Kerala’s Arabian Nightmare

Hundreds of Keralites are returning home every month after losing jobs in the Gulf, but hopes of starting afresh in India are unravelling

Firstpost print Edition

Ending his three-and-a-half decades of pravasi life, Hamza Koya returned home last year, hoping to begin life again at the age of fifty-eight. He isn’t the only one who has chosen to head back to Malappuram district, which, with 4.06 overseas Indians, has the biggest emigrant population in the Kerala. “Neither there is life nor money,” says Koya, crisply summing up the state of the labour market in the Arabian Gulf, once the dreamland of Keralites.

However, life back home hasn’t been working out quite as he’d imagined.

Hamza had returned with a plan to launch some business. However, an eatery he opened with his small savings at his hometown of Venniyoor failed to click. He was forced to close the outlet within three months and join another restaurant as a supplier.

 Kerala’s Arabian Nightmare

Hamza Koya (right) at a Malappuram restaurant where he is the supplier

“The ₹500 I now get as daily wage is just not enough to sustain the family. I am adjusting as there is no other way I can make money,” says Hamza, father of four children, including two girls who are still in the post-secondary stage of their education.

Though Hamza has two sons working in the Gulf, he says what they earn is not sufficient to meet even their needs. He is rather afraid that they too may have to return soon, making life further tough for the family.


This is the fate of thousands of Keralites, who have returned from West Asia with their Gulf dreams shattered. The scope for providing jobs to the returnees, who are mostly looking for white-collar work, is limited since Kerala is grappling with the highest rate of educated unemployment in the country.

Haneefa Munniyoor, general secretary of Pravasi League, a migrant wing of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), says the main problem with the returnees is their reluctance to do manual labour, which is currently being done by migrants from north and north-eastern states.

“As per studies, there are about three million in-migrants in Kerala at this time. If they are ready to do the job now being done by these workers, all the returnees can be gainfully employed. Unfortunately, the emigrants who enjoyed a higher status in society are not ready to ‘compromise’. Most of them are, therefore, trying to venture into business,” says Haneefa.

Hundreds of shops are being opened every month in the Gulf pockets with scant attention to feasibility of the business. And an equal number are getting closed every month as the crisis in West Asia and the devastation caused by the floods in August destroyed the local economy, which was mostly dependent on the foreign remittances.

Travel through Ernakulam, Thrissur, Malappuram and Kozhikode districts shows shops along the state and national highways lying closed or deserted.

Business used to thrive during the boom days. As a result of migration, the erstwhile traditional economy was replaced by chains of shops with foreign goods, restaurants serving Arabian cuisines, furniture marts, fashion shops and so on. Most of them are either closed or on the verge of it.

The Gulf job crisis is the result of structural reforms undertaken by governments in West Asia, belt-tightening by companies to cope with the economic crisis fuelled by the steady fall in oil prices, Saudi-Qatar standoff and inclement global market conditions.

The Kerala Migration Survey (KIMS) 2018 by S Irudaya Rajan and KC Zacharia of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, shows that as many as 144,459 emigrants have returned from Gulf countries between 2013 and 2018. The total number of return emigrants estimated by the study is 12.95 lakh, which is about 60 per cent of the number of emigrants.

On the other hand, fresh migration has been showing a steady decline. The number has dropped from 20.7 lakh in 2013 to 18.93 lakh in 2018, a fall of 2.78 lakh.


While hundreds are returning every month after losing jobs, the plight of those who survive is often worse than those who got the marching orders. Salaries are not paid for months together and even when paid, they have to settle for deep cuts.  And yet, for want of anything better, most people cling on.

Raju Thomas, a native of Kochi, for 10 months without salary at a construction firm in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. And then, he saw his wage cut by 40 per cent due to the ongoing economic rationalisation in the country. Unable to come to terms with his new situation, Raju returned and frantically searched for a job.

“I went from company to company in Kochi but could not find any job commensurate with my experience. I could not remain jobless for long as the EMI of the loan I had taken for buying a flat in the city kept mounting. There was no way other than returning to Saudi and taking up a job at half the salary,” he says.

Raju is lucky that he could find another job in Saudi, which was the favourite destination for Keralites until the 1990s. The scope of high savings was the biggest attraction. While Nitaqat or Saudisation, introduced by the government in 2011 to ensure jobs to its own nationals, hit the Keralites’ employment opportunities, new levies such as dependents fee and the Value Added Tax pushed up the cost of living.  Hurt from both ends, many Gulf Keralites have been forced to send their families back.


At 5.2 lakh, Saudi had accounted for the largest number of Keralites (38 per cent) working abroad until 1998. The UAE, which was in second position with 4.1 lakh, has now overtaken Saudi with 8.3 lakh. The number of Keralites in the UAE kept swelling as those thrown out of employment in the other countries relocate to the comparatively less trouble prone emirate.

