It says it will do so by increasing efforts to replace foreign workers with Saudi nationals under a programme known as "Saudisation".

In the next decade up to three million foreigners face the axe after the government decided last year to limit the number of foreign workers and their families to less than 20% of the population by 2013.

 

According to experts, unemployment is a worrying social phenomenon in the kingdom which may be fuelling a wave of anti-government violence.

 

But they are sceptical about whether Saudisation is workable, and predict it will heap misery on the country's most vulnerable group – its massive migrant worker population.

 

Unemployment figures

 

There are 24 million people in Saudi Arabia, six million of whom are foreigners, and it is estimated between 10% to 30% of Saudi nationals are unemployed.

 

Labour Minister Ghazi al-Ghosaibi told a Saudi newspaper on Saturday he was considering requiring small firms to hire more nationals under the "Saudisation" programme.

 

 "As far as when unemployment would be stamped out, I think this is not possible before three years and I hope it would not be longer than nine years"

Ghazi al-Ghosaibi,
Saudi Labour minister

"Small institutions with less than 20 workers have been completely exempted from Saudisation, despite the fact that there is a large number of foreign workers in them," he said.

 

"Perhaps it is the time to review that decision."

 

Al-Ghosaibi added: "As far as when unemployment would be stamped out, I think this is not possible before three years and I hope it would not be longer than nine years."

 

But Neil Partrick, an analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told Aljazeera.net that the Saudis would have to make dramatic headway to accomplish this goal.

 

Necessary evil

 

"Despite the Saudisation programme, the authorities are still granting visas to foreign workers and their families at high levels," he said.

 

"Mr al-Ghosaibi doesn't seem to be able to prevent that. I think there will have to be a major culture change for that to happen."

 

Despite massive oil wealth, Saudi
living standards are declining

He added: "Up till now, the Saudis have been attacking the 'low-hanging fruit' like small retail outlets that are foreign-run, but they haven't gone after the big companies in a major way."

 

Nevertheless, Partrick argues the Saudisation policy is necessary.

 

"The government has no choice but to reduce the country's overdependence on foreign workers.

 

"The problem with Saudi Arabia is that it has a huge and growing population so unlike other Gulf states it can't easily absorb its foreign workers."

 

Economic restructuring

 

But Saad al-Faqih, a London-based Saudi dissident, begs to differ.

 

"You can't solve the problem of chronic unemployment from the top-down," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

"The entire economy needs restructuring. At the moment it is over-dependent on oil and there is no real economic infrastructure because the theory has been the taps will never run dry."

 

"The government
has no choice but to reduce the country's overdependence on foreign workers.
The problem with Saudi Arabia is that it has
a huge and growing population so unlike other Gulf states it
can't easily absorb
its foreign workers"

Neil Partrick,
Economist Intelligence Unit

Al-Faqih, who heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), says the government should look to other policies to help the unemployed.

 

"Saudi Arabia is a rich country," he said. "It could easily give people unemployment benefit so they wouldn't have to live on the poverty line.

 

"There are also thousands of highly qualified Saudis who are sitting around doing nothing because jobs are being taken by underqualified westerners.

 

"A lot of these westerners are doing jobs that Saudis could easily do, but Saudisation seems to only affect Asian workers."

 

Practical problems

 

He added: "A lot of unemployed people could be recruited into the army because at the moment the country has a tiny armed forces. But, instead, they are sitting around idle."

 

And even those who support the Saudisation policy concede it will be difficult to implement.

 

Security forces are battling anti-
government violence

Partrick says Saudi workers will not have the same level of commitment or expertise as foreigners to certain jobs.

 

And Dr al-Faqih believes small companies will either relocate to other parts of the Gulf or sack staff because they will not be able to afford Saudi labour.

 

He added the big Saudi companies will escape Saudisation because of their connections to the ruling royal family.

 

But analysts say the big losers in the process will be the millions of poorly-paid migrant workers.

 

The vast majority of them are Asians who are attracted by better salaries than they could earn at home.

 

Migrants' rights

 

Nevertheless, human rights groups say their lives in Saudi Arabia are far from ideal.

 

In a report on Thursday, Human Rights Watch said millions of migrants who work in Saudi Arabia face intimidation and violence at the hands of employers, sponsors and security forces.

 

"Everyone is talking about unemployment and it is definitely a national problem. But it feeds anti-government violence rather than being the source of it. Attacks on the regime will not stop even if full employment is achieved"

Saad al-Faqih,
Saudi dissident

The workers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest against poor conditions, or seek legal recourse for abuses, said the organisation.

 

The Saudi embassy in Washington said the report was grossly exgaggerated and the kingdom is committed to human rights.

 

But Dr al-Faqih says foreign workers are being used as scapegoats.

 

"I am against kicking them out - this is a brutal measure," he said.

 

"There shouldn't be any question of expelling people. A system needs to be set up whereby the market decides how much foreign labour is needed.

 

"Even the most developed countries in the world are reliant on foreign labour to some extent."

 

Anti-government violence

 

However, analysts agree the current levels of unemployment in Saudi Arabia may be fuelling anti-government violence.

 

At least 85 police officers and civilians, many of them foreigners, have been killed in bombings and shootings during the past year.

 

Crown Prince Abd Allah blames
al-Qaida for opposition violence

The government has blamed the violence on al-Qaida but Saudi dissidents say it is growing into a popular revolt against the House of Saud.

 

Partrick says the number of people involved in the violence is small, but adds the long-term decline in living standards and the new phenomenon of unemployment has fed their disenchantment.

 

But Dr al-Faqih warns ending unemployment is not a panacea.

 

"Everyone is talking about unemployment and it is definitely a national problem. But it feeds anti-government violence rather than being the source of it. Attacks on the regime will not stop even if full employment is achieved."

 

Aljazeera.net contacted the Saudi authorities for an interview about unemployment in the kingdom, but a spokesman was unavailable for comment.