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Saudi Arabia’s move to shut doors on migrants sets off alarm bells in Kerala

The oil-rich country has decided to ban employment of foreigners in various sectors to provide more jobs to Saudi nationals.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2018 22:50 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Kozhikkode
Saudi Arabia,Gulf countries,Middle East
A half-built house of an expatriate in Saudi Arabia awaits completion at Kozhikkode in north Kerala(HT Photo )

Clutching his two minor daughters, Hameed Ansal stands before his half-built house in Beypore on the outskirts of Kozhikkode in north Kerala, uncertain about his future.

Ansal had come on a vacation from Saudi Arabia, where he has been working at a mobile phone store in a sprawling mall for the past eight years. But, now like many other migrant workers, he’s not certain about his job as the oil-rich country has recently extended its Saudi nationalisation scheme, or nitaqat in Arabic, to 12 more activities and occupations to provide more jobs to its citizens.

The labour and social development ministry’s order will come into effect on the first day of Islamic new year that falls on September 11. It will bar employment of foreigners in the listed occupations , snuffing Gulf dream of many Indians.

The order has set off alarm bells in faraway Kerala, home to 2.2million expatriate community. After United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia gives maximum employment to Keralites, around 8 lakh (0. 8 million), as per an estimate of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), a premier social science research institution based in the state.

Kerala local-self government and minority affairs minister K T Jaleel termed the development as a “serious challenge” for the state and blamed the Centre for “not taking up the cause of the expatriates earnestly.”

“Kerala’s expatriates contribute a major chunk to the foreign exchange reserve of the country. Despite our repeated reminders, the Centre is not doing anything substantial for the expatriates. The state is really worried and exploring all possibilities to meet the challenge,” he said.

Local bodies and self-help groups have been asked to extend all help to those returning from Saudi Arabia.

Already the southern state, which it’s said catches cold when the Middle East sneezes, are witnessing a decline in immigration to the Gulf countries.

According to a migration survey conducted by the CDS, 2.2 million people from the state were living outside the country in 2016. In 2014 their number was 2.6 million.

The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, an organisation working among expatriate community, says of late on an average 5000 people have been returning from Saudi Arabia per month.

Shabeer P (31), working with a major construction firm Saudi Orger Ltd, was forced to leave the kingdom last year.

He did not get salary for eight months. Now he’s working as a salesman in a readymade shop in Kozhikkode’s Sweet Street. He and 400-odd retrenched worker are fighting a case in Saudi labour court for dues.

“It seems crown prince Mohammad bin Salman is in a hurry to nationalise all sectors. So he has tightened immigration laws and nitaqat provisions. No doubt, it will spell a doom for Indians, especially Keralites,” said P Anus, who wound up his travel agency and returned six months ago.

A few meters away from Anus’s house situated dwelling of P Jayakumar, a motor mechanic in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

He has informed his family that he will be back for good in June as the owner of the automobile shop, where he works, asked him to leave.

According to the new nitaqat list issued last month, expatriates will be banned from outlets selling watches, eyeglasses, medical equipment, electrical appliances and electronics, car spare parts, building materials, carpets, automobiles and motorcycles, furniture and ready-made office materials, ready-made garments, children’s clothes and men’s wear, household utensils and pastries.

At least 60% of the India’s blue-collared workforce in the Middle East depends on these outlets, according to one estimate.

The impact of the nitaqat policy is already visible in Kerala.

“In Malappuram and Kozhikkode districts you can see many half-built houses. Enrolment has also dropped in English-medium schools,” pointed out activist and social worker Mohamad Shoaib.

He said developments in the Gulf will have a serious impact on Kerala, one of the top remittance-receiving states in India.

Foreign exchange remittances to the country have dropped in last three years. According to a World Bank report, India’s remittances were $ 68.9 billion in 2015, $ 62.7 b in 2016 and 58.8 billion in 2017.

Kerala accounts for 34% of the remittances, according to the Centre for Development Studies.

“World over there is a tendency for insularisation. After the Brexit and the US President’s America for Americans slogan, such tendencies are on rise in many other countries. We can’t blame the Middle East countries only,” said migration expert Dr Irudayarajan, adding it is time for the expat community to look for other alternatives.

Unlike other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has a large number of unemployed. According to a recent estimate carried out by the Saudi employment department, its unemployment rate is 12%, highest among the Gulf countries.

Saudi is the largest labour market in the world with 11 million foreign workers from more than 100 countries.

India contributes the largest number of workforce, mainly blue-collared, in the oil-rich country.

Of the 3.75 million Indians in Saudi Arabia, majority are from Kerala, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, according to migration experts.

First Published: Feb 10, 2018 15:26 IST