Riyadh cuts reliance on foreigners

RIYADH: In a renewed move to cut dependence on foreign workers, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are planning to reduce the number of work visas issued every year, train their own nationals more intensively for jobs in different sectors and reward private companies hiring local workers.

“The Kingdom has already taken several measures including a substantial reduction in the number of work visas,” the Ministry of Labor said in a statement.

“The Kingdom reduced the number of work visas by 15 percent in 2009 compared to a year before,” said the statement quoting Abdullah Al-Ajlan, an official at the Ministry of Labor.

Al-Ajlan said that the government issued 1.54 million work visas in 2009 compared to 1.81 million visas in 2008. He said that the efforts to reduce dependence on foreign workers by replacing them with Saudis have been more successful in the public sector, where nationals make up more than 85 percent of the work force.

But, in the private sector the situation is far from satisfactory. Employers in private sector are said to prefer non-Saudis because they work for much lower salaries, can be easily fired and have a reputation for working harder than their Saudi counterparts at same positions.

Al-Ajlan said that the total number of worked visas issued to private-sector employers dropped by 21 percent last year. On the other hand, the number of visas for Saudi government agencies were reduced by 14 percent during the same period.

The Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) of Saudi Arabia has meanwhile announced special incentives for companies that hire Saudis, including salary subsidies and job training, said an official of the HRDF.

About two-thirds of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are from Asian countries, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Arabs, Africans and other foreigners make up the rest. The Kingdom has about nine million documented expatriate workers. The number of undocumented workers and illegal visa overstayers is unknown.

Foreign documented workers comprise nearly 40 percent of the total population of the Gulf. The percentage of expatriates in places such as the UAE and Qatar is more than 70 percent, according to a study prepared by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Gulf states have been implementing numerous schemes to both encourage nationals into employment and force companies to hire more nationals. However, these efforts have largely been unsuccessful.

In March this year, Qatar gave public and private-sector firms a year to comply with a government directive to nationalize varying percentage of their work force. Other Gulf states also have similar quota systems in place.

A substantial number of foreigners resided in the GCC countries even before the oil boom of the early 1970s. In 1963, there were about 150,000 foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.

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