Saudi’s foreign workers: new thinking, accuracy required

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Saudi Labor Minister Adel Faqih has said there is a ministerial decision stipulating that his ministry should decrease the number of foreign workers to 20 percent of the population, instead of 26.6 percent. According to the latest official statistics, the Saudi population is 27.1 million, of whom 7.2 million are foreign workers.

It is a difficult task because the official figure is probably inaccurate, and we know that false information can lead to wrong solutions and results. The kingdom’s population is more than 33 million. If illegal foreign workers are included, the population is more than 40 million. There are more than 13 million foreign workers, not 7 million. In addition, it is estimated that more than 7 million foreigners either have expired residencies or are illegal.

There are workers who are illegal, or whose residencies have expired, but they all perform useful services. If there had not been a need for them, they would not be in the country, and they would not have left their families to work here

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Therefore, foreigners account for almost half the country’s population, so reducing the number of foreign workers by 6 percentage points makes no difference to the country’s demography. Those planning this move are more aware than others of the importance of reading numbers accurately, calculating future possibilities, and distinguishing opportunities from threats.

Take a look at the demographic development. In 1974, the Saudi population was 7 million, of whom 800,000 were foreigners. In 1992, the population was 17 million, of whom 5 million were foreigners. In 2004, the population reached 22 million, of whom 6 million were foreigners.

We must not mix up the issues of legal and illegal residents, because the country will need skilled and unskilled labor for many years. This can be achieved without causing unemployment among citizens, and without pushing the country towards political and security crises.

There is a general feeling of grievance and anger towards foreigners, but the source of the problem is the state and its citizens. Without an integrated plan that does not only consist of the Ministry of Labor’s efforts, the crisis will deepen.

Uneasy task

I am not surprised that the number of illegal residents is twice the figure suggested. Therefore, the situation is more difficult than people think. Simplifying the problem and its solutions, like replacing citizens with foreigners, fails to recognize facts, such as the need to rehabilitate citizens and establish huge enterprises tasked with employing them.

Currently, small and medium-sized enterprises are being pursued by obliging them to achieve a percentage of citizens in their workforce, so these companies lie and cheat. This will lead to a local economy based on false information in calculating the number of employees and their wages.

The Ministry of Labor presents new ideas, but it will not solve the problem without gathering accurate and detailed information, without full commitment from all state institutions, and without an enormous economic project. The result will be millions of unemployed people and and foreigners.

In this case, the government will have to implement a political solution, not an economic one to employ hundreds of thousands of citizens when there is no real need to do so and these people will not produce any work. The problem will then continue to snowball.

The state can encourage the establishment of economic sectors capable of hiring citizens in different fields, and help the market support these enterprises from the outset. Pursuing small and medium-sized enterprises will not achieve the aim.

What is important is that citizens find themselves a place that suits their rehabilitation and pays them a salary appropriate to the job, and that these enterprises are supported and protected for years so they improve themselves as well as the market.

Steering people’s indignation towards foreigners has become widespread in many Arab countries. This does not solve anything. Official and popular parties must be careful when they make justifications and promises. Even their rhetoric has become low. Speaking of “loose labor” or “retarded labor” is insulting, and equates humans with cattle.

There are workers who are illegal, or whose residencies have expired, but they all perform useful services. If there had not been a need for them, they would not be in the country, and they would not have left their families to work here.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 4, 2013.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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