Foreign workers are crucial to the Saudi economy — cleaning schools and doing construction work — but they are fleeing as the government cracks down.
“This is not racism or a lack of respect for diversity, but you cannot imagine how much negative comes from these groups instead of positive. These people, every day, cause problems.”
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA—Garbage is piling up on the streets around the mosque housing the burial site of the Prophet Muhammad. Grocery stores have shut their doors, and almost half of Saudi Arabia’s small construction firms have stopped working on projects.
The mess is because foreign workers — on which many businesses rely — are fleeing, have gone into hiding or are under arrest amid a government crackdown launched early this month.
For decades, lax immigration enforcement allowed migrants to take low-wage manual, clerical and service jobs that the kingdom’s own citizens shunned.
Authorities now say booting out the nine million migrant workers will open up more jobs for citizens, at a time when unemployment among Saudis is running at 12.1 per cent, as of the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But the nationalist fervour driving the crackdown risks making migrant workers vulnerable to vigilante attacks by Saudis fed up with the seemingly endless stream of foreigners in their country.
Since the Saudi government began issuing warnings earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have been deported, though some were able to avoid arrest by getting proper visas in an amnesty program. That amnesty has now ended, and some 33,000 people have since been placed behind bars. Others have gone into hiding.
With fewer people to do the job, the state-backed Saudi Gazette reported that 20,000 schools are without janitors. Others are without school bus drivers. Garbage became so noticeable around the mosque housing the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb that a top city official in Medina helped sweep the streets, the state-backed Arab News website reported.
About 40 per cent of small construction firms in the kingdom 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, told Arab News.
Saudis say dozens of businesses, such as bakeries, supermarkets, gas stations and cafes, are now closed and prices have soared for services from mechanics, plumbers and electricians.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press that if the kingdom wants to be serious about the problem, authorities should look at the labour laws, not the workers.
Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, under which foreign labourers 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.
“The entire system by which Saudi Arabia regulates foreign labour is failing,” he said.
The owner of a construction company in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, said he had to halt all of his projects. He said he was not the legal sponsor of most of his labourers but that they made more money working as freelance hires.
“These people have worked in this country and their blood is in the stones and buildings,” he said, speaking anonymously for fear of government reprisal. “You cannot just, like that, force them out.”
Saudis largely have cheered on the police. Residents have taken matters into their own hands on several occasions, despite police calling on the public not to make citizen arrests.
Saudi residents of Riyadh’s poor Manhoufa neighbourhood recently fought with Ethiopians, detaining some, until police arrived more than two hours later. Video emerged of a crowd of Saudis knocking on the door of an Ethiopian man’s house, then dragging him out and beating him in the street. A Saudi and a migrant were killed and dozens wounded in the clashes.
The violence began when east Africans protesting the crackdown barricaded themselves in the narrow streets of Manhoufa, throwing stones, threatening people with knives and damaging cars. Days earlier, an Ethiopian man was killed by police chasing down migrants.
Violence broke out again days later in the same neighbourhood, and a Sudanese man was killed in recent clashes. In the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah in the poor al-Azaziya neighbourhood, clashes also broke out when police combed the area for migrants.
“This is not racism or a lack of respect for diversity, but you cannot imagine how much negative comes from these groups instead of positive. These people, every day, cause problems,” said Jidda resident Abdulaziz al-Qahtani, who posted online video from the Riyadh clashes that he said a friend took.
Since the clashes, Saudi officials say 23,000 Ethiopians, including women and children, have turned themselves in to the police. Authorities are now holding them in temporary housing ahead of deportation, saying many have no documentation at all, having made their way into the kingdom with the help of smugglers by way of Yemen.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that officials in Addis Ababa sought an explanation from Saudi Arabia’s envoy over the “mistreatment” of Ethiopians in the kingdom.
Saudi columnist Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed cautioned Saudis to remember that without “a strong state and oil revenues” they, too, may have emigrated in search of work.
“Those deprived of the chance of a proper life can understand the feeling of those wanting to seek a better life,” he wrote in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.