A Palestinian friend who has lived in Manama for two decades finally resolved his nationality dilemma two years ago by giving up his Jordanian passport and taking Bahraini nationality.

It was a momentous decision, but he has no regrets. He has bought a home in Bahrain but retains the right, through his Palestinian passport, to visit family in the West Bank.

This just one example of the profound change taking place in the demography of the Gulf and the wider Middle East, as the great oil boom enters its fifth year this autumn.

Of all the movements of people into the region’s energy economies, the quickening migration from north to south will be the one with the most lasting consequences.

Golden future

Perhaps no more than a few thousand have followed my friend’s path and swapped the uncertainties of being a citizen of an unsettled northern Middle East state for the a golden future promised by the unstoppable rise of the new Gulf economy.

Special factors still apply. Bahrain is the only GCC state where a passport is readily available to Arabs with the right qualifications. Being an orthodox Muslim may not be among the most important, but it helps.

Elsewhere, the door remains largely sealed to all but a small minority who have served the region loyally over several decades.

Relaxing policy

There are two factors that suggest that the GCC may eventually become more open to the idea of allowing people to become nationals.

The first is that Gulf labour demand is now so intense that it may begin to make sense for GCC countries to relax their nationality policy. Granting passports to a larger number of Arabic-speaking professionals willing to make a lasting contribution – particularly in countries where the skills shortages are most intense – may significantly contribute to the long-term stability of societies that are changing fast.

The second factor is the huge number of young people from the Levant who have moved to boom Gulf economies since the start of the decade. Some would have come anyway. But many have lost hope that a normal life will ever be possible in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq. They may talk about their plans to return when things are better. In their hearts, however, they know that their exile may be permanent.

Swiss model

There are models for the managed extension of national rights. Citizenship in Switzerland can only be gained by a permanent resident who has lived without interruption for 12 years in the country. Applicants also have to speak at least one of the Swiss languages fluently and satisfy onerous conditions, including becoming integrated with the Swiss way of life and being familiar with Swiss “habits, customs and traditions”. Anyone who secures a Swiss passport will also have to be accepted at three levels: by the canton, the community and the federation.

Needless to say, if Switzerland doesn’t want you, there is no chance of getting a passport. Similar rules apply in Monaco, another of the few places on earth – like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – with no income tax. It is, therefore, not beyond GCC governments to establish their own roadmap showing how to get a passport over time.

Bahrain apart, no GCC country is seriously exploring ways of granting citizenship to more than a handful. But to provide a transparent and coherent multi-step process for the right people to eventually become GCC nationals could bequeath substantial long-term benefits to the region.