The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 4/4/2013
There is a guy I know who wanted to work in Saudi Arabia because he would be close to Makkah and Madinah.
He’s Pakistani and a certified accountant educated in London. Last December, he received an open visa from Pakistan, and after arriving in the Kingdom he obtained his iqama two months later. His father gave up his pension to pay SR 31,000 for the open visa. He started work as a supervisor at the King Abdullah Sports City. On March 30, he lost his job because he was not working for his sponsor.
“Everybody knows that no one can work with his sponsor,” he told me.
My expat friend is like thousands, if not millions, of others who have legal residency with a valid iqama and work for companies that do not sponsor them. They live in Saudi Arabia legally and are simply following the customs and traditions of our country when it comes to employment. They follow the rules that we have laid down for them. They obtain that all-important iqama and are granted permission from their sponsors to work for someone else.
The accountant is now out of a job and stranded in the Kingdom. He doesn’t have the ability to pay his expenses here, let alone airfare for the trip home.
I’m all for having Saudi Arabia become less dependent on expatriate labor. Yes, I want Saudis employed. I want to see them in high-level management positions, but I also want to see them as mid-level managers and low-level supervisors. I want them drawing blood at hospitals, selling cars and working at Hardee’s and McDonald’s. Saudis digging ditches is fine by me as well.
We have become so dependent on expats, and at the same time so arrogant that we don’t want certain jobs. Now that has come back to bite us as tens of thousands of Saudi men and women remain unemployed. And it will get worse as Saudi scholarship students return from abroad with degrees in hand but not jobs.
But I wonder whether it is worth it to make the expat community fearful to live in our country. The streets of Jeddah have been deserted the last few days because everyone is afraid to venture out. School administrators, fearful of raids to seize iqamas and detain employees, have closed campuses on a forced holiday. Hundreds of major employers have sent employees home without pay to stay out of harm’s way until things have cooled down.
Our current sponsorship system has created this monster that is full of abuses. We have demonized and penalized workers who are legal residents and have followed the rules. If anything, the sponsors should be held accountable for allowing workers to be employed elsewhere without regard to the consequences. It’s the sponsors, not expat workers, who have ignored Saudization and Nitaqat requirements and government pleas to employ more Saudis. It’s the government that permits recruiting agencies to hire foreigners for jobs.
The Saudi government has encouraged, or at least turned a blind eye to the abuses of the system. Although the government is right to finally clamp down on the abuses, targeting expats only creates tension between foreigners and Saudis and leads to instability in the country. They are plenty of people in the region that want turmoil in Saudi Arabia and the recent raids on workplaces only feed into desire for instability.
My friend the accountant wants to see the visa rules changed to prevent people coming to Saudi Arabia with false hopes and false promises only to find themselves stranded without a job, money or a decent place to live. He wants to know who will refund the cost of his open visa, or the time and money he spent to move to Saudi Arabia.
There have been suggestions that Saudi Arabia drop the sponsorship system and develop a migrant worker or immigration system that permits immigration based on the education and the skill set of workers. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It would take years to phase out the sponsorship program and replace it with something more fair. Sponsorship is an archaic notion that does not fit the needs of Saudi society in the 21st century.
But what to do in the mean time? Perhaps now is the time to freeze recruitment. At the same time the government can phase out the sponsorship system through attrition and financial incentives, such as End of Service Benefits bonuses, to encourage expats to return to their home country.
That way our dependence on expat labor is reduced through an orderly manner and through a legal process. It will also reduce the panic among our guests and save the Kingdom from embarrassment over the way we treat people who live and work here.