The worries of four million residents in breach of Saudi Arabia’s residency laws have ended following a seven-month grace period, after which they were granted their work permits. But no one knows how many still remain without papers, a few thousand or several million.
It is clear, however, that security forces are having difficulty finding undocumented migrants and controlling the situation, especially after the first inspection campaign against illegal workers in Riyadh, where unprecedented riots erupted.
The situation has become dangerous as a result of years of accumulated legal and social chaos which resulted in the increase of illegal employment. Deporting illegal workers won’t be easy. It will also not be easy to prevent thousands from entering the country through land borders stretching 4,400 kilometers and shared with eight countries. There are also 2,600 kilometers of coastline, part of which is shared with Bahrain.
It is probably best to make the employment of illegal workers costly for the Saudi employers themselves. At the same time, the government can facilitate the process of hiring workers domestically through specialized companies and prevent the sponsorship system which has brought no good to anyone. A better system is needed whereby both the rights of migrant workers and the country’s security are achieved.
The campaign to correct illegal workers’ status has been successful so far, but it has created victims. Some were born and have lived in Saudi Arabia for decades. Many countries across the world give citizenship to people like these. Some of them have lived in Saudi Arabia for 40 years and became Saudis, though not in the legal sense of the word. We do not know how many there are, but regardless I do not think it is a big number compared with that of contemporary violators.
Those who have lived with us and worked tirelessly should, along with their families, at least be granted the right of residency—or simple documentation acknowledging a right they have enjoyed. These residents deserve their status to be corrected because we are confronting an issue that recurs a lot in society as citizenship becomes a fait accompli.
Let’s not forget that the existence of a strong state and oil revenues are behind all of this. Without them, most Saudis may have emigrated, like their grandparents did to Iraq, Syria, Egypt and India. They may have traveled by sea, like the rest of Arabs who migrated to beyond the Atlantic, in search of a better living. Those deprived of the chance of a proper life can understand the feeling of those wanting to seek a better life.
We are witnessing a correction of citizens’ and residents’ status. It seems like a comprehensive project in its final stages. It began with registering all citizens and developing electronic documentation systems linked to fingerprints and granting women the right to carry identity cards. They have also begun establishing companies that will be in charge of employees’ and employers’ rights and that will facilitate organizing the market according to their needs.
The difficult mission of deporting illegal workers has begun as we witnessed something like a street fight or a gang war in Riyadh. The complete resolution of this situation is not only required for security needs, it is also a necessity for the civil organization of the state.