Saudi round-up of migrants tops 33,000

The Saudi authorities arrested a total of 33,353 “illegal expatriates” and deported 14,304 during the first week of the crackdown against migrants which began on November 4, according to the General Directorate of Prisons.

In Riyadh, some 17,000 “illegal Ethiopians” have surrendered following the riot on Saturday in which two people died, police spokesman Nasser al-Qahtani said. The number arrested in connection with the riot has now risen to 1,199 – including 119 women and 11 children.

In Makkah, about 500 “African illegals” were rounded up on Monday. They had gathered under a bridge with their families and were blocking roads – apparently in protest at delays in their repatriation after failing to regularise their status in the kingdom.

There have been similar incidents elsewhere. On Saturday, about 300 Afghans gathered outside their consulate in Jeddah, protesting at delays in completing their deportation arrangements. Arab News says police took them to a detention centre by bus and were trying to “expedite travel procedures”.

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

On Sunday, hundreds of stranded Filipinos, including women and children, assembled in Makkah, causing traffic jams. They too were reportedly demanding repatriation. Some 600 of them were taken to a detention centre, though others were left behind.
Arab News says: “The women who were arrested seemed relieved, while those still waiting at the consulate expressed disappointment.”

The Saudi Gazette and Arab News both report a street brawl in Jeddah overnight on Sunday/Monday involving two groups of migrants – Chadians and Ethiopians – which resulted in 57 arrests. It is unclear if this is connected with the deportation campaign.

A police officer and four Ethiopians were killed in Jeddah on Sunday when a car taking the migrants to a detention centre overturned.

In the south of the kingdom, a spokesman for the Jazan border guard said 20,000 “residency rule violators of Yemeni descent” have been arrested and deported to Yemen since the raids began. According to the border guard, additional officers have been sent to assist “in processing the large number of illegal expatriates who have been arrested since November 3”.

If the border guards’ figure of 20,000 Yemeni deportations is correct, the nationwide figure of 14,000 deportations given by the General Directorate of Prisons must be wrong (and vice versa).

Either way, the scale of the current upheaval in Saudi Arabia is extraordinary though it continues to get scant international coverage. As far as I can tell, the Now York Times, for instance, has published only one report so far.

Referring to the migrants simply as “illegals” ensures that they get little or no public sympathy, though the reality is more complex. For many, the restrictive nature of Saudi employment rules makes it very difficult to comply with the law.

In an article on the Human Rights Watch website, Adam Coogle explains why – and concludes:

“If Saudi Arabia is serious about bringing workers into legal compliance, the kingdom should focus less on arresting and deporting workers and more on reforming the abusive labour system that pushes them into the shadows.”

Knock-on effects

The Saudi authorities have clearly demonstrated their ability to arrest and detain people en masse but their competence in all other areas is a matter for doubt. The campaign to end “illegal” working by foreigners is ham-fisted and ill-conceived. Mass arrests of expatriates do not address the underlying problems of the sponsorship system for employment or the failings of the “Saudisation” programme which is intended to generate jobs for Saudi citizens.

So far, the main effect of the crackdown has been to damage the economy by creating labour shortages – vacancies mainly in jobs that Saudis are unable or unwilling to fill.

A report in the Saudi Gazette on Sunday described “unprecedented calm” in Makkah:

“There is no hustle and bustle anywhere in the city. On a tour of major parts of the holy city, Saudi Gazette saw that most of the otherwise busy streets wore a deserted look. The traffic has been thin. A large number of shops and eateries at major commercial centres as well as at traditional souks remain closed.“

The construction sector has been one of those most severely hit. Today the Saudi Gazette reports that more than half of the 200,000 registered contracting companies have closed down “due to shortages of expatriate workers”. (Workers had already been leaving during the seven-month “grace” period before the crackdown began on November 4.)

Ra'ed al-Eqaili of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry told the paper that Saudisation rates in the contracting sector – far from increasing – have falled from 10% to only 5%:

“Al-Eqail believed that the reluctance of Saudis to join the contracting sector is due to the harsh conditions in which they would they have to work.

“In addition, contracting requires travel to some remote areas at times, deterring many Saudis who prefer support and administrative jobs instead.”

In the domestic employment sector, Arab News reports that the government is now considering recruitment of Turkish housemaids to replace those from Indonesia, Ethiopia, India and other countries.

Alluding to popular prejudices, the paper seem to be hinting that Turkish housemaids will be more reliable:

“Families in Saudi Arabia have refused to put up with housemaids who ran away or only worked for the three-month trial period.

“There were several cases of African housemaids using violence against the children of their employers, which led to the discontinuation of recruiting maids from various African countries. The murder of a little girl in Houtat bani Tamim and the murder of a Syrian child in Riyadh were among the latest crimes committed by Ethiopian maids.”

Jobs for Saudis?

Saudi media are pushing the idea that the crackdown on migrants is good news for unemployed Saudis. The Saudi Gazette says that by last month it had already created 150,000 “job opportunities for young Saudi men and women” in the private sector – though these seem to be recorded vacancies rather than jobs that have actually been filled by Saudis.

Meanwhile, the Labour Ministry is “preparing” to Saudise 250,000 jobs in retail stores “within the next few years”. About 80% of these shops have previously been run by foreigners, Arab News says.

The paper also reports plans to set up 300 vocational training centres for Saudis: “About 450,000 Saudi boys and girls will be trained in different vocations over a period of five years under the new plan.”

Such schemes, however, do not address the immediate problem of labour shortages caused by the crackdown and, and time goes on, unemployment of Saudis likely to get worse rather than better. This is not merely a Saudi problem: it affects all the Arab Gulf states.

In a tweet this morning, Simeon Kerr of the Financial Times says GCC countries are expected to create 600,000 private sector jobs by 2018 but 1.6 million nationals will also enter the labour market – leaving a gap of one million which cannot be met by jobs in the public sector.

Sackings at British school

Reports today say that seven Saudi teachers who were dismissed by the British International School in Jeddah are to be reinstated following pressure from the Labour Ministry.
Arab News says the teachers were fired “for no reason” while the school’s principal was away. The Saudi Gazette quotes the head as saying:

“A group of people inside the school used this [his absence] as an opportunity to form a committee and fire the teachers. This resulted in our Saudisation levels dropping and government departments stopped providing us with certain services.”

Readers who have more information about this please send me an email or post a comment in the discussion thread below.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 12 November 2013