According to the general definition, expatriate is a person who has the nationality of a country, but lives in another, usually as a guest worker. But, what does the word expatriate mean in Gulf states and Saudi Arabia? It means a worker from an Arab country or South East Asia. In other words a young Western English teacher working in the Kingdom is not an expatriate, but a rocket scientist from South East Asia is one.
Expatriates' presence and their number in Saudi Arabia is the most talked-about subject. The irony is that the more we complain about their number in the Kingdom, the more expatriates we bring in. They arrive at our airports in the thousands everyday and we, the Saudis, are the ones who are asking them to come over and we are the ones who provide them with entry visas. So, why do we bring the expatriates to the Kingdom at night and complain about them in the morning?
During the economic boom in 1973, Saudi Arabia launched the biggest infrastructure projects in the world. These projects transformed the country and made it one of the modern states in the world. At that time, Saudi Arabia's population was small compared to the size of the country and not enough educated young men were there to do the amount of work needed to be done. Also, the Kingdom lacked the know-how and technology. So, Saudi Arabia brought millions of expatriates from different countries. Asian countries had the lion's share in the expatriate work force. The expatriates brought with them new habits, new culture and new food. Both the Saudis and expatriates learned from each other. As time passed, we became accustomed to the presence of the expatriates. We see some of them doing some work which should have been done by young Saudis. For example, there are many jobs at restaurants that can be taken up by Saudi students as part time jobs. But many Saudis have become used to having the expatriates do manual jobs. As for many expatriates, they learned from the best technologies the Kingdom brought. The Kingdom brought and is still bringing state-of-the-art gadgets in hospitals, petrochemical plants and many other places. But, at the end of the day, we should know that it is the expatriates who contributed the most to the development of the country.
Many of the expatriates enjoy being in the Kingdom and have stayed here for a pretty long time. Many of them consider Saudi Arabia as their first home and many of them have deep loyalty to the Kingdom. We have seen them stand by our side in many difficult times. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, all the expatriates stood by our side. But, nowadays we keep hearing how dangerous the expatriates are to our society. The expatriates are not a threat for us, because they are here legally and we are the ones who have asked them to come and work in the Kingdom. The real danger and real threats come from not teaching our youths how to respect others and how to learn from them. And what is more alarming is that we don’t teach our young ones the best work ethics. We must show our youths the best way to do the job and not put the blame on the expatriates.
For me as a Saudi, I would love to see every job filled and done by a Saudi no matter what kind of job or work it may be. The unemployment has not been caused by the expatriates. The high unemployment among young Saudis is due to our work ethics and habits. Our education system doesn’t prepare our young ones to be part of the work force. If we don’t teach our young men appropriate work ethics, we will continue to rely on the expatriates even for jobs that don’t require any experience.
There are millions of expatriates in the Kingdom and some of them have been in this country for many years. Many of them have spent years of their lives building this country. Some of them have children born and raised here and all they know is the Kingdom. They have their friends here. Some of the expatriates find it difficult to educate their children here. Most of the expatriate children born or raised here leave the Kingdom for university degrees, but we can take some of them and have them pay for their education. Most of our universities teach their subjects in English and the presence of some young expatriates is very important to have a mix of nationalities on the campus. Medicine and engineering colleges can take some of the expatriate students because having a multinational and multicultural environment is healthy for the education system. And I am sure many expatriates are willing to pay for their children's education in the Kingdom rather than sending them away. Many of the best schools in the world are the ones that have many nationalities among its students. America is an example. Expatriates all over the world have a tendency to be more serious about their education and this can have a positive influence on our students.
We shouldn’t think of the expatriates as dangerous people or a threat to the society. They are here to help us continue building our country and it is our duty to prepare plans to replace expatriates with Saudis. We should plan Saudization of various jobs without affecting our progress and development. Complaining about the expatriates, their number and their money transfer is not the solution.
(Abdulatif Al-Mulhim is a columnist for the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was first published Sept 29, 2012)