Yemenis See Vital Economic Lifeline Being Cut As Saudi Arabia Cracks Down On Illegal Immigrant Labor

 @angeloyoung_a.young@ibtimes.com
on May 17 2013 12:50 PM

In one important way, Saudi Arabia is to Yemen what the United States is to Mexico: an important source of financial remittances for impoverished families south of the border from family members working in the north.

But as the oil-rich Arab kingdom cracks down on foreign labor as part of a larger policy — by expelling laborers who do not work for the companies that originally sponsored their work permits — to boost domestic employment, more and more Yemenis are finding a traditional and vital source of income dry up.

In April, the Saudi Labor Ministry announced changes to its guest worker program that restricts immigrant workers from transferring their "iqama," as the work certificate is known, from one sponsor to another.

Starting July 3, the Saudi government will crack down on illegal laborers and immigration authorities have stepped up inspections in an effort to reel in the problem of employers hiring immigrant workers they did not sponsor under the country’s guest worker law.

As part of a larger multi-channel effort to increase employment of Saudi citizens, a process known as “Saudization,” immigration authorities have stepped up enforcement of existing guest worker rules through on-site workplace inspections.

Furthermore, the country has also stepped up efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants through the country's southern border with Yemen and resumed construction of a 1,100-mile border fence.

It is estimated that Yemenis working abroad send home $2 billion a year, money that provides a lifeline to family members and a boost to the country’s economy. Of the two million Yemenis who work outside the country, more than half of them are in Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters.

Tareq al-Molaiki is a classic example of the type of young man most affected by Saudi Arabia’s recent crackdown on illegal laborers. The 23-year-old deported Yemeni had paid a broker — one of the countless that prey on jobseekers in poor countries worldwide — about $5,000 for a job in Riyadh.

Typically, workers borrow from loan sharks and pawn their few assets to help pay for such services.

Al-Molaiki's job didn’t work out and he was eventually arrested, imprisoned for two months in a crowded cell with hundreds of others, then deported.

"I have nothing and my family has nothing," al-Molaiki told Al Jazeera. "I am very nervous about my lack of prospects."

According to a 2009 report by the Carnegie Endowment, Yemen’s unemployment rate is conservatively estimated to be 35 percent, or roughly the same as that seen in the U.S. during the Great Depression. However, the Social and Economic Development Research Center (SEDRC) puts the rate at a staggering 50 percent and sees youth unemployment approaching 75 percent.

Yemeni officials recognize that the central government is not able to hire all those seeking work and the private sector is unable to pick up the slack,” writes Christopher Boucek, author of the Carnegie Endowment report.

More than two years after an Arab Spring revolution ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, one of the world’s most impoverished nations with a rapidly growing population remains a regional powder keg of unrest in the back yard of one of the world’s most vital sources of oil. 

Without access to jobs, youth unemployment is expected to rise, fueling fears that jobless youth will fall prey to extremist ideologies espoused by terrorist groups in the region.

Speaking to the National Yemen newspaper in September, Ali Ahmed, a psychiatrist at Al-Amal Hospital in the nation's capital Sana’a, warned that with such dire economic realities comes anger and radicalization.

“When some youths, especially those who are not close to God, reach a dangerous stage of despair and frustration, they become more susceptible to joining extremist groups like Al-Qaeda or the Houthi movement,” he said.

Most young Yemenis have, for decades, been moving back and forth between home and Saudi Arabia, often doing menial jobs as fruit vendors, construction workers and cab drivers. Some secure legal employment under Saudi Arabia’s labor sponsorship program while most work illegally as undocumented migrants.

Some emigrate and rise through the social ranks of Saudi society, such as Mohammed bin Awad Bin Laden - father of Osama Bin Laden - who built a successful construction business from scratch.

Although far wealthier than its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia is confronting its own employment crisis and population boom. In a December 2012 article about poverty in the kingdom, the Washington Post cited government statistics to report that more than two-thirds of the local population is younger than 30, and almost 75 percent of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s. 

For decades, the kingdom has been heavily dependent on cheap foreign labor from countries including Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and, increasingly, Burma and Thailand. In recent years, it has imposed stringent labor quotas on its businesses that were previously allowed to utilize foreign guest workers.

In 2012, according to data from The International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia's GDP grew by 6.8 percent while Yemen's grew by 0.1%.

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