As we’ve seen up to now, Saudi Arabia’s urban society operates through the labor and services of millions of foreign workers, whose numbers are so vast that they are virtually omnipresent, and are encountered more or less continuously throughout the day.
Sources for this post
Reuters (March 27, 2013; dark blue font)
Wall Street Journal (April 1, 2013; blue font)
Arab News (September 30, 2013; dark green font)
Arab News (November 3, 2013; dark red font)
ABC News (November 10, 2013; black font)
Time (November 10, 2013; blue-gray font)
Arab News (November 14, 2013; brown font)
Arab News (November 14, 2013; violet font)
Arab News (November 16, 2013; green font)
Arab News (November 16, 2013; turquoise font)
Every office has fellows like this
Many of them speak only fragmentary Arabic, and at least in my (admittedly self-selected) experience, English is the lingua franca of office administration. Guest workers who learn Arabic, and then become fluent or facile in the language, command a premium.
Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, under which foreign laborers work in the kingdom, gives employers say over whether or not a foreigner can leave the country or change jobs, forcing many into illegal employment.
Saudi society is based on hierarchy and authority, not freedom. To be sure, as an American I love the aspects of freedom and cannot imagine living happily in a society of this much hierarchy and rule – but that is for the Saudis to decide. At issue is whether their system will be sustainable.
“The entire system by which Saudi Arabia regulates foreign labor is failing,” Coogle said.
Foreign workers carry their belongings as they leave the Manfuhah neighbourhood of the Saudi capital Riyadh, in this Nov. 10, 2013 file photo. (AFP)
Naturally, large-scale deportation of the unregistered has a chilling effect even upon the fully registered
“I could not go to work because of the trouble created by the Ethiopians. I was scared,” Ali Saad, a Yemeni resident who lives in Sharafiya, told Arab News.
“It is hard to describe what happened. All the people who live there were obviously very scared,” said Yousef Abdul Aziz, a Saudi resident.
They have reason to be scared, because if rounded up, they are vulnerable.
[Historical digression: Skip if uninterested. On 27 August 1691, when William III (of William and Mary) had defeated the Jacobites supporters of James II (known as James VII in Scotland), he offered an amnesty to all Highland lairds who signed the oath of allegiance by 31 December 1691. Many complied, but Alistair Maclain, Twelfth Chief of Glencoe, waited (in fact he was, with commendable fealty to his pledged sovereign, seeking permission from the now-exiled James II). By the time he had decided to sign up, he missed the deadline (though a combination of circumstances still hotly debated three hundred years later), and a few weeks later, the result was the Massacre of Glencoe, the MacDonalds were murdered in their beds by British troops brought their by their hosts, the Campbells of Argyll; many women and children later died of exposure in the snow.
The Massacre of Glen Coe, by James Hamilton (1996)
The episode has come down through the centuries as an epitome of treachery. – Ed.]
When people are pushed to the wall, especially if they feel this is by an unfair authority, they are likely to lash out.
Zenebe K. Korcho, the Ethiopian consul general, said the situation was a “result of the frustration and despair of Ethiopians who have been waiting for months to benefit from the amnesty but ended up in the streets.”
They may also have been incited to violence by those among them who are in fact wholly illegal.
A security source blamed the consulates for not providing these workers with temporary travel documents so that they could go home. Many of the workers had either entered the country illegally or overstayed their Umrah visas, the source said.
Even as Saudi Arabia moves to deport tens of thousands of workers, the economic consequences abound.
“Ethiopia was one of the first countries to request an extension of the initial amnesty so that citizens would benefit and correct their status.” He said the extension “was gracefully accepted.”
However, when many workers could not rectify their status, the embassy began preparations for them to go home.
Not all of them are positive, and not all of them are mere transition issues.
7. Expelling the foreigners will destabilize the Saudi economy
In a nation whose private-sector workforce is 95% foreigners, removing even 10% of them will destabilize the economy, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle.
In fact, that was happening back in April, when the policy was announced and long before the compliance period had run out:
Riyadh — Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia stayed away en masse from their offices, schools, stores and other workplaces on Monday as the government mounted a crackdown on illegal residents.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia have raided office buildings and set up document checkpoints on main roads recently for workers here illegally, according to workers, Saudis and media reports.
