Local Narratives on Migrants & Crackdowns in Saudi Arabia

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Dec 27 2013

Naturally, varied media and citizen responses have emerged against the crackdown on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Below we breakdown prevalent arguments that reflect entrenched prejudices against migrant workers:

Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan recently published a column in the English-speaking newspaper Arab News, protesting against calls to naturalize long-term resident migrants. Al-Zuhayyan claims that providing access to citizenship is only feasible in “a developed industrialized nation” where “a foreigner makes efforts to assimilate in society by learning local languages and adapting to its ways of life.” Al-Zuhayyan frames his argument in a manner typical of Saudi op-eds, locating the burden of integration, economy, and security wholly on migrant workers while obscuring the Gulf government’s complicity in creating and perpetuating these issues.

Al-Zuhayyan conceptualizes citizenship as a privilege based on absolute conformity to the dominant culture, asserting that Saudi nationals comprise a singular hegemonic culture - or that they even speak the same Arabic vernacular.  This conceptualization is of course, necessary to posit the “us vs them” narrative that frequently plagues discourse on migrant workers. Elaborating on his objections, Al-Zuhayyan alleges that “foreigners rarely interact with locals” and communicate with “badly spoken Arabic and sign language.” Al-Zuhayyan’s unfairly locates the blame for linguistic and wider social divides on migrants, entirely disregarding nationals’ systematic exploitation of the racial and socio-economic hierarchy reinforced by strategic state policy.  The citizen arrests and attacks on Ethiopian migrants in Riyadh's Manfouha neighborhood reflects the dynamic between the state and nationals in maintaining this impenetrable divide - which in this case escalated into state sanctioned abuse.

Al-Zuhayyan further accuses migrants of isolating themselves by "choosing" to live in separate neighborhoods. But this spatial divide again reflects the social-economic boundaries constructed by the kingdom and reinforced by citizens who do not wish to live next to low-income migrants. Low-income migrants often have little choice in their accommodations, as they are either provided by their companies or the result of limited housing available to “bachelors." These “bachelors” are unaccompanied male migrants who strike particular fear citizens, though many are alone only because of obstacles to family reunification .

Al Zuhayyan also alleges that migrant  (international) schools teach their own curriculum, instead of using Saudi textbooks. Al Zuhayyan does not point to the specific components of the curriculum that allegedly violate Saudi values despite needing to meet the standards imposed by the Saudi ministry of Education. 

Regurgitating a hollow trope, Al Zuhayyan claims migrants “have no added value to the economy” while receiving “all economic benefits” and warns there will be greater burdens if they are granted citizenship. He believes naturalizing migrants who have lived in the Kingdom for generations is a contradiction since “they have taken away jobs for decades.”  Blaming migrants for unemployment rates and devaluing the vital contributions of migrant workers to Saudi’s economy serves to reinforce purposeful misconstructions of their “temporariness” and justify the denial of their rights.

Saleh Ibrahim Al-Turigee’s parrots a similar discourse in a Saudi Gazette piece entitled “How can we get rid of illegal expats once and for all?” Al-Turigee begins by reinforcing state narratives on the crackdown:

The recent riots by a number of illegal expatriates were not unexpected. They can happen in any country which has done nothing for many years about the issue of illegal residents. The rioters did not believe that the government was serious in its campaign. They thought that the crackdown campaign, which was interrupted by the grace period, was only aimed at scaring them.

Ignoring the violence employed against migrants in Manfouha, Al-Turigee’s claims migrants plotted the “riots” to “encourage international human rights organizations to intervene on their behalf with the Saudi government.” The columnist wonders how organizations could object to a crackdown, purportedly targeted at “criminals,” and attempts to justify Saudi abuses by pointing to similar actions of authorities in other countries.  A previous Migrant-Rights.org answers Al-Turigee’s questions. 

Al-Turigee suggests expanding securitization of the Yemen border to stop “Africans, especially Ethiopians” from “infiltrating” the Kingdom.  The racialization of the crackdown is not unexpected, as the ‘security’ paradigm is overwhelmingly perpetuated by similarly lazy rationalizations; similar to the above-mentioned economic ambiguities, securitization uses vague claims of criminalities to justify the disposable, exploitative treatment of migrant workers.

However, these narratives have not entirely prevailed; frequent Saudi op-eds continue to question the humanity of the crackdowns, and emphasize the responsibility of nationals to treat migrant with dignity both as employers and neighbors. For example, Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, penned an opinion entitled “Ethiopian phobia: Candle holders needed!,” urging compatriots to avoid generalizations against migrant workers.  He references another citizen working to promote similar values:

I thank my dear colleague, Abdulaziz Qasim, the writer and TV host, for advocating this issue. His articles and TV show on 4 Shabab Channel, did a lot and showed how much one man can make a difference. His article in Al-Watan daily about a recent visit to Ethiopia, the land that gave refuge and shelter to the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the harsh conditions in which Ethiopians live and work, gave us some understanding of why they had to come here. He also showed how much our agricultural investments and charity projects there are helping to provide jobs and improving lives.

Negative attitudes towards migration are not exclusive to Saudi Arabia, and nor are Saudi Arabians uniform in their attitudes or actions. In recent years, more inclusive attitudes towards migration have frequented media and wider social dialogues. But these hostile local discourses remain popular and perpetuate systematic abuse that frequently escalate into incidents violence.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East