Saudi Arabia’s big elephant in the room

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
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The Arab world is drastically changing every day due to the pressure of the youth who have become the majority. Turkish youth have also taken to the streets, urging the government to listen to them. And so, I believe that the Saudi government should listen to its young men and women. I guess that the government has done so, because there are massive changes going on in the Saudi scene after a campaign that vigorously urged the country to rely on local workers by imposing different legislations for the “improvement of work conditions.” It was an attempt by the Saudi government to revive the country again.

Young female students take their maids to the university auditorium so they can get them their coffee... What kind of disgrace is this?

Jamal Khashoggi

Before accusing me of exaggerating, the picture is deeper than just hundreds of Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bengali and other foreign nationalities, gathered in the early morning in front of their embassies to settle or complete their papers in order to be safely deported to their home countries.


Some saw the effects of this move when grocery stores or restaurants closed their doors. These foreigners are a huge elephant in the room in Saudi households despite the country’s ampleness, financial ability of its residents and their vast experience.

While they talk about education reforms in order to generate more efficient national graduates who can compete with foreigners, or while experts suggests proposals regarding the minimum wages, the elephant is roaming to destabilize and disrupt their talks. Thus, they are now concerned about the elephant more than their fateful cases and meanwhile, no one dares to say: get this elephant out so that we can talk and plan in a better way.

It is good that the government is finally convinced that it cannot move forward with its reform projects as long as the elephant is still in the room. The elephant precisely consists of a few millions cheap workers who made the Saudi manufacturing sector and economy be addicted to them, cheapening the market and goods and killing creativity with its cheap and low quality products.

Addicted to cheap labor

It deprived young Saudis from having experience and working, and reinforced the perception of inferiority of manual work. We are now addicted to cheap labor; it tarnished our social relations. We no longer find it wrong that a foreign worker carries our newspapers and handbag to our cars. Young female students take their maids to the university auditorium so they can get them their coffee... What kind of disgrace is this?

This does not mean that we are narrow-minded. We must give credit to the educated foreigners who come to work as professors, doctors, engineers and experts, adding something positive to the country. We should facilitate their integration into society maybe by granting them Saudi citizenship; therefore we should attract competencies that help our economy, production and knowledge.

The Saudi Ministry of Labor is leading this campaign, or should I say the ministry that the government makes it look like it is administering the campaign, is directing opinions inside and outside Saudi by making them believe that what is actually going on is a correction to the conditions of workers living in chaos.

Hundreds of thousands of others workers are not working for their sponsors, and other thousands are suffering from unemployment so they cannot settle in one position; all this needs reforms but I am sure that the government’s goal is larger than that. The goal is to revive Saudi Arabia’s economy, cities and society that are similar to any other country where foreigners are a minority amid a larger homogeneous community. Today, more than one third of the Saudi population consists of “temporary foreigners” dealing with the country as any temporary resident will deal; for them, Saudi Arabia is just a place where they will be able to make small or large fortunes. Normal communities do not prosper through these temporary residents, especially when 86 percent of them are only paid two thousand riyals.

One third of Saudi cities residents are foreigners; how much would these cities and their crumbling infrastructure be relieved if this third disappeared? The unjustified expanding will disappear, the economy lying under the folds of the Saudi economy will also fade, clinics, restaurants, food and clothes shops will no longer have billions of their revenues transferred to other countries without having the Saudi GNP benefit from them: only few Saudis who allow this parasite economy can profit while gaining small amounts of money.

Saudi Arabia will provide limited natural non-renewable resources of water, oil and energy and the government will then take care of its citizens urging them to work and revive their culture. This will solve the problem of hundreds of thousands of “stateless” persons who were born in Saudi Arabia but were not granted the Saudi nationality; when they work, their revenues will be spent in the country and will help the Saudi economy. Their only country is Saudi Arabia and that will help them be more present, and perhaps get the citizenship in the future.

Foreign examples

Saudi Arabia must learn from the experiences of other countries that are endowed with high income; for instance, Ireland, which has witnessed a boom in the past decade, did not get workers from the Philippines to replace Irish people whose salaries are high and want to work fewer hours. When the American workers’ costs increased, American factories moved to China, but they did not let Chinese workers invade America.

The Irish capital Dublin has not changed much during the last two decades, while Saudi cities have grown in space, until they became a deficit nightmare for the government.

Let us move out the elephant from our rooms, so we can cooperate with each other.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 8, 2013.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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