A government crackdown on illegal foreign workers in Saudi Arabia has disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people and made it harder for some businesses to operate. But ultimately it may create a stronger, more diverse economy.
Thousands of foreigners — over 200,000, according to an unnamed passports department official quoted by the Al Hayat daily last week — have been deported from the country over the past few months.
People stopped going to work at some businesses in major cities such as Riyadh for fear of being caught by government inspectors. Parents at some private schools say there were unscheduled holidays because teachers were staying home.
The turmoil was so great that last Saturday, King Abdullah ordered a three-month suspension of the crackdown, to give foreigners time to sort out their papers. Many people remain fearful of trouble with authorities when inspections resume.
Some businessmen in Saudi Arabia complain privately that the government should have launched its campaign more carefully, coordinating closely with companies to reduce their uncertainty over staffing levels.
The crackdown is likely to have an economic impact far beyond the country’s borders, since foreign workers from south and southeast Asia remit billions of dollars home to their families every year.
But within Saudi Arabia, the economic costs are likely to be outweighed in the long run by the benefits of reducing excess manpower, creating upward pressure on local wages and moving Saudi citizens into private sector employment, analysts say.
“Most of the illegal labour is unskilled labour, extra labour that in fact creates inefficiency in the economy. So these people are more than the economy needs,” says Abdulwahab Abu Dahesh, a Saudi economist. “Proper policies to reduce inefficiencies will create more competitiveness in the economy.”
Article continued on next page