Sanaa, Yemen – Hundreds of young men dressed in identical wax cloth gowns and paper slippers cram into the arrivals hall at Sanaa’s international airport. They are exhausted Yemeni labourers who have been expelled from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and are now coming home by the planeful.
Two years since the start of Yemen’s revolution, its northern neighbour has dramatically increased the number of deportations. Saudi Arabia announced in April that under an impending law, foreign labourers would soon be restricted to working only for their original sponsors.
The announcement has sparked panic among members of the large expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, members of which usually seek work with other employers after they finish their contractual agreement with sponsors. Most workers never possess legal papers to begin with. After a three-month grace period, the punitive labour law will come into effect on July 3.
“It’s a good opportunity for serious expats to correct their situation, as there is no justification for the stay of foreigners who work for firms other than their sponsors or for their own accounts,” said the Saudi Arabian labour minister, Adel Fakeih, in April.
Compounding the workers’ plight, Saudi Arabia has publicly resumed the construction of its contentious 1,800km border fence flanking Yemen.
Major crossing points like Harradh, in Yemen’s northwest, are now sealed, and the bottleneck of Yemeni and African migrants without legal papers is at a crisis point.
Tareq al-Molaiki, 23, from Ibb is one of the unlucky deportees. With seven siblings to support, he paid a broker more than $5,000 for legal paperwork, and followed his older brother by bus to Riyadh four years ago.
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When Molaiki met his sponsor in Riyadh he was told he needed to pay an additional $650 yearly, but was not offered work. Instead, Molaiki found a job at a mobile phone company, and desperately tried to adjust his sponsor’s documents to reflect a legal change. But he was arrested by the police, who forced him to sign a confession of guilt.
He was thrown in jail as an illegal worker, and shared a crowded room with 600 migrants. After two months of squalid conditions he forked out another $260 and was flown home.
“I have nothing and my family has nothing,” Molaiki said in resignation. “I am very nervous about my lack of prospects.”
According to World Bank figures, more than half of Yemen’s population of nearly 25 million people live in poverty, mostly in rural areas. Considered the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen’s natural resources of water and oil are rapidly running out.
Faced with a dismal economy, endemic corruption, and skyrocketing unemployment, up to one million Yemenis provide cheap labour in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The money sent home injects $2bn a year into Yemen’s fragile post-revolutionary economy.
“This sudden change in Saudi labour law caught the Yemenis unprepared for its consequences,” said Nicoletta Giordano, head of the International Migration Organisation in Yemen. “Though the Saudis implemented this law in general with applicability to all nationalities of foreign workers, when it comes to Yemenis in Saudi the impact is much greater, given their large numbers.”
Many Yemenis recall the punitive expulsion of up to one million Yemeni labourers from Saudi Arabia when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh sided with Iraq during the run up to the US-led Gulf war in 1990-91. Yemen’s economy was dealt a staggering blow, which plunged the remittance-reliant country into a subsequent civil war.
“Remember, 1991 came right after Yemen’s unity,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a conflict resolution expert with the Brookings Institute. “Saudi wanted to ensure that Yemen relies on them, and that they had to be careful. So it is not surprising that now, after the revolution, Saudi wants to send a message to Yemenis that they cannot fully be independent.”
Saudi Arabia argues that it needs to plug its own youth into jobs legally taken by an estimated eight million foreigners. In Saudi Arabia, Yemenis commonly work in shops, restaurants and in construction. “They do the jobs Saudis don’t want to do,” explained Mahassin al-Hoati, a senior staffer at Yemen’s Ministry of Expatriate Affairs.
Saudi Arabia also says their border fence is intended to stem the flow of smuggled people and drugs and keep out armed groups such as al-Qaeda and the Shia Houthis. The Saudi embassy in Yemen did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Our problem is not with the Saudis, but with the Yemeni authorities in Saudi.
But the barrier also exacerbates historical conflicts over land Yemen claims in southern Saudi Arabia, and oil deposits in northern Yemen’s Al Jawf region. Although an official boundary was agreed upon in 2000, disputes over territory remain.
“They seem to have resumed and quickened the pace and now the border is totally sealed,” said Giordano. “It seems like no one is getting through anymore, unless they go through official channels.”
Yemen’s Ministry of Expatriate Affairs admits they are unprepared for the influx of workers being sent back home.
“When the workers return from Saudi, they don’t come to our ministry. Most will go back to their village, and some will go with extremists,” warned Hoati.
Idy Ameen al-Jrajery is a 32-year old accountant from Dhamar and a father of four girls. During the 2011 revolution his shop closed down, and he was forced to travel to Saudi Arabia to earn money. Once there, Jrajery discovered his work contract was fake, and he was subsequently jailed. Now back at home, he reserves scathing words for the Yemeni embassy in Riyadh.
“Our problem is not with the Saudis, but with the Yemeni authorities in Saudi,” agreed Najeb al-Odaini, director of the nonprofit Yemeni Migrants Organisation, who rails against the corruption of Yemen’s government. “To reach the embassy is impossible.”
Odaini is concerned for the future. “It will be a catastrophe,” he said. “Around 500,000 migrants inside Saudi are going to come back. Although the Minister of Expatriate Affairs knows it – Saudi has already started to practice it – they are doing nothing.”
But Ibrahim Sharqieh from the Brookings Institute cautions against hyperbole.
“The relationship between Saudi and Yemen is so complex and interdependent on multiple levels – security-wise, economical, political, religious and social – it is far more stronger than issuing a decision to send Yemeni labourers back to Yemen.
“I think we will see changes in this decision, and we might end up with a very partial implementation of it.”