Forever a stranger: Living as an Expat in the GCC

I was born in a GCC country and attended high school there too. It never felt like home. There are a countless number of expatriates residing in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, the UAE, that have spent 30, 40 and some more than 50 years there. Despite of the lives spent in these countries, the memories, the losses and triumphs, despite of knowing nothing else in the world but these countries and what they have to offer, none of these long-term expats can ever truly call any of the GCC home.

Kuwait’s famous towers

The laws of the GCC countries do not grant citizenship or permanent residence for any long time expat – regardless of the number of years spent in the country. Just imagine that – living your whole life in a country from birth, to marriage and the birth of your own children and beyond – yet you’ll always be a stranger, a begrudgingly tolerated guest.

kuwait old
Kuwait sometime in the 70s.

Want to continue living in the country you’ve called home when you retire? No – you have to go back to the country of “origin” – where you are also treated as a stranger after having lived your whole entire life abroad. In fact in order to even stay in the country at all you must have a sponsor – either a local or a company – meaning you must be employed at all times.

Want to start your own business to develop the country too? No – you need a local as a majority “business partner” (except Dubai where you can register in a limited way in one of their free zones).

For Kuwaiti expats, many of whom have helped build the country from nothing but a desert – they may be “taxed for using the sidewalk”. 

Aramco 70s
Saudi Aramco residential compound in the 1970s

The relationship between locals and expats is complicated to say the least. On the one hand – and this is coming from decades of life experiences and observing and absorbing the experiences of others around me – the locals know that their countries would not have been where they are now if it wasn’t for the millions of expats that made it so. From as early as the 1950’s – expats have played an integral role in the explosive development of these countries over the years. Everything from construction workers to teachers, doctors, and all those in between.

Saudi today.

Yet racism is on the rise, countries change, people change, and populism blossoms in the face of adversity. So where does that leave us expats?

In defense of the locals – no one was ever promised citizenship or even permanent residence. They knew that it was never on the table, and aside from political/sporting reasons – they never give citizenship anyway, to any one. Which is actually understandable considering that Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi are all essentially massively overstretched welfare states that can barely take care of their comparatively small number of citizens, and in many cases will have to be changed to a more realistic/sustainable system – their systems simply couldn’t handle taking care of all these people like they would their citizens.

It may make sense, but it just doesn’t feel right. To have to see your parents leave what is essentially their home to go to a now strange “home country”. It never feels right. But what choice do any of us really have? Stay in your home country and put up with living on poor wages, or get better money but alienate yourself forever. Forever a stranger at home and abroad.



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