Why expats are leaving Saudi Arabia in droves

Kingdom facing hiring crisis as more than 1,500 foreign workers leave every day

(Image credit: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of expatriates have been leaving Saudi Arabia as the economy stagnates and the authorities impose more fees on foreign workers.

The collapse in oil prices has seen the biggest Arab economy losing much of its appeal to expats previously lured by petrodollars. According to figures released in April by the Directorate General of Passports (Jawazat) in Riyadh, an average of more than 1,500 foreign workers have left the country every day since the last quarter of 2016.

“Dependents fees for lower-income expatriates, as well as greater efforts to nationalise the workforce, make it less economically opportune for foreign workers,” says John Sfakianakis, director of economic research at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.

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Bloomberg reports that “the number of foreign workers declined by 6% to 10.2 million in the first three months of 2018 compared with a year ago, taking the cumulative drop over the five past quarters to about 700,000”.

Additionally, unemployment among Saudis has risen to 12.9%, which further emphasises the struggle to create jobs as the economy recovers from the “worst economic slowdown since the financial crisis in 2009”, says the news site.

Creating jobs for Saudis is a priority for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, who is the driving force behind the country’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil. Under the National Transformation Programme, the government is aiming to cut the unemployment rate to 9% by 2020.

MBS has sought to expedite the exodus of foreign workers, who constitute about a third of the population, by stepping up the process of so-called Saudisation. As well as requiring foreigners to pay fees for dependends, he is hiking up levies on companies employing non-Saudis and restricting the sectors in which they can work.

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