The Saudi people’s mood has greatly improved in recent days, although the state did not raise salaries and did not accomplish any of the residential projects they promised to accomplish three years ago. Even the prices of their vast desert land did not decrease though it is the main cause behind the rise of inflation and the increase in the cost-of-living. What actually happened was that the streets of their cities became more bearable, after much less congestion due to the campaign to deport foreign workers violating employment conditions. Those who did not resolve their situation during the grace period that ended last week were deported.
This simple fact means that number of these foreign workers was around one million, and had heavily weighed on the country’s infrastructure, exacerbating the existing problem. As soon as they left the scene, this infrastructure was relieved and the average Saudi citizen looking for a better life breathed a sigh of relief.
We are affected by the curse of oil that makes us feel misleadingly safe.Jamal Khashoggi
For the Ministry of Labor, the obvious drive to accomplish this has been to organize the labor market after obliging every Saudi who brought a foreign worker to either employ him, or transfer his sponsorship to someone who needs to employ him, or to deport him.
The ministry will not have any worker live illegally in Saudi Arabia, moving from one job to another without identification papers or contracts. The ministry urges everyone to abide to the “green scale” which is a scale that varies from the commercial sector to others, in order to calculate the required rate of Saudization. Those who abide to it will be exempted from fines and closure and they will be able to bring foreign workers or transfer employees of less fortunate scales (yellow and red) who intentionally or unintentionally failed to recruit a sufficient number of Saudi men and women, whose employment has become the forefront of the government's priorities.
Be more ‘green’
Nevertheless, there is another “green” target that must be included within the accounts of the Ministry of Labor and the Saudi government in general; the environment. It is linked to the flood of foreign workers who have been overflowing through the Saudi border on a daily basis for decades without interruption. If Saudi Arabia was an independent planet, it would have witnessed an environmental disaster and its population would have perished.
According to the kingdom’s “environmental footprints,” the country needs twice the amount of natural resources that it has now to be able to survive, but fortunately it is not an isolated planet; it compensated the lack through imports from other “planets,” but experts believe that this is not a sustainable and guaranteed solution because there are restrictions limiting the freedom of import such as wars, famines or high costs. Moreover the available physical ability of import is not guaranteed in the future, because it is ruled by the vagaries of time and oil prices.
The oil curse
The only solution that is advised by experts is striking a balance between the population and the available resources; it is a complex resolution that requires increasing the individual’s productivity through education and training and using the best available resources with rational spending. But of course, we do not do so in the kingdom and even if we tried to apply some of this advice we would never succeed.
We are affected by the curse of oil that makes us feel misleadingly safe. It is the main reason for our idleness regarding foreign workers, allowing our economy to become dependent on them and refraining from applying the regulations that we issue to prevent and cover up the trafficking of workers. This has created a parallel economy that is not in the interest of national products, and made the country a center of attraction for illegal immigration and unjust recruitment, which led to the country's population doubling. Foreign workers had become slightly less than half of the Saudi population and this had led to an abnormal economic and environmental situation.
The same curse has made us neglect the unjust consumption of our limited natural resources, mainly water resources wasted in absurd agricultural projects such as the cultivation of wheat, and showing off the largest cattle farms and dairy production in a desert country that has limited water resources. As for the oil sector, we are one of the largest oil-consuming countries in relation to the population; the passengers arriving by plane to our cities at night are astounded by the exaggerated lightings in our cities, while we support gasoline and diesel prices to be cheaper around the world.
Having a better environmental footprint can guide us to an enhanced future, or at least to understand the meaning of life in it. Since I am not well versed in this domain, I asked for the help of a friend, who is an expert on the environment. I was shocked when I started to read a study issued by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development that my friend had sent to me. This study deserves to be wisely and openly discussed because it should be the next green project of the Ministry of Labor in Saudi Arabia, after its success in dealing with the excessive numbers of foreign workers.
The next challenge is to convince the officials, before the citizens, that the revitalization is in attaining a “better quality of life,” and this is not achieved through more extensive cities and higher buildings, but in more elegant, self-sustained, happy, less congested cities. Such cities will need less maintenance and thus will cost less money. If the concept of the ecological balance was introduced during the planning of Saudi cities, they would completely change and the balance would have been settled at the right point.
Saudi citizens have enjoyed a great feeling this week while driving their cars without having to endure hours of traffic. The streets became wider without resorting to expansion projects that usually cost billions. What if Saudis’ life in general got better like that? Saudis stubborn experience with foreign workers and with a government that quickly loses its enthusiasm has made the people doubt whether Saudi Arabia will have cities that rest earlier, naturalizes its jobs and increases the income of its citizens.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 9, 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.