Floundering in a mire of its own creation

Sometime in the future, when historians come to analyse the fall of the Saudi monarchy, the “regularisation” programme of 2013 is likely be seen as one of its causes.

“Regularisation” (a euphemism for expelling migrant workers in their tens of thousands) was meant to end the practice of illegally employing foreigners – a practice which had been allowed to develop over several decades and, more significantly, had turned into a mainstay of the Saudi economy.

The idea that this could be reversed almost at a stroke and without major consequences was fanciful at best, but the Saudi government pressed ahead regardless. Millions of expatriate workers were told to regularise their status in the kingdom or face arrest and deportation.

While the ensuing crackdown on migrants might be viewed simply as an example of ham-fisted government, its ramifications are more far-reaching. Ultimately, the survival of the House of Saudi (as with other Gulf monarchies) hinges on its ability to deliver comprehensive reform, and the “regularisation” programme demonstrates that it is incapable of doing so.

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

As the problems caused by “regularisation” become more apparent, the authorities are trying to manage them in ever-more-bizarre ways, often by announcing policies that tackle the symptoms while compounding the problems.

These attempts to micro-manage the employment system are also becoming more and more discriminatory. At a time when many countries are trying to remove discrimination from the workplace, Saudi Arabia is moving in the opposite direction. More and more, race and gender rather than ability are becoming the main criteria for employment.


“Regularisation” was a half-baked plan from the start, since it failed to address the iniquitous and corrupt kafala (sponsorship) system which is the main reason for so much illegal working. An article in The Economist explains:

“Many immigrant workers have fallen foul of Saudi laws less by intent than because of the unfairness of the visa-sponsorship system that the kingdom, along with states such as Qatar, continues to impose. This requires every immigrant to have a Saudi kafeel, or sponsor, who usually demands an annual fee in exchange for providing legal cover. 

“All too often, kafeels ‘employ’ their charges in fictitious companies, when in fact they seek work on the open market, in breach of rules that restrict foreign workers to the job described in their visa.

“Not only is this form of gatekeeping often criminally extortionate. Its scale has created a powerful lobby that has serially resisted attempts at reform.”

Two weeks after the crackdown on migrants began in earnest the short-term effects are obvious, not to mention entirely predictable. 

Labour shortages have closed many businesses while others are unable to work at full capacity. Supplies of fresh food have been hit, driving prices up, and rubbish has gathered uncollected in some of the streets. (I have been documenting the effects here in more detail.) In the meantime, and just as predictably, unemployed Saudis have not exactly been rushing to fill the sudden vacancies left by migrants.

Some of this chaos may be short-lived. In many cases migrants who may be entitled to legal status in the kingdom have absented themselves from work in order to avoid arrest while their paperwork is being processed.

In Makkah, 7,000 street cleaners went on strike “due to a failure on the part of their employer to renew their residency permits but officials have devised a race-based solution to that. In future, cleaners will be hired from more than one country – on the grounds that this will make them less able to organise a strike.

In other areas of the economy, though, the effects look set to continue for some time. Arab News reports that construction firms (which depend very heavily on foreign labour) are not bidding for new contracts – fearing they may not have enough workers to complete the projects.


One of the main reasons for the mass expulsion of migrants is to assist “Saudisation” (replacing foreign workers with Saudi nationals) – a policy the government has been pursuing for some years without much success.

Despite substantial resistance from employers, Saudisation has been given new impetus by the Arab uprisings. If jobs can be found for the growing numbers of unemployed young Saudis, so the theory goes, they will be less likely to rebel.

But the trouble with linking “regularisation” to Saudisation is that the jobs vacated by foreigners are often not the type of jobs that Saudis are willing to do. Many are dirty or menial jobs that Saudis tend to regard as beneath them. At the other end of the social scale, the education system still produces a surfeit of graduates in religious studies and not enough with qualifications that prepare them for employment.

Rather belatedly, there seems to be a media campaign aimed at changing attitudes. A few days ago, Okaz and the Saudi Gazette reported on young Saudis who are “proud” to work in Qatif’s wholesale fish market. 

Apparently the youngsters are so happy in this work that they ignore “the derogatory comments they receive from others who spend their time wandering in the streets and sitting on pavements”.

At the same time, though, other reports cite employers complaining that Saudi workers are lazy and undisciplined. According to one man running a date business in Madinah, “Most of the Saudis that worked in my store worked for two days maximum. The reason why they do not like the work is because of the long hours.”

Another employer, who runs several clothing stores, said of his Saudi workers: “They start with missing work for a day or two and arriving late until they decide not to come at all."

The Labour Ministry’s response to this is a plan that will force shops to close by 9pm (despite the popularity of late-night shopping in most of the Gulf states). The early closure of shops, we are assured, “will help attract Saudi youths to open and run retail outlets”.

The Saudi Gazette also reports that guards working for private security firms “have been denied the benefits of the Saudisation programme”. Besides proposals to raise (and subsidise) their salaries, a “scientific study” has recommended that the guards be referred as “security men” to “give them self-confidence”. Another suggestion (for reasons that are not explained) is that those working in this sector should be “the children of Saudi women married to non-Saudi men”.


Under the general heading of Saudisation there’s also a programme known as “feminisation” – another euphemism, which basically means gender segregation. 

For several years now, shops selling women’s underwear and accessories have been compelled to employ only female staff, and men are not allowed to enter unless in a family group.

This has proved difficult to implement and during the last year the Labour Ministry has forcibly closed more than 500 shops that were found to be “violating” the regulations.

Nevertheless, the ministry says more than 7,000 lingerie shops have now been “completely feminised” and it plans to “feminise 
all jobs suitable for women in the coming three years”.

Although this policy does create job opportunities for Saudi women, in all other respects it cannot be described as a sign of progress or reform. It reinforces the idea women need a different type of work from men, and it further entrenches the archaic principle of gender segregation which the more progressive-minded Saudis are fighting against.

Viewed in totality, “regularisation”, “Saudisation” and “feminisation” are all signs of a government that is floundering in a mire of its own creation, that has nothing to offer but authoritarian solutions, that is trying to micro-manage its labour market in ways that are alienating swathes of the business community – and all without any apparent grasp of the need for more fundamental change.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 19 November 2013