Standing between two rubber trees in a village in south India, Usman Thondiyan describes with emotion the 17 years he spent making and sewing sofas in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, working about 80 hours per week for $200 to $400 a month. “I received little education, and I had no chance of getting a decently paid job in India, so I opted for migration. Money from the Gulf bought me a house and a rubber tree plantation,” the man said with pride.
The money sent home by the Gulf migrant workers — about $115 billion in 2019 — is a lifeline for millions of households across South Asia and Africa. In Nepal, for example, personal remittances account for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.
Like dozens of millions of migrant workers in the Gulf region, Thondiyan pocketed tax-free wages higher than what he could have earned in his hometown. But he had to leave Jeddah after his employment contract was terminated; he chose to return home to become a self-funded retiree. Gulf economies, structured around disposable foreign workforces, offer no formal route to citizenship, permanent residence or access to state pension schemes.