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Migration, Immigration and Their Effects on Religion, Women, and Minorities in Saudi Arabia

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Migration, Immigration and Their Effects on Religion, Women, and Minorities in Saudi Arabia
Written By: Bill Cook
Professor: Barry Adams

An Overview of Migration / Immigration in Saudi Arabia 1970’s - Today

Although foreign workers have been a presence in the Saudi labor force since the beginnings of the oil boom in the 1930’s, large inflows of migrant workers began to flow into Saudi Arabia in the late 1970’s during the “oil crunch”. Saudi development of its infrastructure demanded both skilled and unskilled labor. Employers, finding it difficult to meet the labor demands with the local populace began to bring in workers from Southern Asia. “Migration of Asian workers was especially encouraged as it was thought that, compared to Arab foreign workers, they would be less likely to settle, less likely to organize, and hence more easy to control.” (Pakkiasamy, Divya; Migration Policy Institute, 2004) Saudi Arabia has nearly seven million migrant workers helping to build and maintain it’s infrastructure.
Involuntary Servitude of Foreign Workers
The treatment of migrant workers is widely overlooked by the international community. According to reports from many workers inside Saudi companies, foreign employees are “overworked, dehumanized and denied many basic rights” (Mekay, 2007) Many migrant workers enter Saudi Arabia on a service visa sponsored by a Saudi-based company or individual. These work visa’s are being held over the heads of the migrant workers by their sponsors in many cases. To complain about working conditions is to put your work visa at risk. Employers are know to confiscate passports and demand a return of previous wages if you threaten to quit. One example speaks of a Sudanese accountant who has been forced to work a general labor position in a warehouse after the accounting work he was hired for dried up. The accountant maintained that he was hired to do accounting, not carry packages; his visa sponsor now wants him to pay back all his previous salary. The working conditions can genuinely be compared to indentured servitude. The system does have a name of it’s own however, “the kafeel programme, which is similar to the U.S. non-immigrant skilled worker programme known as the H1B visa, given mostly to Indian nationals by U.S. computer companies.” (Mekay, 2007) Unlike the H1b system in the U.S., the kafeel system gives a visa sponsor nearly full control of an employees life. Although Saudi Arabia has very good labor laws, “the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch has in the past documented the failure of the Saudi government to enforce its own labour laws in the face of significant abuses of foreign workers by their employers.” (Mekay, 2007)
Foreign Workers and “Saudization”
The largest communities of expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia are estimated to have 1.5 million people each from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. There are more than 900,000 from Sudan, the Philippines and Sudan as well. Another 100,000 workers are from the West, although terrorist attacks are prompting many Westerners to disembark their positions. During the late 1980’s, Saudi Arabia began the fourth installment of a five year development plan for improving the nation. This version of the plan was intent on improving the economy and social programs. This plan also took place during a period of low oil revenues and the Saudi government was hesitant to raise taxes or lower the amount of social benefits that their citizens were accustomed to. “Another goal of the fourth plan was “Saudization” of the workforce, putting Saudi workers in positions held by foreign workers.” (Wynbrandt, 2010) Approximately seventy percent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia consists of foreign workers, holding more that ninety percent of private sector jobs. To help foster the Saudi plan of action, more than 300,000 undocumented immigrants were deported. The problem with this policy was that many Saudi’s were neither trained to take on skilled labor positions, nor did they want to accept manual labor type jobs. This leaves foreign workers the opportunity to continue filling these positions, about fifteen percent being skilled labor, the rest unskilled positions such as domestic services.
Migrant Workers and Islamic Rule
Although Saudi Arabia had made inroads into its educational systems, turning out many educated Saudis, and its movement to Saudiize the workforce, there are few opportunities, unless the candidate had connections to the ruling elite. In addition a Saudi educated overseas or in Europe is more likely to get a better paying job. Often-times these lucky Saudi’s were also members of the elite social circle, leading to a growing class division and discontent among Islamic fundamentalists who warned against Western influence.
Their message found resonance in the middle class and especially in the lower classes. While liberal would-be reformers pushed for moderation in application of religious law, more worrisome to the leadership was the criticism of conservative religious leaders who rejected all “bida” or innovations, and thus opposed the Saudi rule. (Wynbrandt, 2010)
Despite Saudi Arabia’s innovative educational system and dedication to modernization, many rules exist that are considered archaic by most standards. Religious tenants continue to hold back the female members of the Saudi workforce. For example women are often denied employment as they are not able to drive themselves to places of employment. Although no law exists that specifically bars women from driving, many women were stopped by “religious police” and taken to police stations to wait for a male relative to take them home. This practice widely dissuades women from driving, although they are allowed to buy automobiles.
Another form of Islamic control is the illegallity of proselytizing, or attempting to convert one to a different faith. This is something that is commonplace in the West, it is normal for a Christian and a Jew to discuss, or even argue the points of their respective religions. In Saudi Arabia, the law is Islam, and noone is allowed to discuss other ideals. Sharia Law, or the Sacred Law of Islam, applies to everyone in the country, despite their religion. If a Muslim converts to another religion, they are commiting a crime accroding to Sharia Law that is punishable by death. This viewpoint on proselytizing only exists as it pertains to Muslims converting to other religions, if you are a Christian however, call centers exist to help you in your conversion to Islam.
All these factors put a heavy burden on migrant workers of differing faiths than that of Wahhabi Islam. Among the peoples from other nations you can find Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Shiite Muslims. All of whom are discriminated against, merely for being different than Sunni. The government keeps no official records on how many peoples of each religion reside in their country, but it does not provide protection for any but Sunni Muslim. Practice of another religion must be held in secret, always with the fear of capture and imprisonment.
In this modern world, there is no reason the government of Saudi Arabia should act as if it fears other religions. There is no conspiracy by foreign workers to overtake the monarchy. There should be no acceptance of companies enslaving their foreign workers. Until Saudi Arabia makes ammends with the workforce it has, very few foreign job seakers will want to matriculate to their nation.

Mekay, E. (2007, Jan 25). Foreign Workers Trapped in a Gilded Cage. Retrieved October 31, 2010, from IPS:

Pakkiasamy, Divya; Migration Policy Institute. (2004, November). Saudi Arabia's Plan for Changing its Workforce. Retrieved October 31, 2010, from Migration Information Source:

Wynbrandt, J. (2010). A Brief History of Saudi Arabia (2nd ed.). New York, New York, U.S.A.: Infobase Publishing.

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