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Gulf row could hit migrants

Monday, June 5th, 2017
Nepal changing laws

Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. Pic: Pattabi Raman

There are fears that the diplomatic row between Qatar and five of its Gulf neighbours could affect the flow of Nepali migrant workers there and deal a blow to Nepal’s remittance economy if it escalates.

Remittances from migrant workers provide nearly the equivalent of one-third of Nepal’s GDP and have largely driven poverty-reduction in recent years. That engine of Nepal’s development could start misfiring as the Gulf crisis deepens. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Yemen not only withdrew their diplomatic staff from Qatar but also suspended air and sea travel to and from Doha early Monday morning.


Pic: Pattabi Raman

Hours later, Etihad Airways suspended its flights to and from Doha. The UAE flag carrier does not have direct flights to Doha from Kathmandu, but Fly-Dubai has three flights a day and many Nepalis fly that and other budget airlines like Air Arabia to go to Qatar.

Qatar Airways has three direct flights daily from Kathmandu to Doha, but most migrant workers prefer budget airlines that stopover in UAE.

chart 1

This chart in an ILO report 2015 shows how the number of Qatar-bound Nepali migrant has increased since 2010.

“Nepali migrant workers now have limited options to fly to Qatar,” said Bimal Dhakal, President of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA). “They will have to buy more expensive tickets.”

More expensive tickets could be just a minor problem compared to the major, long-term impact on Nepal’s economy, potentially stalling GDP growth and reversing social progress, if the row intensifies.

“If the Gulf crisis results in an Arab war and Nepali migrant workers return from there, it will be a disaster for our economy,” says Kamal Tamang, former General Secretary of the NAFEA. “A gulf war will kill our economy, especially because Malaysia has already stopped taking migrant workers from Nepal.”

Malaysia was the biggest employer of Nepali migrant workers until a decade ago. After Qatar won a bid in 2010 to host the FIFA world cup in 2022, the oil-rich country has surpassed Malaysia. That year, only 25,612 Nepali migrant workers went to Qatar: the number rose to 124,050 in 2015.


Europe-bound Qatar Airways planes overflying Iran this morning. They cannot overfly Saudi Arabia and UAE airspace from Tuesday. Source:

Qatar has nearly finished building the World Cup infrastructure, but it is still the second biggest recipient of Nepali migrant workers. Currently, more than 600,000 Nepalis migrant workers are in Qatar. Saudi Arabia now attracts more migrant workers than Qatar, but it is also directly involved in the current crisis. Another 500,000 Nepalis work in Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Kuwait.

Says Tamang: “If the crisis escalates in the Gulf, and the workers have to return, what will they do in Nepal?”

Om Astha Rai


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