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Saudi Arabia to expel up to 2 million workers

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Teodros Adhanom, the Ethiopian foreign minister, has turned to Twitter almost every night for the last three weeks to tersely report the number of his countrymen expelled from Saudi Arabia.

“Last night arrivals from Saudi reached 100,620,” he wrote on Friday, describing a fraction of one of the largest deportations in recent Middle East history.

Riyadh has said it wants to forcibly expel as many as 2m of the foreign workers, including hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Somalis, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who make up around a third of the country’s 30m population.

At home, the exodus of illegal workers is being seen as the kingdom’s most radical labour market experiment yet. With one in four young Saudi males out of work, analysts applaud Riyadh’s determination to tackle the problem, but doubt the crackdown will achieve its objective, as Saudi nationals are unlikely to apply for menial jobs.

Overseas, the deportation is causing friction between Riyadh and the east African and southeast Asian countries that traditionally have provided Saudi Arabia with the bulk of low-wage workers that for decades have fuelled its economy.

Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and several other countries are struggling to absorb the thousands of unemployed young men now returning, with development officials worrying about the impact on remittances.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s second biggest source of remittances, only behind the US, with outflows of nearly $28bn last year, according to estimates by the World Bank. “Millions of dollars of Saudi flows will vanish, impacting the poorest areas of eastern Africa,” says an official at a regional development agency. Saudi analysts expect the crackdown on illegal workers to reduce remittance flows by nearly a quarter next year, or about $7bn.

Riyadh has defended the expulsions, saying illegal expatriates have had months to legalise their status. The kingdom, which shares 1,800km of porous, mountainous borders with Yemen, had for years complained that the Yemeni government was not doing enough to stop illegal immigrants, drug dealers, armed militants or members of al-Qaeda from crossing to the kingdom.

General Mansour al Turki, the interior ministry’s spokesman said that last month Saudi Arabia stopped 50,000 illegal immigrants, most of them Yemenis, Ethiopians and Somalis, trying to cross the Yemeni borders into the kingdom. Many more succeeded. “We are not targeting specific nationalities, we respect all people who are legal residents of the country, but we have a serious situation on the borders with Yemen,’’ he said. “If we do not give a clear sign that even if they cross the border they will be returned, we will be encouraging the smugglers in Africa to keep bringing them here.”

Since an amnesty ended in early November, hundreds of thousands of workers have been deported to their home countries, including as many as 150,000 Indians and 200,000 Yemenis. Thousands of Ethiopians remain in 64 detention camps set up in the kingdom, according to the foreign ministry. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based non-governmental group, this week denounced attacks by Saudi nationals on Ethiopians. “Saudi authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals in the media, and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the labour crackdown,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the human rights group.

The crackdown on African and Asian illegal migrants is meant to complement a government labour market reform known as nitaqat, Arabic for “ranges”. Replacing the failing fixed-quota “Saudisation” system of 1994, nitaqat places a sliding scale of financial penalties and incentives on employers who fail to hire enough Saudi nationals. By draining the pool of cheap expatriate labour, the Saudi government hopes to encourage private sector employers to hire more nationals.

“The nationalisation agenda has been around for 20 years, but what’s changed is that the Arab spring has made private sector jobs for nationals a political priority,” says Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics. “Saudi Arabia has become a laboratory for labour market reform,” he says.

But both Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, which face similar if less pressing demographic pressures, face challenges in bringing their nationals into work, not least low skills.

Natasha Ridge, Ras al-Khaimah-based executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said: “Gulf nationalisation efforts are fundamentally challenged by low quality national education systems which, despite billions of dollars of investment, are yet to provide graduates with the appropriate skills to fill middle management roles.” Breaking cultural taboos on female employment is another challenge, especially as Gulf women outperform men in educational attainment. “Until employment is connected to education and experience the chance of sustainable and effective nationalisation programmes in the Gulf remain slim,” she adds.


