Discordant friends: Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia
Courtesy: Shuterstock

The labor minister of the only remaining Gulf country implementing a work sponsorship program declared during a visit to Egypt that sponsorship in Saudi Arabia no longer exists.

In order to work in the Gulf country under the now putatively defunct sponsorship program, non-Saudi nationals must have been invited by an individual or institutional sponsor, who carries out all the administrative paperwork, such as setting up their work visas, bank accounts and rent contracts.

In practical terms, nothing about this system has changed, despite declarations to the contrary. During his visit to Egypt, Saudi Labor Minister Mufrej bin Saad al-Haqbani cast off the term “sponsorship,” preferring to describe the program as a “contractual relationship” between an employer and his or her employee whereby both parties are obligated to abide by their contractual demands.

For Egyptian workers who heavily rely on their Saudi sponsors, whether called sponsorship or contractual relationship, the current system often subjects them to abuse.

In a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Manpower Minister Mohamed Saafan, Haqbani stated the Saudi ministry is attempting to resolve any issues facing Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia in order to maintain a good relationship with Egypt’s Ministry of Manpower.

There are 968,000 Egyptians currently working in Saudi Arabia, around 40 percent of the total Arab migrant labor workforce in Saudi Arabia, according to a September 2014 report released by the Saudi Ministry of Labor.

Rights organizations have long called for an end to the sponsorship program, which they say makes allowances for abuse. Sponsors maintain possession of international workers’ passports, and have the power to approve or decline requests to transfer jobs or to leave Saudi Arabia.

Ramy Omar, a programmer who has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past six years, agrees that the sponsorship program violates international workers’ rights.

“Sponsors mistreat the workers here, and tell them to go back to their country if they don’t like it,” says Omar. In the event of a conflict between a worker and a sponsor, he adds, the sponsor can report the employee to the labor ministry to facilitate his or her deportation. In addition, Saudi authorities can deduct 2,400 riyals from a worker’s salary to be allocated to the sponsor as punishment.

In April 2014, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor released a statement urging Saudi Arabia to cancel the sponsorship program, saying that it violates human rights. The institution pointed to cases where sponsors extort workers by requesting money in exchange for approving certain transactions, such as a travel request or the issuance of a driver’s license.

Magdy Mansour moved to Saudi Arabia in 2008 after marrying his cousin, who worked at a hospital in Mecca. He works as a legal and administrative consultant at a general contracting company and says that, recently, salaries have been delayed by three to six months. In addition, some employees have been fired, while others have had to work more hours with fewer vacation days provided. Additionally, Mansour says that there are certain positions or fields that are now reserved exclusively for Saudi nationals.

In August 2015, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of labor issued a decision to ban the issuance of temporary and permanent visas to international workers in a total of 19 sectors, including human resources, banks and public education. The minister also banned visa renewals for international workers employed in those fields. The move came as part of the Saudi government’s efforts to support its domestic work force, an initiative that began around two years ago.

“Add to all of this the expenses that the state imposes on residents,” Mansour adds. Among other fees, international workers must pay an annual 650 riyals to renew their residencies, 500 riyals for medical insurance and 300 riyals per month to their sponsors.

During his visit, Haqbani also stated he is working with Egyptian consultants to investigate and resolve cases in which Egyptians have been tried before Saudi Arabian courts.

In the 2012 high-profile case, a Saudi court sentenced lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy to five years in prison and 300 lashes in a drug-related offense, sparking public outrage. Saudi officials arrested Gizawy in April 2012 while he was making pilgrimage in Mecca. The lawyer was accused of smuggling the anxiety medication Xanax into the country. Egyptians protested his sentencing outside the Saudi consulate in Cairo.

“The case triggered a crisis that already existed for several reasons. It is a consequence of a long history of abuse and injustice suffered by many Egyptians in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said in a statement issued at the time.

Gizawy is still serving his sentence in Saudi Arabia. In February 2015, the Saudi king pardoned several Egyptians detained in Saudi prisons, but Gizawy was not among them as inmates convicted of murder or drug-related charges were excluded from the pardon.

Mansour blames Egypt’s post-2011 political upheaval for Egyptians’ worsening conditions in Saudi Arabia, as there has not been cohesive organization to oversee international laborers’ affairs.

The Egyptian Ministry of Immigration and Manpower has largely been inactive, Mansour argues. State bodies have not introduced plans to improve the conditions of Egyptian workers abroad. Additionally, Mansour also criticized the scarcity of Egyptian consulates in Saudi Arabia, as there are only two in the entire country to provide services to nearly 1 million Egyptian migrant laborers. With the high-demand for consular services, it can take up to three months to schedule an appointment. Transaction fees at the consulates have also gone up, he says. Mansour now has to pay 405 riyals to renew his Egyptian passport, a fee extended to 1,620 riyals when he pays for himself, his wife and his two children.

The world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has been deeply affected by plunging oil prices. Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings downgraded Saudi Arabia’s credit rating for the first time since 2004, while more downgrades are expected in the near future. But the kingdom has maintained its strong financial backing of Egypt, which was reaffirmed by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s recent visit to Egypt. During the visit, the two states signed agreements worth US$25 billion.

Ahmed Hassan has been living in Saudi Arabia for seven years. A former student of law from Mansoura University, he now works for a car rental business in Dammam. Like many of the Egyptians who move to the kingdom, Hassan wanted to provide a more financially stable life for his family. However, he says that he has found it harder to make ends meet recently, as salaries for workers in Saudi Arabia continue to fall while prices are increasing.

Mansour says the situation for his family will not change regardless of any developments in diplomatic relations. However, Egyptians living in Saudi agree that regardless of their situation in Saudi Arabia, it is still better than living in Egypt.

“Here, we may get certain amenities as expats that we would not get in Egypt as citizens,” Mansour says.

Passant Rabie 

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