Millions of pious pilgrims flock to Mecca every year, but the Muslim holy city’s newest, biggest hotel serves a different clientele. Just months after opening, the Shumeisi Deportation Centre already holds more than 20,000 Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indonesians, Yemenis and citizens of other nationalities, nearly half of them women. They will not be there for long. Nearly all will soon be packed off home, joining an exodus that has seen perhaps one in ten of Saudi Arabia’s estimated 9m foreign workers leave the kingdom in little more than a year.
The number awaiting deportation has swollen dramatically. An amnesty meant to allow migrant workers to conform to new, stricter employment rules expired on November 4th. Since then, Saudi police have mounted sweeps of worksites and the districts where foreigners live. Thousands have turned themselves in voluntarily, some camped out in public, luggage in hand, awaiting arrest and a free flight home. But others prefer to resist: on November 10th two people died when a police raid targeting Ethiopian residents of a slum in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, sparked a minor riot.
The campaign has caused other disruptions. Some 6,000 street-cleaners in Mecca, mostly from Bangladesh, mounted a five-day strike to protest against harassment by immigration authorities as well as non-payment of wages and poor working conditions. With much of the kingdom’s pool of manual and semi-skilled labour afraid to show up for work, such vital services as water delivery, the pumping out of septic tanks and the washing of bodies for burial have all but halted. Wholesale markets and city souks are operating at a fraction of normal turnover. A Saudi daily newspaper, al-Medina, says that more than half of 200,000 firms registered as building contractors have temporarily closed.
Similar troubles sprouted when the new rules began to be enforced last spring, prompting the hasty announcement of a seven-month amnesty. But this time the Saudi authorities appear determined to finish the job. The campaign aims both to regulate the flow of immigration to the oil-rich kingdom and to open opportunities for Saudi workers. It comes as part of a long-term drive towards “Saudisation” of the distorted labour market that has included enforced quotas, a ban on foreigners in some professions, and a crackdown on firms that supply imported labour, which accounts for two-thirds of the overall workforce, and a far higher proportion in the private sector.
All this is meant to lower the kingdom’s unemployment rate, officially 13% but believed to be twice as high among the young. Although trimming the foreign workforce will theoretically free up jobs for locals, few Saudis seem likely to seek them, least of all those of the menial kind, which the kingdom’s 19m citizens tend to shun. Still, some economists expect longer-term benefits, as an overall rise in labour costs makes Saudis more attracted to lower-prestige and starting-level jobs, where wages have long been kept down by the abundance of foreign labour.
Even so, critics of the clampdown assert that similar goals might be achieved with less drastic, police-heavy methods. Many immigrant workers have fallen foul of Saudi laws less by intent than because of the unfairness of the visa-sponsorship system that the kingdom, along with states such as Qatar, continues to impose. This requires every immigrant to have a Saudi kafeel, or sponsor, who usually demands an annual fee in exchange for providing legal cover. All too often, kafeels “employ” their charges in fictitious companies, when in fact they seek work on the open market, in breach of rules that restrict foreign workers to the job described in their visa.
Not only is this form of gatekeeping often criminally extortionate. Its scale has created a powerful lobby that has serially resisted attempts at reform. It does not help that generations of Saudis have grown used to being served by a pliant underclass with few rights. Most Saudi families regard foreign servants as a necessity rather than a luxury. Among other things, since women are banned from driving, they must have chauffeurs. Until recently, Saudi labour recruiters boldly advertised the services of reliable and fast-moving Sri Lankan, Sudanese or Filipino workers.
Immigration will not be so easy in future; wages are likely to rise. Even so, most Saudis endorse the crackdown. Vigilantes have helped the police round up suspected “illegals”, showing a particular grudge towards the reputedly rowdy Ethiopians. “I have hired maids from different nationalities, but I should say Ethiopians are the most arrogant and stubborn ones,” Arwa al-Hilal, a working Saudi mother, is quoted telling the Arab News, an English-language daily. “I did have two Ethiopian maids previously and both of them were too hard to handle and always spoke back to us, though we paid their wages on time.”
*Originally published on the Economist, Nov. 16, 2013, titled “Saudi Arabia and its labourers: Go home, but who will replace you?”