A crackdown targeting Saudi Arabia’s illegal workers has caused disarray as foreign workers on which many small businesses rely are fleeing, have gone into hiding, have left the country or are under arrest. Hundreds of grocery stores have shut their doors and almost half of Saudi Arabia’s small construction firms have stopped working on projects, while garbage has been piling up on many streets.
Since the Saudi government began issuing warnings earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have been deported, though some were able to avoid arrest by getting proper visas in an amnesty program. That amnesty ended last week, and some 33,000 people have since been placed behind bars.
The crackdown launched on November 4, targeting the kingdom’s 9 million migrant laborers, has led to the state-backed Saudi Gazette reporting that 20,000 schools are without janitors, while others are without school bus drivers. Saudis say that dozens of businesses like bakeries, supermarkets, gas stations and cafes are now closed. They say prices have also soared for services from mechanics, plumbers and electricians.
Decades of lax immigration enforcement allowed migrants to take low-wage manual, clerical and service jobs that the kingdom’s own citizens shunned for better paying, more comfortable work. Now, authorities say booting out migrant workers will open more jobs for citizens, at a time when unemployment among Saudis is running at 12.1 percent as of the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that if the kingdom wants to be serious about the problem, authorities should look at the labor laws and not at the workers.
Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, under which foreign laborers work in the kingdom, gives employers say over whether or not a foreigner can leave the country or change jobs, forcing many into illegal employment.
Despite feeling the loss of the everyday work the foreign laborers provided, Saudis largely have cheered on the police. Residents have taken matters into their own hands on several occasions, despite police calling on the public not to make citizen arrests.
Saudi columnist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed, writing in the Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, cautioned Saudis to remember that without “a strong state and oil revenues” they too may have emigrated in search of work. “Those deprived of the chance of a proper life can understand the feeling of those wanting to seek a better life.”