Community, Diaspora and Immigration

Saudi Arabia’s foreign labour crackdown drives out 2m migrants

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Under the watchful eyes of Saudi policemen slouched in their squad cars along a rundown street, little knots of Ethiopian men sit chatting on doorsteps and sprawl on threadbare grass at one of Riyadh's busiest junctions. These are tense, wary times in Manfouha, a few minutes' drive from the capital's glittering towers and swanky shopping malls.

Manfouha is the bleak frontline in Saudi Arabia's campaign to get rid of its illegal foreign workers, control the legal ones and help get more of its own citizens into work. This month two or three Ethiopians were killed here after a raid erupted into full-scale rioting.

Keeping their distance from the officers parked every few hundred metres, the Ethiopians look shifty and sound nervous. "Of course I have an iqama [residence permit]," insisted Ali, a gaunt twentysomething man in cheap leather jacket and jeans. "I wouldn't be standing here if I hadn't."

But he didn't have the document on him. And his story, in broken Arabic, kept changing: he was in the process of applying for one; actually, no, his kafeel (sponsor) had it. It didn't sound as if it would convince the police or passport inspection teams prowling the neighbourhood.

Until recently, of the kingdom's 30 million residents, more than nine million were non-Saudis. Since the labour crackdown started in March, one million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis have left. And the campaign has moved into higher gear after the final deadline expired on 4 November, with dozens of repatriation flights now taking place every day. By next year, two million migrants will have gone.

No one is being singled out, the authorities say. Illegal workers of 14 nationalities have been detained and are awaiting deportation. But the Ethiopians, many of whom originally crossed into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, are widely portrayed as criminals who are said to be mixed up with alcohol and prostitution. "They'd rather sit here and do nothing than go home because maybe they will get some kind of work," sneered Adel, one of the few Saudis to brave Manfouha's mean streets. "In Ethiopia there is nothing for them."


The Ethiopian government said this week that 50,000 of its nationals had already been sent home, with the total expected to rise to 80,000. Every day hundreds more trudge through the gates of the heavily guarded campus of Riyadh's Princess Noora University, awaiting a coach ride to the airport, fingerprinting, a final exit visa and their one-way flight to Addis Ababa.

Incidents involving Ethiopians are reported almost obsessively on Twitter and YouTube and across mainstream media outlets. Ethiopians complain in turn of being robbed and beaten, and of routine abuse and mistreatment by their Saudi employers. Protests have been held outside Saudi embassies in several countries. Prejudice is so rife that the Ethiopian ambassador had to insist that the Muslim or Christian beliefs of his compatriots prevented them from practising sorcery.

Yet other foreign workers show little sympathy or solidarity. "These people believe this is their country," said Mohamed, a Bangladeshi who runs a petrol station in the centre of Manfouha. "They are big trouble, and dangerous. I've seen them carrying long knives."

Mokhtar, a Somali, had no problem with them. "I'm not afraid of the Ethiopians because we are neighbours," he grinned. "But the Saudis are. I have heard the stories about them breaking into houses and I've seen them smashing up cars on this road." Ansar, another Ethiopian who blamed his boss for withholding his iqama, condemned his violent compatriots as kuffar – infidels.

Saudi Arabia's addiction to cheap foreign labour goes back to the oil boom and religious awakening of the mid-1970s. In recent years it has come to be seen as an enormous problem that distorts the economy and keeps young people out of the labour market. But the government turned a blind eye and little happened until March. And it remains to be seen whether the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system – responsible for many abuses – can be reformed or replaced. Saudis say one of the biggest problems is foreigners who have fled their original kafeel and effectively disappeared.

"We will need two decades to get back to where we were in the 1970s," predicted Turki al-Hamad, a writer who grew up in the eastern city of Dammam, where Saudis used to work in the Aramco oilfields. "We are better off economically than we were then, but much worse off socially."

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