A few days ago, we celebrated our national day in Saudi Arabia and I was invited to the famous talk show Eight O’clock with Daaoud al-Shirian. We talked about the alarming rise in unemployment rates and how youths have been feeling abandoned by the state. I said there is no solution for this problem except for us to go back to being a “normal” country through liberating ourselves from absolute dependence on foreign labor.
I was tempted by the sentence “get foreigners out of the Arabian Peninsula” so I said it. My host Mr. Shirian interrupted me and said, “You mean labor… labor.” He was worried I would be reiterating a discourse similar to that of al-Qaeda when they took advantage of the prophet’s saying, “Get the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula” in order to undermine the economy and isolate Saudi from the rest of the world.
Of course I did not mean getting every foreigner out of the country. Saudi is an open country with a free economy and would always want to be “part if this world from which it will never be severed” as King Abdullah had said years ago in one of his historic statements about the future of the kingdom. Therefore, foreigners will always be here to share with us the good life we are all aspiring to.
But the current situation is not normal. There are 20 million Saudis in kingdom and 10 million foreigners, eight million of which are legal. This means that there is one foreigner for every two Saudis.
Since we have a problem with statistics in the kingdom, it is hard to determine how those foreigners are distributed. We don’t know how many engineers, doctors, and experts are there, how many factory laborers, how many retailers. And we don’t the percentage of drivers, maids, and cleaners. Exact numbers of illegal workers are also not available, for some of them stay behind after the pilgrimage season while others enter the country illegally. Some are technically legal but violate labor laws through working in more than one job and so on. The development of an underground business in which visas are sold to workers who are not officially recruited by a given company or individual has aggravated the problem and created what is now commonly called “loose labor.”
All this is not only detrimental to national economy, but poses a critical threat to national security. It is no secret that several of those foreigners would engage in illegal activities and we often read about them in the papers. Some turn into thieves while other trade in drugs or work in prostitution.
These are human beings. They have a good and a bad side to them. They are all after easy money and we have learnt of the huge amounts of money they send in remittances and which exceeded 105 billion riyals last year only. They do not pay taxes and, therefore, they do not add one penny to the national economy. They are also consumers and this includes subsidized items like fuel, electricity, water, and several foodstuffs. Bear in mind that the Arabian Peninsula has limited resources and is prone to shortages especially in the light of the increasing population. That is why this area has always been referred to as “repellent” and people used to migrate from it during hard times.
History has recorded several migrations. This started with Islamic conquests that targeted the Levant, Iraq, and Egypt and changed the history of mankind. Subsequent mass migrations followed like Banu Sulaym and Banu Hilal to North Africa and the Rashaida to Sudan in addition to the several tribes that settled in Upper Egypt.
The Arabian Peninsula only became attractive after the discovery of oil which enabled the people to make the best use of available resources. Trade flourished and new industries were introduced, which necessitated the recruitment of foreign labor. Numbers of foreigners flocking to the kingdom and the entire Gulf region reached its peak in the 1970s.
Those in charge of planning were hoping that this would be temporary and that foreigners will help the country achieve fast development while Saudi youths get a good education and take over later. National skills were supposed to replace foreign ones, but time passed and we got used to resorting to external help so the main goal was forgotten.
Consequently, foreign labor has become an integral part of the national economy. Industries, commerce, and services totally depend on foreign labor and any business owner would vehemently object if the state imposed restrictions on recruiting foreigners because this for him translates into huge financial losses. Some even threaten to take their businesses out of the country altogether whenever there is official mention of plans to curb dependency on foreign labor. Our economy has become addicted to foreign labor.
Meanwhile, the number of youths kept increasing until it reached 60% of the population. They graduate from the university to find a job market that cannot respond to their needs. So, we keep looking for the reasons behind the rising rates of unemployment and we start blaming the education system or training opportunities. We try to look for magical solutions to bring back 100,000 Saudi international students so that they could start taking hold of the economy, but they will find no jobs in a market addicted to cheap labor. Some of them might make it, but the competition will always remain unfair. In the middle of all this, the Ministry of Labor is neither able to cater to the needs of youths nor satisfy business owners.
There is no way the problem of unemployment, previously described by Prince Nayef as “a security issue,” except through going back to the roots of the problem. The Saudi job market has to be rebuilt in a way that liberates it from this absolute dependence on foreign labor. Surplus and unjustified foreign labor has to get out of the Arabian Peninsula.
How? A brave decision is required. It might be painful, but it is definitely necessary.