K Raveendran, former Business Editor of Khaleej Times, an English daily published from Dubai, says the displaced personnel destroyed the job market in the UAE by offering themselves at a fraction of their original pay packets. The availability of high skills at the lowest cost has encouraged companies to fire their high-earning staff and hire cheap local recruits.

“With the mismatch between supply and demand mounting, companies have made it a policy to get rid of their high-paid staff and replace them with highly skilled and experienced hands willing to work for a pittance. This reduces the prospects for everyone,” he says.

Satheesh Nair, who has been working as a senior executive in a market research company in Dubai, is a victim of this new syndrome. The 50-year-old Keralite from Ernakulam was given the pink slip in December 2018 but taken back a month later at 25 per cent less salary. Satheesh said the company had fired about 100 high-paid employees last year and replaced them with low-paid staff.

Raveendran says the future for expats is bleak as the world looks for alternatives to oil and companies in West Asia start adopting technological innovations to automate jobs. It is widely expected that all cars which currently run on hydrocarbons will be phased out within the next 10-20 years and this will rob the Gulf economies of all their clout.

Automation itself is predicted to affect millions of jobs.  According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 20.8 million jobs will be wiped out if the six Gulf countries use their digital tools and resources for automation. This accounts for 40 to 45 per cent of jobs which are held mostly by expatriates. This figure is expected to reach 55 to 60 per cent by 2030.

Workers with low-to-medium levels of education and experience are vulnerable to the automation shock. Nearly 57 per cent workers in these countries have high-school education or less, with 22 per cent holding graduate degrees.  It is these groups that will be impacted maximum by automation, says the McKinsey study.

Sabeel AP, who returned from Saudi Arabia, at Thirunavaya

Sabeel AP, who returned from Saudi Arabia, at Thirunavaya

Automation is likely to hit Kerala heavily since about 55 per cent of the Gulf migrants have education levels of higher secondary or below, according to KIMS 2018. This means more than 70 per cent of Keralites will have to return if they do not upgrade their skills. The transition is also likely to affect fresh emigration.

“I don’t agree with doomsayers that the oil-based Gulf economies are crumbling. The oil-producing countries have realised that they cannot survive merely by exporting crude. Most countries are going for massive value addition. This will throw up a lot of job opportunities in the coming years. Keralites can make use of these opportunities if they acquire the required skills since they enjoy goodwill of the rulers and employers,” says KV Shamsudheen, chairman of Sharjah-based Pravasi Welfare Trust.

However, he agrees that life for the returned migrants will be tough as a majority of them are lower-income group workers who neither have any savings to sustain their families back home nor the skills to re-migrate to other countries.

“Most of them have splurged their earnings on building posh houses and acquiring luxury without realising the fact that they will have to return home one day,” he said.

PT Kunju Muhammed, a former legislator and chairman of the state-run Kerala Pravasi Welfare Fund Board, concurs with Shamsudheen. However, he argues that it will not be the end of migration from Kerala. He feels that the Gulf countries would not be able to sustain their economy without expatriates.

“If the depression in West Asia continues, the enterprising Keralites will find other destinations. Many have already started exploring possibilities in the Far East and African countries. Africa has the potential to emerge as another Gulf for Keralites,” says Kunju Mohammed, who has made a film on migration from the state.


Kerala has traditionally been a migration-dependent state. The state saw different waves of migration since the beginning of the 20th century. The first- generation migrants were semi-skilled or quasi-professional workers to Ceylon, Malaya, Burma, Madras, Calcutta, Karachi and Bombay.

Then there was a second wave of migration between 1945 and 1960 to Singapore, Malaysia and different parts of India. Most of those who moved away were high-school-educated, semi-skilled workers.

The third wave, from 1960 to 1975, consisted of people with technical skills and professional training (technology professionals, nurses, clerks, technicians, etc). The fourth, from 1975, saw mass migrations to the Gulf, USA, Germany and other countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Foreign remittance accounts for 19.3 percent of Kerala’s domestic product and is largely responsible for the development of the state. In spite of the decline in emigration and steady increase in the number of return emigrants, remittances have not gone down. On the contrary, it has only gone up.

Irudaya Rajan, a co-author of KIMS 2018, says increase in the remittances is an indication of the rise of Kerala migrants in the social ladder. The new- generation migrants are highly educated and skilled professional who get higher wages compared to the unskilled and semi-skilled labourers that comprised the first generation of migrants.

Remittances play a significant role in Kerala’s economy and the living conditions of people. The KMS 2018 has estimated total annual remittance to Kerala from the migrants working abroad at ₹85,092 crore a year. This means, on an average, a per capita remittance of ₹24,000.

Somehow, Kerala will have to learn without.

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