Expats Hold the Right to Keep their Passports and Official Documents in the Middle East

In light of the many challenges brought about by the common practice of requiring expats to surrender their passports and other official documents to their sponsor (under the kafala system) by several Arab nations, various petitions have been made over the years by relevant governments as well as labour rights groups to rectify the situation.

In this post, we share some key updates and existing labour provisions set by various Arab countries in relation to the expats’ right to hold their own official documents which include their passports.

Image Credit: Edwin Sarmiento (Flickr)

Expats in the Middle East Are to Keep their Passports, Official Documents

Saudi Arabia

The Labour Ministry had emphasized that foreign workers and expats hold the right to keep their passports and official documents. Anyone who clearly violates this important rule will face serious charges and penalties, warned Taysir Al-Mofraj, the ministry’s spokesman.

The revised Labour Law of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia states that any employer or company who keeps the passport of their employee is subject to a fine of SR 2,000.


Under the new labour laws of Kuwait currently being written, companies will soon no longer be allowed to withhold their employees’ passports. With the Kuwaiti government now taking a new humanitarian approach towards expats living in the country, and in order to deal with the injustice and abuse that can occur under the sponsorship (kafala) system, a draft resolution is expected to be tendered to the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL) and Minister of Planning and Development, Hind Al-Subaih within the month.

The Kafala or sponsorship system is used to monitor migrant workers, working mostly in the domestic and construction sectors.


Passport: An employer has no right to withhold an employee’s passport without a relevant court order.

This practice is considered a violation of freedom of movement against Article (19)(b) of the Constitution, which ensures the freedom of movement of every person within the territory of Bahrain. The practice is also considered a criminal misappropriation and breach of trust especially in cases when an employer lawfully obtains the worker’s passport (in order to process his/her residency permit and other living requirements) but unlawfully withholds it without the worker’s consent.


Withholding an employee’s passport is considered illegal in Oman as the document is considered to be a personal document as well as a legal property of the government who had issued it. In practice, a passport is usually requested only to be stamped with a residence visa and must be returned afterwards.


Keeping and withholding employees’ passports are a clear violation of Qatar Law.

The Law 4/2009, which regulates the entry, exit, as well as the residency of expats and foreign workers in the country, guarantees the foreigners’ right to keep their passports as part of the protection offered by the Qatar law.

Violation of this law as per Article 52 of Law 4/2009 is subject to a minimum fine of QR 10,000 to the sponsor or any representative for each passport unlawfully withheld from their employee/s.

United Arab Emirates

The withholding of employee passport by an employer is against the law in the UAE. An individual has the right to take the legal course against this, if done without the employee’s consent or without a court order to support the act.

According to the decree mandated by the Ministry of Interior (December 2002), retaining an employee’s passport is considered an illegal act, unless it is sanctioned by government parties. The passport is considered an official travel document which bears the individual’s identity and information. Every foreign individual in the country must keep his/her passport and present it to government authorities if requested. Withholding anyone’s passport without a court order is deemed punishable by law.


By knowing your rights as an employee even in a foreign country, you can ensure better working conditions and above all, your safety and protection as a human being. If this article has helped you in any way, be sure to share it with your friends and family. Know your rights. Stay informed.