Saudi crackdown brings more turmoil

Thousands of expatriate taxi drivers in Jeddah have stopped work as result of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrant labour. Many have already left the kingdom – never to return – but most are thought to be in hiding for fear of arrest and deportation.

One company manager, Abdullah al-Shehri, told Arab News about 40% of taxi firms in the city have been affected, with some operating a reduced service while others have closed completely.

"More than 150 companies that relied mostly on drivers who were not able to rectify their status during the grace period have lost more than 70% of their income," Shehri said.

In the holy city of Makkah yesterday, 6,000 street cleaners and garbage collectors – mostly Bangladeshis – ended a five-day strike triggered largely by the non-renewal of their residence permits. They were also complaining about abysmal wages and accommodation that lacked basic facilities.

Arab News says the company employing them had slipped into the Ministry of Labour's "red category" – meaning that the iqama (residence permit) of expatriate workers cannot be renewed.

The Arab News report does not explain how the striking cleaners were persuaded to return to work, though possibly some kind of arrangement was worked out in relation to their permits.

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

There have been numerous examples of knock-on effects caused by the crackdown which I have noted in previous blog posts over the last few days. The construction industry is one sector of the economy that has been badly hit, with many sites coming to a halt. In some cases this has resulted in holes in the road with no one to complete the work and fill them in.

Another change is the disappearance of stalls normally (but illegally) set up outside mosques by Yemenis, Afghans and Egyptians hoping to make sales after Friday prayers. This has delighted one section of the community: Saudi Arabia's beggars:

"Beggars are now glad that they can position themselves right next to the steps leading to the mosques in the absence of vendors. 

"A group of female beggars from Chad told Arab News: ‘We are happy and relaxed to find space inside the mosque yard'."

Migrants who have gone into hiding after failing to regularise their residence or employment status seem to be calculating that the raids by inspectors will eventually fizzle out, allowing them to resurface once the heat is off. This might be a reasonable assumption, given the way the Saudi system usually operates. But so far the authorities seem determined not to succumb to "raid fatigue".

It's worth recalling that the government first tried to implement the new labour law and the result was chaos. The king called a temporary halt which lasted seven months and allowed more time for planning the implementation.

The resumed crackdown is a huge operation involving a lot of cooperation among various ministries and branches of government. It may even succeed in its primary objective of ending (or at least greatly reducing) irregularities in the employment system that have been allowed to develop through negligence and corruption over many years.

But looking beyond the immediate effects in terms of economic disruption and the suffering caused to migrants and their families there's still the question of who will fill all the job vacancies created by the crackdown. There's no sign that the Saudi authorities have given much serious thought to this.

Their hope is that migrants who leave will be replaced by unemployed Saudis but that is unrealistic because of a serious mis-match between the vacancies created and the skills and expectations of most Saudis.

"Saudisation" of the workforce has been government policy for years though it has met with little success (and a lot of resistance from employers). More recently the Arab Spring uprisings have given Saudisation a new impetus – the theory being that young Saudis are less likely to rebel against the regime if jobs can be provided for them.

However, cracking down on migrant workers won't solve that. It's really not a question of migrants depriving Saudis of jobs but, rather, a question of Saudis' own employability. A large part of the problem is an education system designed to please religious conservatives – churning out vast numbers of Saudis with unusable degrees in Shariah law, etc, and not enough with knowledge and skills that prepare them for the workplace.

I will look in more detail at the problems of Saudisation in a future blog post. 
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 9 November 2013