Saudi chaos over expatriate workers

At the beginning of April chaos and alarm swept through Saudi Arabia as inspectors raided businesses that were thought to be employing foreigners illegally. Thousands were deported, often ignominiously (see earlier blog posts here and here).


The campaign – driven mainly by the Labour Ministry – was aimed at implementing the kingdom's long-standing "Saudisation" plan in which jobs previously done by foreigners will supposedly be filled by unemployed Saudis (even though many of the jobs are of a type that Saudis wouldn't dream of taking).

Amid a welter of criticism – not only about the heartless way the authorities set about implementing the plan but also from foreign embassies and employers whose businesses were put in jeopardy – the king stepped in and called a temporary halt.

A royal decree set a new deadline of July 3 for "illegal" workers to regularise their position.

At first, the three-month extension brought a sense of relief but now, with the deadline only a month away, the confusion is as great as ever. Writing in the Saudi Gazette, Mahmoud Ahmad saysexpatriates without the correct paperwork are being shunted from pillar to post in a desperate race to sort out their documentation:

"If they go to the Labour Ministry, the ministry sends them to the Passport Department, while some are told to visit their missions [embassies] first to get a paper or to get papers authenticated, which is a drain on their pockets. 

"In addition, in some cases sponsors demand money from expatriates for an NoC [No Objection Certificate] or to get their documents back, even though the government has emphasised that such services are for free."

Ahmad also points out that the problem of "illegal" workers is one of the Saudis' own making (they have long condoned circumvention of the rules and the corruption associated with it). He writes:

"If the Labour Ministry had, in the past, attempted to correct the situation by giving expatriates an opportunity to rectify their status, or if it had been tough on abusive sponsors, then the number of illegals camping outside the various missions would have been less than the current numbers ...

"Since we are responsible, either directly or indirectly for creating this mess, then we should facilitate all procedures to help correct the situation.

"Rectifying the status of expatriate workers is the least we can do as an apology to all expatriates who have been treated badly by some Saudi sponsors and some companies."

Today, Arab News reports that the authorities are once again under pressure from embassies and employers to extend the deadline, though the Labour Ministry appears set against it and says any further extension would have to come from the king himself.

The Labour Ministry has also issued a weird (and in some cases extremely vague) list of 19 types of job where any future vacancies are to be reserved for Saudis:

  • Executive HR manager

  • HR manager

  • Labour affairs manager

  • Staff relations manager

  • Staff relations specialist

  • Staff relations clerk

  • Recruitment clerk

  • Staff affairs clerk

  • Attendance control clerk

  • Receptionist (general)

  • Hotel receptionist

  • Health receptionist

  • Claims clerk

  • Treasury secretary

  • Security

  • Broker

  • Key specialist

  • Customs broker

  • Female sales specialist (women only)

Even Saudis seem baffled by parts of this list, but Arab News saysbasically it is "related to human resources, customer services, health management, accounts, clearing and forwarding agents and, of course, women-sensitive sales areas".

Employers also appear sceptical about implementation. The paper quotes one employer as saying: I think the best way to implement Saudisation is not through passing legislation but through the sincere and active participation of the private sector and expatriates. The Labour Ministry should seek the help of expatriates to train Saudis to replace them."

Arab News adds: "Hiring extra Saudis and putting them on the payroll will throw many private companies out of business, as it will take at least three to five years to train and replace the expatriate work force, especially at the lower and mid levels."

This is rapidly turning into an object lesson in how not to manage change. Ultimately, it boils down to the Saudi preference for issuing decrees from on high rather than allowing open and transparent government. It's only through widespread public debate about policies and their implementation that problems can be identified and addressed – before rather than after they actually arise.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 2 June 2013