Saudi papers and media outlets have seen an uptick in discussions of foreign workers – probably concerns over Saudi citizens’ employment once the economy starts to open up again + reported COVID-19 cases being disproportionately among expatriate workers in the Kingdom. These have ranged from fairly neutral discussions of statistics and labor markets to much harsher rhetoric.
“The results of the labor force survey for the fourth quarter of 2019 indicate that there is a clear imbalance in the absorption of the labor market for the citizen, and that there are challenges that limit its employment and hinder its empowerment, despite the low rate of citizen participation in important development sectors.”Abla Murshid, Al-Watan, 5.7.2020
A new proposal
“Expatriate labor… due to their overcrowding housing, represent the greatest challenge in containing this epidemic and limiting its spread…Suleiman al-Ruwaishid, Al-Riyadh, 5.4.2020
This raises the possibility of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development establishing a public-private partnership with considerable participation from industrial companies, contracting firms and entities operating in the retail sector. These would work on a competitive basis to provide healthy housing for laborers directly or through housing-service providers who [typically] work with individuals, as an alternative to the current situation.”
Referring to foreign workers as “landmines” who need to be removed… but blaming the situation on foreign companies:
“This dangerous employment condition is unfortunately not remembered except in times of crisis, and if we wanted to address it seriously we could have done so long ago… The company or organization that recruits a large number of workers does not have the right to rob them of their most basic human rights in housing worthy of human beings. They are not entitled to make them a threat to the health, safety and security of society by stacking them in dark, hidden hotbeds out of sight, where they may be exploited in illegal practices.”Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 4.30.2020
Yet turning more directly to workers a week later, speaking mainly of expat “violators” who have overstayed their legal residency:
“The state was gracious with them [expat labor] and dealt with them with exceptional humanity that no other country did in terms of care and treatment for the injured. But the pandemic must warn us that we are living in a distorted and dangerous situation, and that it must put an end to it. Even if the matter involves several thousands of people, their danger must be neutralized [not as harsh as we would intend in English]. We are talking about large numbers that constitute a real danger, not imagined or exaggerated.
With regard to formal employment, it is no longer necessary to tolerate employers who sidestep the requirements of housing and the provision of health care. As for those who are irregular workers that have become like cancer, they must be eradicated without hesitation and return them from where they came. It is time to cleanse the country of those who continued to pose a danger to it.”Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 5.6.2020
There has also been an uptick in social media posts calling for the expulsion of various classes of foreigners – particularly the Burmese Muslims who have lived in the Kingdom for decades after being granted legal residency by successive Saudi monarchs (#Save_Mekkah_From_The_Burmese). Here, one account dismissed the plight of the Rohingiya as a “Brotherhood plot,” calling for these individuals to be sent to Bangladesh. This despite the fact that KSA uses its support for the Rohingya both in KSA and elsewhere in messaging about its humanitarian activities.
Saudi Finance Minister Muhammad al-Jadaan garnered significant popular and press interest following an interview on Al-Arabiya on Saturday, May 2 about Saudi Arabia’s financial position and policies to deal with the twin crises of COVID-19 and lower-than-expected oil prices.
The key quote would probably be:
The government has worked over the last four to five years to regulate public finance and lower the deficit, but we still have a long way to go. We will reduce expenditure, God willing, even if some of the steps taken will be painful, they are for the benefit of everyone, for the benefit of the country and for the benefit of its citizens. We are looking forward to the concerted effort of citizens and the private sector and the government to face this crisis.Mohammed al-Jadaan, Al-Arabiya interview, 5.2.2020
Some certainly focused on the positives, like the Minister noting that the government would be “redirecting [some spending] to provide health services for nationals and residents.”
…the minister’s speech asserted several important elements of the Kingdom’s policy in the face of these negative effects, foremost among which is not to prejudice the citizen’s state of living, while paying attention to the health aspects. It has taken quick measures to ensure human safety and the proper functioning of the healthcare process for the citizen and [expat] residents alike. This is in addition to ensuring the continuity of basic services despite the exceptional circumstances the country is going through.Amjad al-Munif, Al-Riyadh, 5.5.2020
Al-Riyadh provided a similar appraisal in its rundown, albeit gently touching on the “belt-tightening” to come:
To face the repercussions of this fierce virus, more than 180 billion riyals have been spent to support the health sector, the private sector and individuals, which is a huge number comparable to the budgets of all countries combined. This in turn calls – as we have heard from the Minister of Finance’s televised speech – to re-prioritize some expenses according to their importance, mitigating the effects on public finances this year. [This is important due to] the expectations of the World Health Organization that control efforts may continue globally for a period of up to two years, which justifies the measures that will be taken according to the strategy announced – “belt tightening” to control and reduce expenditures to meet these conditions.Al-Riyadh editorial, 5.4.2020
Okaz’s two lead columnists honed in a bit more on the Minister’s “shock therapy” in his comments.
