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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Many workers stayed off the streets to avoid checkpoints looking for invalid labor papers. Thousands of others had already arranged one-way journeys home, with Saudi officials insisting that those without the right visas and documents would receive no leniency.
After seven months of warnings, a nationwide culling of Saudi Arabia's massive foreign workforce took effect this week spearheaded by a special task force of 1,200 Labor Ministry officials combing shops, construction sites, restaurants and businesses. Police manned roadblocks to enforce the kingdom's strict labor rules that make it virtually impossible to remain in the country without an official employee-sponsor.
More than 4,000 people were arrested by Tuesday as part of the crackdown, officials said. But the effort means far more than just a letter-of-the-law push by one of the Middle East's powerhouse economies.
It reflects a wider drive to trim reliance on foreign workers across the Gulf Arab states, whose rulers have so far ridden out the Arab Spring but fear that demographics may not be on their side in the future. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries have aggressively supported proposals to open more jobs for their own citizens, worrying that chronic unemployment could eventually feed greater dissent and challenges to their tight grip on power.
It's another sign of the fraying of the longstanding Gulf social contract as populations grow, costs rise and the Middle East's upheavals change views on the streets. For decades, the two-way bargain was Gulf rulers doling out civil servant jobs and generous state benefits in return for political security. The rest was handled by the seemingly endless flow of workers, mainly from South Asia, who built the cities, tended to their employers' children and staffed businesses running from malls to banks to supermarkets.
Now, there is concern in the Gulf palaces that the framework may be in need of a drastic overhaul with young and increasingly impatient populations.
"We want more Saudi men and women to work in the private and public sectors," Saudi Deputy Labor Minister Mufrej Al-Haqbani told reporters Sunday just before the end of an "amnesty" period for the estimated 1.5 million foreigners — about 16 percent of the total 9 million non-Saudi work force — who are believed to have violated residency and labor rules by leaving their sponsors, sneaking into the country or simply staying after making the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Workers had until Monday to comply with the law or face arrest and deportation.
While some Gulf countries have plentiful oil and gas resources to lavish on relatively small local populations — foreigners outnumber natives about 5-to-1 in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — the pressures on Saudi Arabia stand out. Its 27 million people are more than the populations of all the other Gulf citizens combined, and its vast oil wealth has not trickled down enough to appease domestic demands or raise up impoverished areas and slums.
Unlike other many places in the Gulf, low-income Saudis are willing to work the types of jobs that have long been held by Indian, Egyptian, Pakistani and Filipino migrant workers, though perhaps not for the same low wages that can be the equivalent of just several hundred dollars a month. Yet unemployment among Saudi nationals has remained stuck at 10 percent for several years, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment among Saudis under 30 years old — about two-thirds of the population — is about three times the national average.
A sharp jolt to Gulf rulers came from an unexpected corner — normally sleepy Oman — where Arab Spring-inspired protesters demanded more jobs in early 2011. Gulf governments responded in predictable fashion: opening the state vaults.
Saudi Arabia promised $120 billion to fund job creation, debt forgiveness, higher public sector wages and social programs that help young Saudis buy homes, a prerequisite for marriage. It also accelerated its so-called "Saudization" program, which seeks to require businesses to ensure that Saudi nationals make up at least 10 percent of the work force.
But numbers tell another story. Only one-third of the 7 million new jobs created over the past decade went to Gulf nationals, according to the IMF.
A report in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National said at least 51 million more jobs are needed by 2020 to avoid a rise in unemployment among Arab Gulf nationals.
The Saudi crackdown and other measures may whittle down the number of foreign workers, but fail to directly address deeper issues that touch all Gulf nations such as allegations of abuses of domestic help and employment rules that have been harshly criticized by rights groups.
Nearly every worker in the Gulf — from construction sites to board rooms — is directly "sponsored" by an employer who has say over exit visas, residency and work permits. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Organization have accused employers of violations such as withholding workers' passports or ignoring their demands. In May, hundreds of construction workers in the United Arab Emirates were sent back to Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries after waging a strike to protest meal costs deducted from their pay.
Any worker who leaves a sponsor without permission to find another job is considered in violation of labor rules.
"The problem on one level is that the migrants keep salary levels low," Saudi expert and author Karen Elliott House said. "Another problem is that Saudis are either not qualified for the jobs they want or do not want to accept the low salaries of jobs they are qualified to do."
The sponsorship system also has led to corruption under so-called "free visa" arrangements where Saudis posing as sponsoring employees charge up to $3,200 to import workers for businesses that do not exist. The arrangement allows foreigners a cover to begin looking for work once in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said.
Additionally, the security sweeps do not include raids on homes, leaving domestic workers largely out of the view from authorities. In 2010, a 23 year-old woman from Indonesia was hospitalized in after her Saudi employers allegedly burned her, broke her middle finger and cut her lips with scissors.
Authorities say that since warnings were issued earlier this year, 3.8 million people renewed their residency permits and 2.7 million corrected their papers to accurately reflect their occupation and workplace. The kingdom meanwhile issued more than 1 million final exit visas, which ban people from ever returning.
Employers who hired foreign workers illegally now face up to two years imprisonment and fines up to $27,000 for each case under the new rules.
The lax oversight of the past years also has been considered a security problem for Saudi police, who face resistance from criminal gangs when trying to enter the country's many slums. Saudi officials say the country's 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) border with Yemen is breached daily by drug traffickers, al-Qaida militants and African refugees.
In the Red Sea port area of Jiddah alone, slums comprise almost 40 percent of the city. In the holy city of Mecca, the figure is estimated to be even higher, said a Saudi official who wished not to be named because he was not authorized to release the information to media.
Internal security, said the analyst House, is "one of the reasons they want to look under the mattress."
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.