By Courtney Trenwith
New ministry figures reveal total number of foreign workers increased in the kingdom last year
Saudi Arabia issued more than 1.7 million work visas in 2013 despite the kingdom’s nationalisation program and an amnesty on illegal workers that saw more than 1m leave.
The Foreign Ministry said the visas were issued to meet demand for construction workers and to compensate for the shortage of workers following the amnesty, which ran between April and November.
About two-thirds of the kingdom’s population of an estimated 28m are expats.
The kingdom has made concerted efforts to reduce the local unemployment rate from more than 12 percent.
But last month the Shoura Council criticised the Labor Ministry’s nationalisation program, claiming it had was having little positive effect, despite billions of dollars being spent on helping locals enter the private sector.
Under the controversial system, known as Nitaqat, private sector companies are forced to hire Saudi citizens according to a grading system.
However, businesses are known to put Saudis on their books without requiring them to carry out the same workload as foreigners, who are often considered to be more skilled and reliable employees.
Shura Council member Saeed Al Asheikh said the nationalisation program, run by the Ministry of Labor, had had little real effect.
“Companies manipulate the system to give the impression that they have helped Saudis get employed,” he said, according to Arab News.
“Unemployment rates rose to 12.5 percent in 2012 despite the huge amounts of money [SR12bn or $3.2bn] invested with the fund.”
Fellow council member, Fahd bin Juma, said the Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF), set-up to support companies including subsidising salaries of nationals, had had little impact.
“The employment program is focusing on major cities, while job opportunities remain scarce in small cities,” he said.
The council also criticised the fund’s SR90m expenditure on plans and studies, questioning its returns in light of increasing unemployment.
According to new figures released by the Foreign Ministry and published by Arab News, a total of 10.36m visas, including tourism and religious permits, were issued in 2013, a 3.8 percent decline from the previous year.
More than half of the visas - 5.6 million – were to Muslims who performed Umrah visas, while 1.35 million were for Haj visas.
General tourist visas rose 7.2 percent to 1.13 million.