The invisible army: Part 1, One out of three Saudi residents

By:David A. Smith1

An invisible army currently occupies and operates in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are trying to root it out but so deeply embedded is this invisible army that the consequences are impossible for anyone to foresee.

Saudi Migrant Crackdown Closes Shops, Raises Fears

Since the Saudi government began issuing warnings earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have been deported, though some were able to avoid arrest by getting proper visas in an amnesty program. That amnesty ended last week, and some 33,000 people have since been placed behind bars.

Others have gone into hiding.


Illegal migrants wait with their belongings in Manfouha under police watch to be transferred by police buses on Wednesday to a center in Riyadh ahead of their deportation. (AFP)

In the last year, I ve been to Saudi Arabia (mainly Riyadh) several times, mainly for the work AHI has been doing for the Saudi government s housing finance system, so I ve seen up close and personal some aspects of how its society works. I don t pretend to understand Saudi Arabia, but I have some idea what I know I don t know.

Sources for this post

Reuters (March 27, 20132; dark blue font)

Wall Street Journal (April 1, 20133; blue font)

Arab News (September 30, 20134; dark green font)

Arab News (November 3, 20135; dark red font)

ABC News (November 10, 20136; black font)

Time (November 10, 2013; blue-gray font)7

Arab News (November 14, 20138; brown font)

Arab News (November 14, 20139; violet font)

Arab News (November 16, 201310; green font)

Arab News (November 16, 201311; turquoise font)

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy when the sunset muezzin calls, patrol cars of the religious police, the mutaween, on the streets of Mecca will slow down and exhort Saudi passers-by, in Arabic, Why aren t you praying? (White men in suits they leave alone.) 12


Mutaween police in training in Riyadh13, September, 2007

Saudi Arabia is also perhaps the most hierarchical society in which I ve worked, and the most authoritarian in my personal experience, so this is big news:

Jeddah police arrested 20 illegal workers from Ethiopia for creating chaos and blocking traffic14 on a key artery on Thursday morning.

15 has already been viewed 173,000 times. Ed.]

Police said the workers blocked traffic on King Fahd Road16 in Sharafiyah district, close to Mahmoud Saeed (Oasis Mall).


Jeddah: Jeddah police have arrested 20 Ethiopians for instigating and leading a mob of a large number of expatriates of different nationalities at Jeddah s King Fahd Road in Al-Sharafiya district Thursday afternoon, reported Arab News. It added that the area is close to Mahmoud Saeed (Oasis Mall).17

Though the demonstration is small-scale, to demonstrate at all is unheard-of in my experience, as is this:


Nawaf Al-Bouq, Jeddah police spokesman, said the police received first reports about the troublemakers at 8:30 am.

The workers tried to prevent the police from reaching the scene. The miscreants, carrying sticks and stones, were seen arguing with angry motorists.

Though it may not be Rosa Parks on her bus18, it s just possible that these twenty Ethiopians are the beginning of something revolutionary in Saudi society.


Not allowed in the front of the bus

Like the American south in the 1950s, Saudi society today sits upon a foundation of spatial and economic segregation, one that in fact dwarfs anything in American experience.


The most famous bus rider in American civil rights history

This segregated work force sustains the Saudi economy, undergirds Saudi society, and has marginalized been responsible for the marginalization of a whole generation of Saudi youth now coming to adulthood and seeking to form families.

Nevertheless, the foreigners are the workers Saudi Arabia needs, because

1. Saudi Arabia s economy depends on foreign (mostly low-cost) labor

While also having one of the world s most restrictive definitions of citizenship, the Kingdom also runs on foreign labor, with about 8,800,000 expatriate workers19, as the Saudis call them.


The expatriate workers as best anyone can estimate

(According to Hassan al-Husseini, until 1990, Yemenis could immigrate into Saudi without visas or work permits, but in anticipation of the imminent war to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, Yemenis (who might have been sympathetic to Saddam) were asked to obtain legal work and residence permits or return back to Yemen and 90% of them went home.)

That s a staggering figure for a nation of 16,000,000 people, of whom no more than 3,500,000 are employed and possibly as many as 2,500,000 are unemployed.

To put those figures into a US context, with America s population of 317,000,00020, for us to have a similar percentage of expatriates would mean over 112 million foreigner workers in America, and a male unemployment rate greater than 40% with most of the employed Americans working for the government, not the private sector.

Mind you, these young Saudis aren t poor the welfare state takes care of that but they re idle, and they cannot marry until they have a home of their own, and as a result frustration builds in them.


Coffee won t calm you down, you know

So the Saudis have been trying to build up citizens employment:

In recent years, the government has attempted structural reforms in the labor market despite complaints from business people accustomed to hiring inexpensive foreign workers

The workers are here, separated from their families, because though their pay may be low by Saudi standards, it s high by the standards of their home countries, so they remit as much as they possibly can. While in Saudi, they are thus interested in consuming the least housing cost they can, and as a result they pack themselves into dense apartments, probably more than one to a room, in apartments that were previously used by Saudis but have become obsolescent through a combination of age, under-maintenance, and changing neighborhoods.

(As with most demographic data about the Kingdom, housing data in Saudi is hard to come by, so much of the foregoing is my informed speculation.)

putting in place a quota system for Saudi nationals and now assessing fines of $640 per foreign worker to companies whose employment of Saudis falls below sector targets.

However, forcing employers to hire Saudis will only go so far, because

2. Saudization hasn t created a competitively employable Saudi workforce

So large is the problem of Saudi unemployment that roughly a decade ago, the government officially adopted a policy of Saudization21 affirmative action with sharp teeth. Under Saudization22, foreign companies are strongly incentivized (both positively and negatively) to hire Saudi nationals for jobs. But Saudization has not succeeded in boosting Saudi private-sector employment, because the young Saudis entering the workforce lack business skills:

Past efforts to push nationals into the underdeveloped private sector have failed in part because Saudi schools haven t produced enough skilled local workers, said Mishrif Ashraf23, a lecturer in Middle East political economy at King s College in London.


Unimpressed with local workers skills

With voluntary takeup unsuccessful, the Saudi government has been mandating explicit quotas, even to the point where foreign companies with fewer than 10 employees must nevertheless employ at least one Saudi citizen.

The results of this statutory affirmative action are drearily predictable.



  1. ^ David A.

    Smith (

  2. ^ Reuters (March 27, 2013 (
  3. ^ Wall Street Journal (April 1, 2013 (
  4. ^ Arab News (September 30, 2013 (
  5. ^ Arab News (November 3, 2013 (
  6. ^ ABC News (November 10, 2013 (
  7. ^ Time (November 10, 2013 (
  8. ^ Arab News (November 14, 2013 (
  9. ^ Arab News (November 14, 2013 (
  10. ^ Arab News (November 16, 2013 (
  11. ^ Arab News (November 16, 2013 (
  12. ^ the mutaween (
  13. ^ in training in Riyadh (
  14. ^ creating chaos and blocking traffic (
  15. ^ YouTube video here (
  16. ^ the workers blocked traffic on King Fahd Road (
  17. ^ Jeddah police have arrested 20 Ethiopians (
  18. ^ Rosa Parks on her bus (
  19. ^ about 8,800,000 expatriate workers (
  20. ^ America s population of 317,000,000 (
  21. ^ Saudization (
  22. ^ Under Saudization (
  23. ^ Mishrif Ashraf (
  24. ^ Part 2 (

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The invisible army: Part 1, One out of three Saudi residents

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