Saudi Banks Freeze Migrants’ Accounts for “Anti-Commercial Concealment”

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Aug 29 2014

Three months following a decision by the Saudi cabinet, banks in Saudi Arabia are now freezing the accounts of migrant workers for transactions that “do not fit their jobs and wages.” The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency recommended the move to fight “Anti-Commercial Concealment” and bust “migrant workers working for their own benefit.” Saudi media has phrased these moves as an effort to stop “the flood of hundreds of millions outside the kingdom” and to limit “the foreign dominance over some commercial sectors.”  This narrative reflects popular perceptions that migrants are ‘carpetbaggers’ who exploit Saudi, sending large sums of money home in the form of remittances. That remittances are private money and that migrants perform an irreplaceable role in sustaining and developing the Saudi economy, are facts frequently obscured in this discourse.

Restrictions on migrant workers’ access their own money is nothing new; two years ago, Saudi migrants complained about the unfairness of their bank accounts’ being directly linked to their legal status, preventing them from withdrawing money if their residency renewal is delayed or blocked. Additionally, if a migrant’s residency is not renewed, their credit cards and driving license can be revoked. In 2011, thousands of migrants were estimated to have emptied their accounts in fear that their bank accounts would be frozen in an impending crackdown.

A bank official described the procedure for freezing migrants’ accounts; the accounts are monitored regularly and compared to a worker’s monthly and annual income. If suspicious activity is believed to be observed, the bank freezes the account and notifies the monetary agency, who in turn informs the ministry of Commerce and Industry to take action against the holders of these ‘suspected’ accounts.

Issam Khalifa, a member of the Saudi Economic Association, told al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that the country is “about to sink in commercial concealment. Some expats have sucked out the country’s money and left to the bone.” Media and elite voices in Saudi Arabia once again depict migrants as exploiters of national economy and wealth, reversing the relationship of power between migrants and Saudi.

In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has rolled out a mandatory Wage Protection System requiring migrant workers to be paid electronically to a bank account that to purportedly ensure that payments are received in a timely manner and commensurate with their contracted wages. Officials recently announced that domestic workers would be soon be incorporated under this system as well. While no study of the system’s impact on migrant workers has yet been commissioned, it seems apparent that in part, the WPS is intended to facilitate more control over the finances and mobility of the kingdom’s workers. The system encapsulates the feeble trajectory of migrant worker rights in the Gulf region; protections are only ever gained alongside more restrictions on migrants' sovereignty.

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