Due to the sharp rise in the growth of the local population since the 1980s and the increasing levels of education, the government, as in many other states in the Gulf region, needs to provide young Bahrainis entering the job market with employment. It plans to gradually reduce dependence on foreign labor by training the local workforce and by insisting that expatriates coming to Bahrain to work must have better expertise and skills and be willing to train their local counterparts. After decades of importing foreign labor, foreigners comprised about 44 percent of the workforce of 295,000 in 1998.
Population growth has been proportionately higher among foreigners and Shiites than among Sunni Muslims, who have enjoyed relative job security in government positions. Foreign workers and Shiites have increasingly had to compete for both skilled and unskilled jobs. Since Bahraini Shiites are not allowed to join the armed forces and are discriminated against for senior positions in the civil service, an increasing number of young Shiites try to enter the job market with few qualifications and few opportunities for work.
Officially, unemployment stands at only 2.4 percent, but the United States embassy in Bahrain estimates that the actual rate is closer to 18 percent. Among the Shi'a community in Bahrain, especially those under the age of 30, unemployment may be as high as about 30 percent. In rural areas, agricultural laborers represent about 25 percent of the population. Women are traditionally confined to the household and cannot participate freely in the labor market. Thus, only about 19 percent of the labor force is female, equaling figures in other Middle Eastern countries.