Saudi Arabia's self-inflicted crisis

Two people died in Riyadh on Saturday in fights involving foreign migrants, Saudi citizens and police.

The rioting, in the Manfouhah district of the capital – a poor neighbourhood where many East Africans live – was the worst outbreak of violence since the Saudi authorities launched their "all-out" campaign to round up "illegal" workers and expel them from the kingdom.

On Tuesday an Ethiopian man was shot dead by police in the same district, reportedly while resisting arrest.

The two who died on Saturday night are said to be a Saudi man who was hit by a stone and a man of African origin who was shot by police. AFP says a further 68 people were injured (28 Saudis and 40 foreigners) and 561 people were arrested.

An Ethiopian official told AFP that trouble broke out when Saudi police attempted to round up Ethiopians who had failed to regularise their status in the kingdom and move them to a camp which had been specially set up in the area, to await deportation.

Arab News reports:

"Armed with knives, the rioters gathered in the district's narrow streets early evening Saturday, threatening policemen, motorists, and pedestrians, witnesses and police said.

"Anti-riot police fired guns into the air and used truncheons to disperse the large crowds, mostly foreigners who appeared to be Africans, notably Ethiopians …

"The injured, mostly Saudis and legal residents, have suffered knife-stabbing wounds and bruises from the rioters, who were among those receiving hospital treatment ...

"A large security force cordoned off the central Riyadh district and closed its entry and exit points, arresting a number of the violent illegal workers and calling on the rest of them to turn themselves in, according to Brigadier General, Naser al-Qahtani, media spokesman for Riyadh Police."

The Riyadh Connect website has a collection of photos and videos from the scene. Twitter user Mona Kareem has also been posting links to photos and videos.

Full-blown crisis

The crackdown on migrants, which has so far been largely ignored by western media, is rapidly turning into a full-blown and self-inflicted crisis. The authorities have clearly spent a lot of time planning for the mass arrests and deportations but seem to have given almost no thought to the knock-on effects.

Countless businesses have had to close as migrant workers leave the kingdom or go into hiding. The latest problem highlighted by the Saudi Gazette is a sewage crisis in Jeddah caused by a lack of truck drivers to empty septic tanks. Saudi drivers refuse to do that kind of work and foreign drivers are fearful of arrest.

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

This is not necessarily because the foreigners are illegal residents but because their work permits are very specific and restrictive. Previously, many of the drivers were subcontracted – which now technically puts them on the wrong side of the law. 

One African driver told the Saudi Gazette he had not worked for three days as the profession shown on his documents is that of a private driver, which means he is unable to apply for a public transport licence.

Call for price controls

One predictable consequence of the crackdown on migrants is rising prices. Labour shortages are pushing up wages and the price of some food items had reportedly doubled during the last few days due to closed markets and disruption of supplies.

Arab News quotes "experts and residents" calling for a new crackdown – this time against businesses which are allegedly using the shortage of expatriate workers "as an excuse to raise prices".

Racial tensions

Another troubling aspect of the campaign against migrants is its possible effect on race relations. Although the last six days have given Saudis a very visible demonstration of how much they depend on foreigners, racism is never far below the surface.

Expatriate workers from the world's poorer countries tend to be viewed as inferior, while some Saudis also resent having expatriate bosses.

Today's Saudi Gazette has a report headed "Saudi staff allege on-job harassment by expat managers":

Several Saudis have complained that expatriate managers are harassing them to force them into resigning ...

The nitaqat ("Saudisation") programme, which was introduced by the ministry [of labour] to encourage companies to employ Saudis, has been exploited by many companies who claim Saudis are not committed to work ethics ... In many cases, companies agree to employ Saudis on paper as a means to increase their Saudisation quotas.

Jamaan Aseeri worked at a company as a private guard, headed by an expatriate manager who constantly harassed him.

"I was looking after the women's section in the company and the manager constantly entered the area at will and told me that my job was useless," he said while adding that he was forced to resign after he was unable to put up with the abuse.

Fahad Wafi worked in the human resources department of a company, which was headed by an expatriate.

He claimed that his manager berated Saudi employees, refused to assign them work and asked that they stay at home and collect their salaries. "We complained to the company's executive manager who was also an expatriate but he didn't do anything so we finally resigned and filed a complaint at the labour office," he said.

There is some evidence of Saudi citizens taking matters into their own hands to assist the round-up of "illegal" migrants. Two days ago I posted a photo which appeared to show a Saudi man performing a citizen's arrest on a Yemeni migrant. There are also claims that private citizens took part in some of the arrests in Manfouhah on Saturday night.

Yemenis fleeing

More details have emerged in connection with a video that I posted on Thursday showing hundreds of Yemenis fleeing from a detention centre at al-Tuwal on the kingdom's southern border. It seems they were attempting to sneak across the border into Yemen without being fingerprinted.

Once fingerprinted and issued with a "final exit visa", migrant workers are not allowed to return. The Yemenis hoped that by returning to Yemen without being fingerprinted they would be able to return to Saudi Arabia – and resume work there – at a later date. 

Education hit

Many of the kingdom's private schools have closed while teachers attempt to regularise their status. The authorities have given assurances that there will be no inspection raids on schools during the current term, but now the Saudi Gazette reports another problem: 20,000 governments schools across the kingdom are without cleaners and rubbish collectors:

Schools have found themselves in a difficult situation with both students and parents complaining about the health risk the garbage poses …

Okaz/Saudi Gazette contacted the Ministry of Education's spokesman, Mohammad Al-Dekhaini, to inquire about the steps the ministry has taken to solve the problem but he refused to comment on the issue.

A number of schools said they had anticipated the problem and had communicated their concerns to the authorities but no action was taken.

Sources in the Ministry of Education have said the ministry is planning to sign a contract with a specialised cleaning company to resolve the problem of uncollected garbage.

Meanwhile Arab News says teachers at Qur'an memorisation schools have been "left in a limbo" because almost all the teachers at these schools (mainly from India and Pakistan) are "working contrary to the profession stated in their work and residency permits".

Last week the Labour Minister said such schools would not be targeted but it is still unclear how the problem will be resolved. Arab News says there are only a handful of teachers whose information on iqamas (permits) matches their profession.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 10 November 2013