“Kick the foreign workers out of the Arabian peninsula!” This call, recently issued by a Saudi writer in the pages of the Al-Hayat newspaper, recommends a radical solution to the unemployment crisis now gripping the youth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Foreign workers occupy critical positions all throughout the Saudi labor market. One finds workers coming from all corners of the earth to the hearts of bustling cities or to the outskirts of the desert in search of work or seeking to ply a trade.
You see them in the transit lines that connect the far flung regions of the Kingdom. You see them working at the gas stations, waiting tables at restaurants, working as janitors, teachers, nurses, doctors and engineers; as shoe-shiners, cell phone vendors, in every conceivable position with one exception: that of a beggar, with hand outstretched.
Saudi Arabia has known a tremendous influx of newcomers from abroad during its economic boom following the discovery of ‘’black gold” in the Kingdom. Millions have arrived, focused on the abundant job opportunities provided by all the economic expansion; from new factories to oil pumps to large corporations and institutions, all of which needed to be built up in the midst of an arid desert.
Yet they didn’t find much enthusiasm among local inhabitants for working under the conditions it entailed. Desert construction required long hours in the suffocating heat, and for meager salaries unequal to the aspirations of those who owned this natural wealth.
A solution was needed. Legally or not, foreign workers were recruited who knew how to accomplish the tasks that their employers and investors wanted accomplished — workers who knew how to work in silence, who would undertake the most daunting of jobs for the most meager of wages. Their numbers rapidly expanded until they came to constitute over one-third of the Kingdom’s 30 million inhabitants. The professions they work in have become so dependent on foreign labor that it is not possible for Saudis to replace them.
The excessive reliance on foreign workers has not benefited Saudi Arabia in the least. Apart from their taking hold of the opportunities made available to them, foreign workers present stiff competition to local workers.
Their incomes depart the country in the form of remittances (estimated at over 140 billion Riyals annually) to their native countries, without contributing so much as a penny to Saudi coffers. Saudi Arabia does not have an income tax, and the government subsidizes basic commodities like food and fuel, which benefit both citizens and non-citizen residents alike.
Another flaw lies in the Saudi working culture, which holds some professions in extremely low esteem, and whose practitioners are subjected to various humiliations by their fellows from the same tribe, clan or even family.
This stigma attaching to native Saudis seeking these jobs leads to a reluctance among employers to hire them. Saudis, by and large, will not tolerate either long working hours or minimal wages, and they have a tendency towards conspicuous consumption.
Foreign manual labor, by contrast, is inexpensive, efficient and knows the needs of the market.
Foreign workers came before the formula of supply and demand had hardened and broken their spirits. As a result, Saudis have gradually been removed from the foundations of their national economy only to find themselves — after more than 50 years — unable to create space for themselves within their own country, unable to do the most basic kinds of work.
The economy here is a gatekeeper: Some of it is lost in overseas banks, or in the hands of capitalists who are solely concerned with quick profit and prosperity (even if it comes at the expense of the national economy that clings to large sums of surplus capital). Some of it is lost through financial remittances that depart the country at the first of every month.
The government of Saudi Arabia has recently adopted a policy of “Saudization’” for the private sector. In an effort to put an end to local companies’ excessive reliance on foreign hands, they are required to hire a certain percentage of employees from among Saudi citizens in order to qualify as a legitimate enterprise in the Kingdom’s eyes.
Private companies have been able to circumvent “Saudization” by hiring so-called “masked employees.” They function as a fig leaf by hiring a sufficient number of Saudi citizens to satisfy the requirements by showing up at the first of every month to collect their salaries (which do not exceed the minimum wage of around 3,000 Riyals) without doing any the actual work.
Employers resort to such tactics because it is no simple matter to employ Saudis in the private sector: They require preparation and training to get them up to speed on the tools of the trade, whereas migrant workers are already prepared.
The government sought to solve the problem of unemployment by increasing payments to the unemployed as part of the “Hafiz” program. This program failed to reduce the officially recognized unemployment rate, as many were forced to reveal that they, in fact, numbered among the “masked unemployed.”
The imbalance between the local worker and the foreign laborer and the latter’s ability to compete with the former have exacerbated the crisis between a population increasingly divided into two segments.
Saudis believe that foreign workers are forcing them to share that which they most desperately need, accuse them of monopolizing all the opportunities in their own country, treat them with malignant racism to guarantee that they will not raise their voices to complain, while raising their own voices to demand the removal of the vast numbers of foreign workers currently assigned to serve each Saudi.
But deep down, Saudis know that they’ve fallen into a trap. The clothes they wear are not of their own making, but the fine stitching of some Indian laboring 20 years for a salary that might very well be less than what Saudis can earn simply by staying at home.
Saudi youth are enduring a real crisis of unemployment, but they are doing nothing to cope with it but wait.
The Kingdom has the second highest rate of unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa, after only Iraq. It exceeds that of many Arab states with vast populations like Egypt or Morocco. A Saudi youth does not want to dirty his hands with work that would bear the stigma of something for Indians or Filipinos, nor does he wish to work long hours; yet he wishes to receive a decent wage with which to get started in life.
He has ambitions atop ambitions, yet the opportunities around him are contracting. The market waits for no one. Buying and selling must go on, even while the Saudi sits in a corner of his country refusing to extend his hand to the foreign workers alongside him, insistent upon an office and the traditional jobs.
The above article was translated from Assafir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.