Saudi deportations gain momentum
Teodros Adhanom, the Ethiopian foreign minister, has turned to Twitter almost every night for the last three weeks to tersely report the number of his countrymen expelled from Saudi Arabia.
“Last night arrivals from Saudi reached 100,620,” he wrote on Friday, describing a fraction of one of the largest deportations in recent Middle East history.
Riyadh has said it wants to forcibly expel as many as 2m of the foreign workers, including hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Somalis, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who make up around a third of the country’s 30m population.
At home, the exodus of illegal workers is being seen as the kingdom’s most radical labour market experiment yet. With one in four young Saudi males out of work, analysts applaud Riyadh’s determination to tackle the problem, but doubt the crackdown will achieve its objective, as Saudi nationals are unlikely to apply for menial jobs.
Overseas, the deportation is causing friction between Riyadh and the east African and southeast Asian countries that traditionally have provided Saudi Arabia with the bulk of low-wage workers that for decades have fuelled its economy.
Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and several other countries are struggling to absorb the thousands of unemployed young men now returning, with development officials worrying about the impact on remittances.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s second biggest source of remittances, only behind the US, with outflows of nearly $28bn last year, according to estimates by the World Bank. “Millions of dollars of Saudi flows will vanish, impacting the poorest areas of eastern Africa,” says an official at a regional development agency. Saudi analysts expect the crackdown on illegal workers to reduce remittance flows by nearly a quarter next year, or about $7bn.
Riyadh has defended the expulsions, saying illegal expatriates have had months to legalise their status. The kingdom, which shares 1,800km of porous, mountainous borders with Yemen, had for years complained that the Yemeni government was not doing enough to stop illegal immigrants, drug dealers, armed militants or members of al-Qaeda from crossing to the kingdom.
General Mansour al Turki, the interior ministry’s spokesman said that last month Saudi Arabia stopped 50,000 illegal immigrants, most of them Yemenis, Ethiopians and Somalis, trying to cross the Yemeni borders into the kingdom. Many more succeeded. “We are not targeting specific nationalities, we respect all people who are legal residents of the country, but we have a serious situation on the borders with Yemen,’’ he said. “If we do not give a clear sign that even if they cross the border they will be returned, we will be encouraging the smugglers in Africa to keep bringing them here.”
Since an amnesty ended in early November, hundreds of thousands of workers have been deported to their home countries, including as many as 150,000 Indians and 200,000 Yemenis. Thousands of Ethiopians remain in 64 detention camps set up in the kingdom, according to the foreign ministry. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based non-governmental group, this week denounced attacks by Saudi nationals on Ethiopians. “Saudi authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals in the media, and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the labour crackdown,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the human rights group.
The crackdown on African and Asian illegal migrants is meant to complement a government labour market reform known as nitaqat, Arabic for “ranges”. Replacing the failing fixed-quota “Saudisation” system of 1994, nitaqat places a sliding scale of financial penalties and incentives on employers who fail to hire enough Saudi nationals. By draining the pool of cheap expatriate labour, the Saudi government hopes to encourage private sector employers to hire more nationals.
“The nationalisation agenda has been around for 20 years, but what’s changed is that the Arab spring has made private sector jobs for nationals a political priority,” says Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics. “Saudi Arabia has become a laboratory for labour market reform,” he says.
But both Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, which face similar if less pressing demographic pressures, face challenges in bringing their nationals into work, not least low skills.
Natasha Ridge, Ras al-Khaimah-based executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said: “Gulf nationalisation efforts are fundamentally challenged by low quality national education systems which, despite billions of dollars of investment, are yet to provide graduates with the appropriate skills to fill middle management roles.” Breaking cultural taboos on female employment is another challenge, especially as Gulf women outperform men in educational attainment. “Until employment is connected to education and experience the chance of sustainable and effective nationalisation programmes in the Gulf remain slim,” she adds.