7 Comments on "Saudi Arabia to expel up to 2 million workers"

  1. J-Gav on Sat, 7th Dec 2013 11:24 pm 

    A few Saudi chickens coming home to roost? To the detriment of ‘them furriners’ of course, at first, just like in N.America and Europe … after they shamelessly exploited them for decades. So now, surprise, surpise! Will the young unemployed Saudi males want to take those jobs? Or will they be opened up to women? Who cares?

  2. Solarity on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 1:22 am 

    In Saudi Arabia … “low-wage workers for decades have fuelled its economy.” Have low-wage workers ever been an economic engine anywhere? Don’t think so. OIL fuels KSA’s economy. And obviously, low-wage earners there are much better off than at their indigenous homes.

  3. BillT on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 1:59 am 

    This is only the beginning of the shedding of foreign labor. You cannot ship an oil well to another country like you can ship factories. Now that the domestic labor problem is getting worse, and the number of riot age males is rising, it is becoming harder for the 7,000 Saud princes to drive their Maserati’ on the street without fearing for their lives. That is also why oil will not get cheaper. Most oil producing/exporting countries need that money to keep their population happy.

  4. DC on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 3:03 am 

    Now if the ‘west’ would otherthrow its corporate rulers, we too could get started on the vital task of returning the millions of illegals we voluntarily stuck ourselves with, back to their homelands as well.

    Still, it is interesting to read this story. Those ‘menial’ jobs in S.A. are just one step above legalized slavery, and in many cases, probably not even that. Lazy, Oil-rich Arabs have a well-deserved reputation for abusing there ‘guest’ workers in every way imaginable. But, the wages they do send, terrible as they are, are of some benefit back home. But Saudi employers are complete dirtbags. Abuse, non-payment of wages are commonplace.

    As for all those lazy Saudi men? Well, getting rid of those workers *might* have some benefits, if done properly. Saudi employers would lose their ability to pay sub-par wages and working conditions. But lazy saudi ‘men’ will have to learn to work for their pay as well, which will be a strange experience for many of them. Oil wealth has produced a people that sit in offices, malls and hotels with the AC on full tilt while rarely venturing outside to get there hands dirty.

    There is no guarantee S.A. society can ‘reform’ itself on this issue, I mean, reform and Saudi-anything are two words often not see travelling together. It could, but personally I doubt it.

  5. rockman on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 2:08 pm 

    I suspect ELM is at least part of the motivation behind the move. The foreign workers weren’t probably a huge energy drain but ever bbl not used to support them is one more available for export. I also suspect the role of foreigners in some of the Arab Spring happenings wasn’t lost on the gov’t.

  6. DC on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 2:31 pm 

    I dont think ELM is really a factor like you say. ELM is however being ruthlessly applied against African nations mainly through the IMF. Expelling the guy that washes lazy Saudis cars and makes there spoiled childrens beds, wont free up much oil for export. I mean, it is after all, pretty energy efficient when you cram 10 workers in a room meant for one or two and only turn on the water and power whenever you feel like it. That is to say, not often.

    I think your second point carries more weight that the first. S.A. knows full well its ‘guest’ workers are abused and exploited like few places on Earth. Who here would doubt which sides those people would be on if S.A. were subject to mass uprisings.

  7. Arthur on Sun, 8th Dec 2013 3:31 pm 

    In 1954-1955 the US expelled more than 2.5 million Mexican illegals (wikipedia “Operation Wetback”).

    Over the past 1400 years, Europe has thrown out Islam three times: Poitiers/732, Reconquista/Granada/1492, Vienna/1683. The fourth time is in the works, scheduled for just after the end of the globalist American era and the Renaissance of two renewed Islamic empires, centered around Istanbul and Tehran.

    When the resource situation will tighten, as it will in the coming years/decades, all over the planet, expect all talk about ‘integration’ to evaporate, with everybody falling back on the relative security of his own local ethnic/religious group. Welcome to the multipolar world of tomorrow.

    History is back, for better or worse, after a few decades of enjoying the couch potato status, flipping the channels, growing fat in the process.

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