Indians and Yemenis top the list of expatriates facing the axe in jewellery shops across the kingdom, but leading economist Ihsan abu Hulaiga said press estimates of jobs that would consequently be open to Saudis were grossly exaggerated.

Since the decision applies only to retail workers, "we're talking of between 25,000 and 30,000 jobs to be reclaimed by Saudis", rather than figures of a quarter million or so being bandied about in some newspapers, he said.

Abu Hulaiga noted the jewellery sector was already an "almost 100%" Saudi affair in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where many residents had kept up a tradition of passing the trade from one generation to the next.

The local press has been trumpeting the plan to enforce the three-year-old decision.

Business daily al-Eqtisadiah reported "no nationality would be exempted" and authorities would send inspection squads to jewellery shops and fine violators and even deport foreigners defying the ban.

While expatriates from the subcontinent, particularly Indians, work in large numbers in the gold and jewellery sector, the
newspaper's
reference to no exceptions appeared to be an allusion to Yemenis, the largest group among Arabs working in jewellery shops.

Reclaiming small businesses

"Saudis want to work just like other people do, but employers tend to prefer foreigners because they accept lower wages and they can not really be blamed so long as their employees enjoy a legal status."

Ihsan abu Hulaiga,
Saudi economist

After a three-year "grace period" for jewellery shopowners, during which the decision to Saudise jobs was implemented partially at best, the government was to "send an extremely strong signal that the retail business is going to be Saudised" by enforcing a total ban on foreign salesmen and clerks in gold shops, abu Hulaiga said.

Government policy is moving towards enabling Saudis to "reclaim small businesses" which they largely controlled until the late 1970s, and it is precisely small businesses that can "absorb unemployment", he explained.

Abu Hulaiga rubbished what he called the "misconception" that many Saudis are jobless because they spurn the modest jobs that foreigners are happy to take, even though some local newspapers have described this as a major impediment to the government's "Saudisation" drive.

"Saudis want to work just like other people do", but employers tend to prefer foreigners because they accept lower wages, and they can not really be blamed so long as their employees enjoy a legal status, he said.

Three million face sack

What needs to be done is to reduce the number of available non-Saudis, to make expatriates more scarce and expensive in order to improve the Saudis' chances of getting jobs, abu Hulaiga said.

This is no more than what countries across the world are doing to protect their labour markets, he argued.

Up to three million foreigners face the axe in the next decade after the Saudi government decided in February 2003 to limit the number of foreign workers and their families to less than 20% of the Saudi population by 2013.

The number of foreigners in the kingdom is estimated at between six and seven million, compared to 17 million Saudis.

While stressing that easing unemployment in the kingdom was a priority, abu Hulaiga said so-called "unofficial estimates" that unemployment now stands at about 30% were not just too high, but also incomprehensible.

The official figure of 10% "is the most reliable", he said, "but this is already too much" in a country where expatriates make up about 67% of the workforce.