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January 2006, Volume 13, Number 1

Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE

Saudi Arabia. The seven million foreigners in Saudi Arabia are 30 percent of the 23 million Saudi Arabian residents, but foreigners are 70 percent of the 6.5 million strong total labor force, and 95 percent of the private sector labor force. In the past decade, the Saudi government has stepped up efforts to "Saudize" the labor force, primarily by declaring some jobs off-limits to foreign workers, with the goal of reducing the foreign population to 20 percent by 2013.

Saudization has a very mixed record. About 15 percent of the foreigners are professionals employed in oil, finance and health care, and they have been largely immune to efforts to require Saudis to fill their jobs. However, the jobs of migrants employed in sectors ranging from trade and transport to domestic services may have to be reserved for Saudis. There are up to 1.5 million migrants each from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in Saudi Arabia, plus 900,000 Filipinos who would be most threatened by successful Saudization.

The Saudi government typically announces that foreigners can no longer be employed in a particular sector, from transport to travel agencies, stages a few raids to demonstrate that it is serious, and then backs off when private businesses complain they cannot operate with only Saudis. For example, travel agencies have been given an extra three years to increase the Saudi share of their labor forces to 80 percent.

Migrants continue to arrive in Saudi Arabia, often in debt, because of the sponsorship system, under which Saudi nationals obtain work visas for foreigners they want to employ. Some Saudis sell work visas to migrants, but do not employ them, and sometimes "sell" the migrant and visa to, for instance, a foreign-owned travel agency, which may deduct the fees from the migrant's wages.

The Saudi government in 2004 announced that foreigners who were Muslims literate in Arabic could become naturalized Saudis after at least 10 years of residence in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt-Libya. Egyptian riot police in December 2005 killed at least 27 Sudanese who refused to leave a park after camping for three months near the UNHCR office in Cairo. UNHCR said that the Sudanese could return since fighting had ceased in their part of the country. The 3,000 Sudanese wanted to be resettled in North America or Europe, and refused to leave the park. After the riots, the Egyptian government announced that 655 Sudanese would be returned to Sudan.

Libya's highest court in December 2005 overturned the death sentences of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on charges they deliberately infected children with AIDS. The migrants said they were tortured to extract confessions; they will now be retried. In 2003, Libya agreed to compensate families of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland and won an end to trade and travel restrictions.

UAE. Dubai, the wealthiest of the seven United Arab Emirates, took action in Fall 2005 to ensure that construction companies paid their migrant workers, including setting up a hot line for migrants. Many migrants arrive in debt to recruiters, and some contractors keep the migrants' passports and several months wages to discourage them from running away. A strike by 1,000 migrants in September 2005 over unpaid wages led to the government ordering the company to pay back wages immediately, which it did.

The UAE, with four million residents including 3.2 million foreigners, relies on migrants to fill 98 percent of private-sector jobs.