The press is full of figures of how Saudi Arabia over the last four months has deported more than 200,000 foreigners staying illegally, how they are stamping exit visas post haste in a manner that will deny those being turned away a chance to work in any other Gulf country, how foreigners are locking themselves up in rooms without water and food fearing arrest or worse. Many of those being returned are Indians, specifically South Indians. The press is full of human interest stories of how bad it is for the average Gulf Malayali, of how the chief minister and the minister for overseas Indians, Vayalar Ravi, plan to go to Riyadh to seek to reverse this Saudisation of jobs. They should not go. But there is talk about exodus, relief measures and rehabilitation: are they refugees?
The fear psychosis is bogus. What has happened in Saudi Arabia is not an overnight development. From the early Eighties, all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been talking about localisation, in terms of employment opportunities. As long ago as 2004, Saudi’s Shura Council stipulated that by 2007, 70 per cent of the country’s workforce would have to be locals to reduce dependence on foreign workers, recapture remittances that would otherwise flow out of the country, and reinvest. In 2003, government had said it would reduce the numbers of expat workers to 20 per cent of its total population in 10 years.
The public sector could no longer absorb a large number of Saudis, so the focus was the private sector, which for a variety of reasons was reluctant to hire Saudis, perhaps because of their lower work ethic, that they could not be as effectively disciplined. A year before the Arab Spring, the government began to use both coercion and co-option to punish private companies if they did not hire Saudis, and came up with a colour-coded scheme, the top being green, then yellow and red at the bottom; if the red did not comply, there would be shut-downs. For the last three years, the Saudis have been concentrating on the larger companies, bearing a part of the costs of the salaries for the first year and funding training programmes, with the caveat that those who were employed had to stay for a year. Arab Spring has brought about the need to cater to the aspirations of the youth, so they, among other things, do not fall for the blandishments of al-Qaeda. Unemployment among youth is high.
According to diplomats who have served in Riyadh, there are 6.5 million Indians in the GCC, of which two million are in Saudi Arabia, about 40 per cent of them from Kerala. Seventy per cent of Indian expats in Saudi Arabia are not affected by Nitaqat as they are blue-collar workers in construction and other areas for which there are not enough Saudis either trained or willing to take these jobs. The head of the Saudi Technical and Vocational Training Corporation Ali Bin Nasser Al-Ghafis himself says it will take four decades to train Saudis to create an all-Saudi workforce. No cause for panic there. Professionals and their family members make up 20 per cent of the Indian population. The job opportunities in this segment are substantial with not enough locals to fill them. Those under stress are the clerical clerks, counter clerks and the like; even their numbers are currently 10 per cent, down 20 per cent from some years ago. So where is the question of an exodus to God’s Own Country?