Work woes

The Saudi Kingdom’s young population remains increasingly jobless and in poverty while xenophobia, in the form of the nitaqat scheme, haunts the poorly paid foreign workers.

Published : Jun 12, 2013 12:30 IST

Illegal immigrant workers at the Saudi immigration offices in Riyadh on May 26. Saudi Arabia has deported hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign workers as part of labour market reforms designed to reduce unemployment among its own citizens. Illegal workers were given three months, starting April, to fix their legal documents for work and residency.

Illegal immigrant workers at the Saudi immigration offices in Riyadh on May 26. Saudi Arabia has deported hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign workers as part of labour market reforms designed to reduce unemployment among its own citizens. Illegal workers were given three months, starting April, to fix their legal documents for work and residency.

BAHRAIN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT is the place for cheap flights from the Gulf to India and the Philippines. Gulf Air’s service to New Delhi and Manila carries industrious workers who keep the sultans of Arabia comfortable. The travellers in the waiting area for the Delhi flight are largely male, and those waiting to fly to Manila are largely female. This is the gender divide of the Gulf workforce. Sitting beside me on the flight to Delhi are two men from Bihar. Neither is literate and so I help them with their immigration paperwork. This allows me to glance through their passports, which show that both are in their twenties, from small villages in Bihar, and on visas for “Ordinary Labourer” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). They are excited to go home but aware that this is just a break before they return to their exertions in the Gulf. They are a necessary part of Saudi society. A third of the population of the KSA (around 27 million) are foreign workers, with three million Indians making up the largest contingent.

Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the other Gulf sultanates, is very secretive about its society. Journalists are not able to uncover stories that lie beneath the surface, and the regime does not publish statistics on such elementary subjects as poverty. The per capita income in the state of Qatar is a remarkable $102,211 (according to a 2012 International Monetary Fund study). It is revealing that the KSA figure is $31,275 (same database), just below the Bahamas and just above Spain. A fabulously wealthy royal family and its eleves soak in the vast amounts of the Kingdom’s oil revenues, which means that the per capita statistics do not report accurately the actual incomes of the bottom of the Saudi totem.

The Saudi regime has taken extreme measures to hide the problems of inequality that worry the palace wardens. In October 2011, during the Arab Spring protests, the King opened his vaults to his population to forestall any uprising. It was bad enough that the satrapy of Bahrain had to embarrass the Gulf royals with prolonged protests. Unrest was not to be allowed in the KSA. The police arrested three young reporters (Feras Boqna, Hussam al-Drewesh and Khaled al-Rasheed) who uploaded a video (“Mal3ob 3alena” or We Are Being Cheated) on the Internet that told the tale of Saudi poverty. According to the video, 22 per cent of Saudi nationals live below the poverty line, and 70 per cent do not own their homes.

The video’s message should not be a surprise to visitors to the KSA. It is not unusual to see panhandlers near malls such as Riyadh’s Faisaliah Mall or Jeddah’s Mall of Arabia. Since the Arab Spring, the police in these cities have been vigilant. They routinely arrest beggars, claiming that they are visa cheats or part of “beggary rings”. There is no acknowledgment that this is a symptom of rising inequality and a youthful population that is no longer seduced by the KSA’s promises.

The police actively discourage visits to Riyadh’s al-Suwaidi slums, reputed to be a hotbed for religious extremism. The festering gloom of poverty in the shadow of the oil-rich mall culture has alienated large sections of the population from the regime. It is a cause of great concern in the palaces.

The KSA has reacted in two ways. The cliched way was popular before 9/11, namely, to encourage radical preachers to foment religious piety and extremism over such distant concerns as Communism (Afghanistan and Chechnya being the geographical scale) and cultural colonialism (the very consumer culture denied these slum lands).

After 9/11, with the eyes of the United States more closely focussed on this strategy, the tone is more of official extremism than the tawdry radicalism that had its own blowback in 1979 when Juhayman al-Otaybi and his cohort took over the al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. It is cheaper to promote the ways of the mutawwas (religiously pious) than to restructure the massively uneven economic destinies of the Saudi people.

Nitaqat system

The second way is to scapegoat foreign labour. The entire Gulf-Arab peninsula relies upon foreign labour from either the rest of the Arab world or Asia (with high-paid oil executives coming from the West). These low-end workers are denied political and economic rights, trapped by arcane indenture systems that are frowned upon by every international human rights organisation. When oil prices dip below acceptable levels, the sultans turn their ire on the foreign labourers and whip up a crude kind of xenophobia to appease their citizenry.

