The win-win calculus of global family remittances

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The UN estimates there are more than 200 million migrants around the world who send money home, supporting more than 800 million family members. (AFP)
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Updated 15 June 2019
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The win-win calculus of global family remittances

  • Migrant workers form the backbone of an industry projected to keep growing
  • India, China, Mexico, the Philippines and Egypt were the biggest remittance recipients in 2018

DUBAI: Irish Basco remembers all the occasions that her father was not around to attend; anniversaries, family dinners, graduation ceremonies. Her father moved to Saudi Arabia 20 years ago when she was seven years old. At the time, the family was growing; working in the Philippines would not have been enough to meet its growing expenses. The solution was to find a job abroad and send money home regularly.
So when Basco’s father packed his bags and flew to the Middle East with a heavy heart, he left behind his wife and three young children who had no idea of the adjustments they would have to go through in the years ahead.
As the world prepares to mark International Day of Family Remittances on June 16, it recognizes the sacrifices made by families such as the Bascos and the difference remittances have made in the lives of those receiving them while playing a major role in the economies of many countries.
The Middle East, especially the Gulf region, is full of stories of migration, separation from loved ones, and remittances. The narrative is as much of economic success as it is of human resilience. Economic migrants form the backbone of a flourishing remittance industry that is only projected to grow.
The UN estimates there are more than 200 million migrants around the world who send money to their home countries, supporting more than 800 million family members, most of whom are in low- to middle-income countries (LMICs).
World Bank data show that in 2018 remittance flows to LMICs reached $529 billion, an increase of 9.6 percent compared to 2017 figures. This is expected to grow this year to $550 billion, making it larger than foreign direct investment and official development assistance flows. According to the bank: “In the coming decades, demographic forces, globalization and climate change will increase migration pressures both within and across borders.”
One expert says the movement of people across international boundaries for work is a natural occurrence in a world where skill sets differ from one country to another.
“There are defined borders in the world, but human beings are transferring from one place to another, so it’s an inherent consequence that they will have to send money to their homeland,” Mahmood Bangara, chairman of the Dubai chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), told Arab News.
Global remittances have a lasting impact on the lives of families. Basco, who graduated from a private university in the Philippines in 2013, said she could not have got her degree without her father’s support.
“We can’t deny that we experienced the good side of (migration). My father was able to provide something that the Philippines couldn’t. My father worked in a factory. He pursued different side jobs just to earn more,” she told Arab News by phone from Manila.
“If he hadn’t gone to Saudi Arabia, we wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my education.”
But Basco said her family would never have wanted her father to leave the country “if there had been options other than migrating for work.” She said families are often pushed to the wall by circumstances.
Basco also said her father’s remittances allowed them to make a few investments.
“Expats remit money back home for a number of reasons; to support families, to earn higher rates of interest on local bank deposits, to invest in local real estate, stocks and other assets, to manage inheritance and build retirement funds,” Ambareen Musa, a UAE-based financial expert and CEO of the financial comparison website Souqalmal, told Arab News.
The benefits of remittances go beyond tending to the needs of families. For many developing countries, money derived from overseas transfers make up a significant chunk of their foreign-exchange earnings. “India, China, Mexico, Philippines and Egypt were the biggest remittance recipients in 2018 (in that order),” Musa said, citing World Bank data.
“India received over $78 billion in remittances in 2018, which made up 3 percent of the country’s GDP while the Philippines received over $33 billion, which formed a sizable 10 percent portion of GDP. These countries, like many others, rely on remittances to support their economic growth.”
The ICAI’s Bangara said remittances are a form of income for countries that can be used for domestic consumption.
“They can become savings in the bank. They can be used for certain purposes including investments and property purchases,” he said. “The money benefits the receiving countries by enabling them to meet project expenses. As long it is invested in some form, the money will be available for national development.”
Although the benefits of remittances are more apparent for the receiving countries, the sending countries are also reaping rewards through the services provided by foreign workers who choose to work there, to say nothing of the remittance business itself, which is now a multibillion-dollar, transnational industry.
“Nobody will employ overseas labor to incur losses. Nobody is forced to employ foreign labor,” Bangara said, adding that the remitting countries, such as those of the Gulf, benefit from labor migration in many ways.
As to whether the nationalization programs under way in several Gulf states will affect the prospects of migrant workers and consequently the remittance industry, Bangara said: “The elimination of foreign workforce is not going to happen in the near future.”
“It is true that there is a growing preference for employing domestic labor in almost all countries. But given the growth of these economies, they may continue to need the services of expatriate workers. Employment rates might be slightly affected, but there will be more projects coming up that will drive economic growth and require more manpower.”
It wasn’t easy growing up without a father figure, Basco said. No amount of money can replace a father’s presence, she said. “I feel that even if he finally decides to retire and come home, it will be difficult to get back all those moments,” she said. “But we will try.”


‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

Updated 20 July 2019
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‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

  • On June 17, 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan entered the history books when he journeyed into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are spearheading a new era of Arab space exploration

Arab astronauts may not have set foot on the moon, but an Arab geographer left his mark on the Earth’s natural satellite as long ago as 1935.

A lunar impact crater 65 km in diameter was named AbulFeda by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in honor of Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida, a prince of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

The IAU was founded in 1919 to promote the science of astronomy and pay homage to major contributors in the field. AbulFeda is just one of 11 lunar craters named after luminaries from the golden age of Islamic civilization, which lasted from the mid-7th century to the 13th century.

In all, 24 lunar craters have been named after individuals from the region, including Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), an Andalusian inventor, physician, musician, engineer, humanitarian and poet — and the first man to fly. According to a 9th century poem, the so-called Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim world “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight.”

Ibn Firnas was 65 when he became the world’s first hang-glider, jumping off the side of a mountain with feathers attached to his body and “touching the sky for a few minutes,” according to historical accounts.

Centuries later, in February, 1976, a meeting between the-then president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts changed the course of a man’s life and fired the imagination of a young nation. A year earlier, the astronauts had taken part in the historic docking of an Apollo command/service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US–Soviet space flight.

A black-and-white photograph of the meeting, which can be seen at the operational air force squadron in Abu Dhabi, made a great impression on a young Emirati pilot, Hazza Al-Mansouri.

“I would look at the photo and imagine retaking it with three Emirati astronauts sitting with the founding father,” he said later.

Now 31-year-old Al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first astronaut, will also make history when he joins a mission to the International Space Station in September.

“It is a great honor to be represent the UAE in space, and to make my dream and the dream of a nation come true,” he told Arab News.

The astronaut plans to take personal items with him into space, including a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

The photograph of Sheikh Zayed and the US astronauts was not the only image that fired Al-Mansouri’s imagination. Inside his fourth-grade school book was a color photo of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first Arab and royal to travel into space.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the space shuttle Discovery. During the seven-day mission, he helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).

Prince Sultan became a hero and an icon across the region. “We have long reached the stars and beyond,” he said.

Two years later, on July 22, 1987, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the first Syrian and the second Arab in space, carrying a vial soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, struck a responsive chord with many when he later told an interviewer: “When you go up there, you realize there are no borders, no countries, no nationalities. Just Earth. Mother Earth. We should protect this Earth. Who hurts their mother?”

The 1980s was a decade of expansion, exploration and transformation in the Middle East. Now, 30 years later, that energy has returned.

As the third Arab country (after Saudi Arabia and Syria) to send a man into space, the UAE has a special relationship with space and the moon.
In a corner of the Al-Ain national museum is “a piece of the moon” gifted to Sheikh Zayed by the three US astronauts.

“This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace,” says the plaque describing the object.

Next to it, is a small, well-traveled UAE flag.

“This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard spacecraft America during the Apollo XVII mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Presented to the people of the UAE from the people of the United States of America, Richard Nixon 1973.”

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the UAE is looking forward to the launch of Al-Amal, or Hope, in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. The spacecraft will orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.

“The moon landing was a pivotal moment in human history,” Salem Humaid Al-Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Arab News.

“It was when something we imagined became a reality, and humanity left this planet. It was the result of science, engineering, mathematics and imagination coming together.”

“Space makes people dream the impossible,” said Al-Marri.

The words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — have become part of history.

“It was such a powerful statement that influenced so many who watched the original landing as well as those from the current generation who watched it on the Internet or TV,” said Al-Marri. “There isn’t anyone who hasn’t see the moon landing somewhere.”

The space era began as a “race” between the superpowers that helped to break new ground.

“The race pushed space industry development to new levels. While it was driven by military involvement, the benefits from the technological advances were for all people,” said Al-Marri. “We have better satellites, as well as a better understanding of our planet and the world around it, as a result.”

However, after the 1969 moon landing, strained budgets and depleted resources forced the space industry to abandon competition and embrace cooperation.

“Space today is all about cooperating to reach new heights. If you want to fly into space now, you have to do so on a Russian spacecraft as the Americans retired their shuttles in 2011,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Mansouri will head into space together with a US and a Russian astronaut, symbolizing a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.

“The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost the Arab presence in the space industry,” said Al-Marri.

“Space is bringing Arab nations together.”

In the broad sweep of history, these space programs are building on the contributions of the Islamic civilization that shaped the modern world — and honoring the memory of scientists and explorers such as Abu Al-Fida and Ibn Firnas.