Despite seemingly open immigration policies and rights-based reforms, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries recently engaged in international and domestic policies to better control immigration. This article unpacks the realpolitik of mass immigration conducted by the Gulf states by showing how they use retaliatory and coercive migration diplomacies as well as migrant rightswashing on the international scene to shape immigration flows. At the domestic level, Gulf governments’ reforms seek to police labour market segmentation and institutionalise a regime of “differential exclusion” that officialises intersectional discriminations across nationalities and class. Drawing upon sources in English and Arabic, as well as interviews with public officials, businessmen, and migrants in the region over a decade (2006-2017), this article describes how states and nonstate actors, including businessmen, migrant networks, and brokers, operate policies and practices of control. I first find that a recent sovereign turn has transformed migration politics in the Gulf. I show that contingent state policies and reforms in the past decades more accurately account for migration governance processes than oil prices and market dynamics, the nature of political regimes, or the rentier structures of Gulf polities. This study thus fills a gap in migration research on the Global South that usually focuses on emigration countries and diaspora policies and underestimates the role of immigration policies. Secondly, I find that migration policies have become more discriminatory across migrant categories in the GCC, as other studies have shown for OECD countries. Such findings lead us to discuss the global relevance of illiberal practices and policies and introduce the hypothesis of a global convergence in illiberal migration governance.
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illiberal governance, immigration policies, diplomacy, labour market, brokerage, differential exclusion, rights-washing, Middle East, Gulf