Naturally, pulling people out of the labor force suddenly has knock-on effects for the overall economy:
Operations at the Red Sea port of Jeddah, where more than half of Saudi Arabia’s imports arrive, slowed because foreign freight workers feared document checks, according to business leaders and news media reports. Around the capital, Riyadh, many retailers and coffee shops made do with one counter worker.
Who will do this when he’s gone?
One can retool a people-based service economy into a technology-based service economy, and customers will adapt, but it takes years if not decades. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Hotel guests could be seen carrying their own bags.
Phones went unanswered.
Many computer shops on Riyadh’s Devil Street—so-called for the videos sold there by South Asian workers—were shut.
A montage of foreign workers at Riyadh construction sites
Except for construction – which is by far the dominant activity in Riyadh, with skyscrapers dotting the hazy dusty skyline in every direction – Saudi Arabia’s private-sector economy must be almost exclusively services.
Mohammad Al-Afaliq, chairman of Alhasa Automatic Bakery, did not support the views and said: “The amnesty deadline should be extended for certain sectors.” He said the grace period should be extended for expatriate workers involved in the building and construction sector.
Just as it makes sense to extend the deadline for construction workers, it will also make sense to extend it for dockworkers. Will the Saudi government do that?
Who will do this when they’re gone?
Good are imported (I don’t know of a Saudi car manufacturer, for example); so is most food (except dates, which are a luxury, a source of rural village pride. So if the services don’t work, and in particular if the port doesn’t work, how will the country will function?
Pakistani construction workers
That spurred criticisms that the government was moving abruptly at the peril of business stability.
“Everybody is staying at home,” said a Bangladeshi taxi driver in Riyadh who said he is in the country legally. He said he had been stopped at checkpoints several times in the past two days, where he said he saw dark-green immigration vehicles loaded with people he presumed had been detained. “Everybody is worried.”
If he’d been stopped and allowed through, then he is legally in the country – but I’ll bet he knows plenty of countrymen who aren’t so lucky.
Usually, the Riyadh office block where Irishman Paul Farrell works is bustling. South Asians are posted at the ground-floor security point. Non-Saudi Arabs—Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians—sit at reception desks. Tea and coffee is brought around by South Asian men.
On Monday, Mr. Farrell arrived at his design-consulting firm there to find the lights off and the halls silent. “The door was locked—no security on board downstairs,” he said. He said he understood what was happening when he looked at the English-language paper in his hand, whose cover story described raids on shops and schools, and foreign workers in hiding. “They’re clamping down.”
In Saudi Arabia, what the monarch orders, happens. Laws are enacted by royal decree, and while there is a parliament of sorts (the Shura Council), it functions less like a Parliament and more like a cabinet. While it may draft laws, it has no power to enact them – that is reserved to the king.
A privy council … on its way to being a Parliament?
About 40% of small construction firms in the kingdom also have stopped work because their foreign workers couldn’t get proper visas in time, Khalaf al-Otaibi, president of the World Federation of Trade, Industry and Economics in the Middle East [And a Kuwaiti, not a Saudi – Ed.], told Arab News.
Saudis say dozens of businesses like bakeries, supermarkets, gas stations and cafes are now closed. They say prices have also soared for services from mechanics, plumbers and electricians.
American or English readers of this blog may find resonances with our own experience of legal, semi-legal, and illegal immigrant workers. Saudi Arabia’s approach to immigrants and immigrant labor is an exaggerated caricature of American or English public-policy practice, and as Paracelsus commented, Sola dosis facit venenum (or ‘the dose makes the poison’).
Dose makes poison?
In Saudi Arabia’s case, 9 legal and 2 illegal workers for every 18 Saudis is a ratio unlike any other in the world (except Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are even more dependent on expatriates, but whose societies are built to include and tolerate diversity).
From Aqabah to Jiddah to Mecca/ Medina is the hejaz
Add to that another 3 foreigners annually trooping through the hejaz (Jeddah, Mecca, Medina) on the hajj and you have a country that depends upon foreigners, and has a constant inflow and outflow of them, yet chooses mainly not to see or perceive them.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]