Most recently this strategy has been on display in the KSA with the new Nitaqat (ranges) scheme. This policy goes back to 1994, when the policy of Saudisation called upon all establishments to hire Saudi citizens to fill 30 per cent of the workforce. In 2011, the Labour Ministry put a ceiling of 20 per cent on all guest workers, threatening that several million would thereafter be deported.

This year, the Nitaqat policy went into force, with the Saudis calling upon each firm to hire one Saudi for every 10 foreigners hired. The government threatened to immediately arrest all those without proper paperwork, jail them for two years and fine them stiffly. It said it would deport 56,700 Indians by July, a prospect that hastily brought India’s External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, to Riyadh to meet his Saudi counterpart, Faisal Al-Saud, and the Labour Minister, Adel Fakieh, who was mayor of Jeddah and so knows a great deal about Saudi poverty.

Saudi scholars, such as Mohamed Ramady of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, have pointed out that the Nitaqat policy is built on a flawed understanding of the Saudi labour market.

Foreign labour accounts for 90 per cent of the Saudi workforce, with most of them in the private sector. The high wage parts of the Saudi economy, such as in the petroleum industry, are highly mechanised and do not call upon large numbers of workers. In the areas that do employ large numbers of people, wages are low and menial work has been degraded beneath Saudi levels of acceptance.

The kafala (sponsorship) system of labour contract enables employers to have total control over the lives of workers, something that the Saudi workforce would not allow. Drips from the spigot of oil money provide the regular welfare payments to Saudi citizens, who have grown up with a sense of entitlement, part of which is derived from their antipathy to the kind of work done by their foreign menials. To sweeten the pot, Adel Fakieh has allowed for exemptions that make the system “realistic, practical and fair”.

Here is an indication that the Nitaqat scheme is more bluster than policy. Deportations will occur to send a message to the slums, but little will change in Saudi Arabia’s structural dependence on foreign labour.

One of the long-standing calls from intellectuals and liberals who remain in the shadows of the Saudi policy-making world is to increase the minimum wage, thereby creating an incentive for Saudis to seek jobs in the private sector. The new wage levels announced in 2012 have not done much to draw the Saudis into the labour force, since many of them opted to take the unemployment benefit (Hafiz) rather than go to work.

What hiring there has been, according to Saudi economists, is the result of the Arab Spring stimulus programmes put in place by the Palace and not because of any well-thought-out and productive economic scheme. Job training is anaemic, as many employers turn to Saudis to fill quotas rather than to actually substitute foreign labour. What this means is that the immigrant labourers feel the sharp edge of xenophobia alongside heightened work regimes for themselves. The Indian government is unwilling to be their champion, trapped as it is by its energy needs, which have heightened with pressure from the U.S. to substitute Iranian oil with Saudi oil.

Across the great Rub al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), in the flashing town of Dubai, South Asian workers decided that they have had enough. Workers at Arabtec, a construction firm, went on strike for wage increases as compensation for long hours working under the blisteringly hot sun. The strike took place not with a march or a demonstration but by the workers simply remaining in their company quarters in the poorly named colony of Sonapur (City of Gold). Strikes are as illegal in Dubai as they are in Saudi Arabia, so the government and Arabtec took action—deportation letters were sent to those seen to be the ringleaders.

The plight of the workers has been depicted in a Human Rights Watch report from 2006 ( Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates ). That report notes that “the roughly twenty per cent of migrant workers who are employed in construction are overwhelmingly men from South Asia, many of them illiterate and from impoverished rural communities”. They were like the men on the Gulf Air flight from Manama to Delhi, with their bundles carrying gifts to their villages in Bihar.

In December 2012, Dubai’s ruler and Vice-President of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum launched a “Thank You” initiative. This was devised by the regime to acknowledge the work done by its workers in the building of the emirate. “I hope our message reaches all employees in these sectors that we appreciate the work they do, and that society is grateful for, appreciates, and praises their services. The UAE will remain an oasis of stability and prosperity for all those who live in it and contribute to its development,” said the Sheikh.

Messages using the hashtag #ThankYouHHShkMohd flooded twitter: instead of the state thanking its workforce, the workers were dragooned by their firms into thanking the Sheikh. There was no kindness to the workers at Arabtec, and even less in Saudi Arabia, where the sultans did not even try a liberal public relations ploy. It is easier to stoke xenophobia than to bring the peninsula toward liberalism.

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