Certainly, there is much that can be postponed and rationalized, or even temporarily frozen from projects, programs, activities and government costs to overcome this stage. It is hoped that the Minister of Finance and other stakeholders will continue to communicate with citizens with high transparency to cut through the rumors that will receive a fertile place in these circumstances, so that citizens know their role and responsibility, as well as any actions that may affect them in the future.Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 5.4.2020
And from Khalid al-Suleiman, “Did the finance Minister Make a Mistake?”
“But the drawback of Minister Muhammad Al-Jadaan is that he resorted to the “shock” method in communicating his message, with negatives outnumbering positives at times, especially if the message came without specific details. Such a statement should have included a better explanation of the measures that will be taken so that society does not become riven with interpretations and expectations that will only result in negative rumors!”Okaz, 5.5.2020
Dear reader, you may recall a past discussion of a reconciliation between Qatar and neighboring countries. That now seems unlikely based on what can be printed in Okaz. Peak Qatar discourse within the quartet is arguing that a probably non-existent coup only demonstrates Qatar’s irrelevance due to its non-effect on the global economy.
“Whatever happened in the Qatar’s Al-Wakra, whether a coup d’etat or the disputes of the sheikhs, its non-impact on global markets and international media reflects the [small] size, impact and value of Qatar on the global scale!”Khalid Al-Suliman, Okaz, 5.6.2020
There have been a number of Palestine- and Irsael-related hashtags roaming around Gulf Twitter over the past few weeks. Most notable, the appearance of Jewish characters in a dramatization of life in a Gulf town sparked speculation that this was the latest step in Saudi efforts to normalize ties with Israel.
See, for ex:
If I asked a young Saudi child, he would have stated that he is against normalization with Israel, – the aversion toward the Israeli entity among the Saudis is often innate due to the accumulations of the struggle of the Palestinian issue. So when accusations are brought to us that we are weaving the threads of normalization with Israel, this is a false accusation that is not based on any evidence!
It is ironic, however, that these accusations come from those who practice normalization with the Israelis [i.e. Turkey and Qatar].Khalid al-Suleiman, Okaz, 5.3.2020
I think that the dramatization of issue of Jews in the Gulf was very successful. There are no systematic normalization procedures, and it is assumed that we distinguish between Zionism as a political project and Judaism as a divine religion. The series “Umm Haroun,” in my opinion, is nothing more than an interesting and exciting new work on his topic. Perhaps it involved exaggerations to attract the viewer, but it is unlikely that it is trying to pass along a certain political position. The correct thing is that Palestine is a central issue in the Gulf conscience, not Turkish or Iranian, and bargaining over it is not possible.Badr bin Saud, Al-Riyadh, 5.7.2020
The series actually discusses the historical presence of Jews in the Gulf, so conspiracy-minded questions began to chatter: why is it being shown now? Why specifically at this particular time? It is suspicious and suspicious! Finally, the final conclusion comes that this series – regardless of its dramatic content – carries a veiled message, a step towards normalization with the Zionist entity!Ali Al-Shuraimi, Al-Watan, 5.5.2020
Perhaps the series wanted to make it clear that not every Jew believes in the Zionist ideology, as Judaism is a divine religion, as is the case with Christianity and Islam. And when we read history we find many Jews were suffering from the excessive Zionist ideology, just like other non-Jewish victims…
There is a moral responsibility of all people of all religions, to ending this ugly, brazen image of occupation, ethnic cleansing, settlement and oppression of the landowners. We will not tire until Palestine becomes independent.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed also weighed in with the straightforwardly titled “Normalization not the Issue,” suggesting that most Arab governments almost certainly could improve relations with Israel if they so chose (and bring their populations along for the ride) but that they had little reason to do so just yet.
The government is able to improve or ruin any relationship, regardless of hostility or friendship, and we are accustomed to the fluctuations of the official language along disputes and reconciliations. And Israel would not be an exception if Arab governments decided to reconcile and normalize. [These governments] control the media, education, mosques, unions and the streets, and can direct public opinion towards reconciliation with or demonization of a new friend. People tend to be affected in spite of themselves and are affected by the massive direction of messages.Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, Aawsat, 5.3.2020
Currently, despite everything all explanations or statements, we do not see signs of growing relations with Israel, let alone a trend for normalization. The old Arab order is still in its place, and so is Israel. There is no urgent need to impose changes on the Arab reality at the present time.
Change can happen if there is a “force majeure,” such as regional wars that compel states toward new alignments, or a shift in Israeli policy toward dealing with the West Bank that imposes a collective peace. Then Israel will become a friendly country, and the relationship with it will be permissible on all levels – but not yet.
It may be of interest that this article was not posted on Al-Rashed’s English-language page for Aasharq al-Aawsat.