Posted on March 17, 2014

Saudi Deportations Gain Momentum

Simeon Kerr et al., Financial Times, December 6, 2013

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.