Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Saudi Arabia Cracks Down On Undocumented Workers


The oil rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf typically depend heavily on foreign labor. In Saudi Arabia, according to the census there a couple of years ago, almost a third of the population of 27 million or so are foreign workers, typically low paid workers from Africa and Asia. This year, that system seems to be breaking down.

The Saudis are clamping down on illegal immigrants and that campaign has led to departures, protests, mass detentions, and scenes of violence in the streets of the capital, Riyadh.

Ellen Knickmeyer has written about this for The Wall Street Journal and she joins us from Riyadh. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And let's start with the why of all this. Why is Saudi Arabia which has been, in effect, renting a working-class for years, why is the country now sending people home?

KNICKMEYER: Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an effort to entirely restructure its labor force. As you say, for decades now it's been kind of addicted to cheap foreign workers. And they can afford to do that because they're obviously the biggest oil exporter. But the flipside of that is that their private sector has not grown at all. Their private sector employs only maybe one-out-of-10 Saudis and the government is still dependent on oil for something like 90 percent of its budget revenues.

And long-term that's not sustainable because Saudi Arabia has a growing young population, one of the largest percentages of young people in the world. And there's millions of them, Saudis, coming in the job market looking for jobs and there's not private sector jobs for them. And there's not any more room left for people on the government payrolls.

SIEGEL: But aren't the people whom they're cracking down on doing jobs of a kind that Saudis might not be interested in?

KNICKMEYER: A lot of them are, yes. I mean a lot of the people are doing - are people who are the street sweepers and the garbage men, and they're doing jobs that you can't really picture a Saudi doing. But on the other hand, there's also a lot of very inexpensive foreign workers working as teachers in the schools, and working in shops, and working in jobs that Saudis maybe would take if they were able to get more pay for them but because there are so many millions of these inexpensive foreign workers, the wages have been depressed throughout the economy.

SIEGEL: Well, on Sunday, things evidently got pretty violence in one district of Riyadh. You've reported on this. What happened?

KNICKMEYER: Well, there was differing stories. The Saudi government says that overnight in his very poor neighborhood, is immigrant laborers that, for no reason, the foreign workers started gathering and throwing stones. When I went there the foreign workers told a different story. They said that the government security forces had come through that night and said: All Africans need to go home. And for whatever reason violence started.

There was stone throwing and clubs, you know, and it was just a melee in which foreign workers joined in, ordinary Saudis joined in, and security forces were there too in a capital where you never see any kind of public disturbance that's very highly policed. All of a sudden you had throngs moving through the streets and people being injured. I think there was one Saudi and one or two foreign workers who were killed that night, and something like dozens injured in 561 arrested.

SIEGEL: Yeah, 561 is a lot of arrests. And I saw in another story out of Riyadh that something on the order of 23,000 Ethiopians have surrendered themselves to Saudi authorities. These are big numbers.

KNICKMEYER: That's right. When I was there the next day, I mean the Ethiopians were very afraid and they had their bundles of belongings and they were looking for people to turn themselves into, too. They were afraid of what was going to happen next. It was notable just the streams of very poor Ethiopians holding like plastic bags full of clothes, I mean all they had accumulated in however many years they've been here, just very bare belongings to give up and go home.

SIEGEL: Ellen Knickmeyer, thank you very much for talking with us.

KNICKMEYER: My pleasure, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Ellen Knickmeyer of The Wall Street Journal speaking with us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.