impending disaster facing its citizens in the Gulf. It cannot simply pray that these regimes not implode. On quite the contrary, we hope that they do, so that their brutal medieval grip on the region is broken at long last.

The Indian government — and the overseas Indian community — should begin to prepare now for the humanitarian disaster that will inevitably follow.

CountryIndian Population% of Total Population
Saudi Arabia1,500,0006


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