Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)
This is my column that was printed in Arab News on Nov. 30, 2014:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
When I read a few weeks ago that that an Indian from the state of Kerala had been arrested in Jeddah for illegally running a vegetable and fruit selling business worth SR5 million, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. Of course I understand the action that the various ministries undertook in enforcing the Saudization rules of the vegetable market which led to the arrest of the Keralite, and I fully support our government’s efforts to make more work opportunities available to Saudis. But I also know that unfortunately there are very few Saudis that I know of who are willing to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. in order to be at the vegetable market at 4 a.m. for the daily auction of fresh fruits and vegetables. So in my mind, the arrested Keralite was just filling a market demand.
It is sad to note that too often the coverage of these Saudization issues by the local press takes on xenophobic overtones, often implying that foreigners are taking over the Kingdom and threatening our national security. This is ridiculous, as more often than not they do the difficult and low paid jobs that we Saudis do not want to do, such as domestic work, street cleaning, vegetable selling and taxi driving, among others. For sure Saudis have made immense strides in terms of the types of work that we are willing to do, both men and women. Nowadays you can find Saudi women working as cashiers in supermarkets and Saudi men working in fast food restaurants, something that was impossible to see only 10 to 15 years ago.
We should be happy and proud that so many foreigners want to work and live here. Saudi Arabia has become a wealth magnet in the Middle East, a stable country that provides job opportunities to millions of Saudis and foreigners in a tax-free environment. In that sense, we are sort of in a similar situation as the United States, which also has a large immigrant population, with many illegals.
It was good news to read that the Saudi government will allow runaway expats to leave the country without having to return to their sponsors as long as they do not have criminal cases pending against them, pay any outstanding fines and pay for their own tickets home. Too often many employers put up unnecessary obstacles or drag their feet in repatriating disgruntled employees, which makes the lives of the runways hell as they have to wait to be deported in crowded detention centers, all the while not receiving any salary.
The other good news was that the Saudi government is considering issuing Iqamas, or residency permits, that are valid for five years, instead of for one year as is the case now. This would immensely help make the lives of expatriate workers and their family members easier and less worrisome. The government also said it was studying the possibility of extending the validity of Saudi passports from five years to 10 years, which pleased me very much. Most developed countries have long issued 10-year passports, so why not Saudi Arabia? In my case, since the Saudi Embassy here in Brasilia does not issue new Saudi passports, each time my passport needs to be renewed I need to return to the Kingdom to do so, which is costly and time consuming.
It is high time that we Saudis stop seeing foreigners as the enemy and acknowledge how much they have helped develop this country, and how much they help us keep this country running smoothly every day. Measures such as extending the validity of Iqamas and facilitating the departure of runaway workers are all developments that are just and help to ease the lives of those who struggle so much to make our lives more pleasant. It’s the least we can do.