A man buys Saudi riyals at Al-Hamdi Exchange on Haddah street in Sana’a on August 14, 2020. // Photo by Asem Alposi
By Ali Al-Dailami
Working 15-hour days, foregoing internet service and shaving bald rather than visiting a barber long have helped a Yemeni fabric salesman in Saudi Arabia stretch his SR2,500 (US$666) paycheck to cover his expenses and send nearly half of it to his family back home each month, keeping them secure enough for his children to focus on the school and university studies he funds. It hasn’t been easy.
Once, he hid in a roll of fabric when police swept through during a crackdown on foreign workers—his residency permit was expiring soon and he wasn’t yet ready with the nearly SR11,000 ($2,930) required to renew it. More recently, however, the situation has seemed even bleaker: The store he worked at first closed, then reduced its hours sharply under COVID-19 regulations, leaving him working half-time and at half pay. Lockdown uncertainty meant spending more to stock up on food in April and sending home less. Shop hours have since returned to normal, and he’s back to his usual 15-hour days, but all public and private sector employees have been required to accept pay cuts. “I barely receive SR1,500 ($400) now a month with full working hours,” he said in July. “I sent home around SR500 ($133) last month.”
Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia have long been used to making trade-offs to save money and send remittances that support their families in Yemen and prop up their country’s underdeveloped economy. But 10 Yemenis who live and work in the kingdom — in Riyadh, Jeddah, Taif and Dammam — spoke in interviews with the Sana’a Center during the kingdom’s coronavirus crisis about how pressures have piled up in recent years and months. They spoke about the struggle to pay for the rising costs of permits and expenses, the elimination of available jobs under Saudization policies, about dodging crackdowns on foreign workers that sometimes sweep up legal residents along with those residing in the country illegally and, most recently, about worries that COVID-19 measures and fallout will put them out of work and leave their families back home without financial support. All asked that their names not be used out of concern that speaking openly could jeopardize their work or stay in Saudi Arabia.
Earning in Saudi riyals provides a degree of financial security that local employment in Yemen, where the Yemeni rial has lost more than two-thirds of its value since 2015, cannot. At the same time, prices in Yemen are unstable, rising as warring parties struggle for economic advantages, seeking to control key imports and monetary policy. As the fabric retailer said he reminds himself each day, the exchange rate from Saudi riyals to Yemeni rials is good — and makes trying to ride out the hardships, even as they multiply, worth it: “We for sure know that prices have risen in Yemen, but it’s still good for us.”
How Families, and Yemen at Large, Rely on Remittances
Nearly six years of war in Yemen has resulted in countrywide economic collapse, as indicated by an estimated 45 percent cumulative loss in real gross domestic product from 2015 to 2019. Consequently, millions in Yemen count on remittances wired from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia and other countries. With many of these remittances handled outside the formal banking system, precise figures are uncertain. In February 2020, Mohammed al-Adil, Yemen’s deputy minister of expatriates, valued annual remittances at US$8 billion and said expatriates support half of Yemen’s population. With remittances a key external factor in mitigating economic collapse, the subject is an essential consideration in Yemeni relations with Gulf Arab countries that host large numbers of Yemeni expat laborers. Al-Adil said then that of the 7 million Yemenis scattered among 50 countries, more than 2 million live in Saudi Arabia. The World Bank has estimated remittances have largely held steady since 2016 at $3.77 billion a year, of which 61 percent — or $2.3 billion annually — are sent from Saudi Arabia and 29 percent ($1.1 billion) from other Gulf Arab countries, particularly the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
Beyond supporting individual families, these billions are the primary source of foreign currency in the local market since large-scale oil exports were halted in 2015, making them vital for financing imports — such as food and other essentials — and mitigating downward pressure on the Yemeni rial. Substantial losses in remittances could be devastating. Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian affairs coordinator, told the Security Council on July 28 that the impact of coronavirus had cut Yemeni remittances from abroad by as much as 70 percent. Yemen is among 13 countries, many of which face significant pandemic-related drops in remittances, to sign on along with the World Bank and other international business and migration organizations to a call in May for policymakers to declare remittance services essential, and for regulators and service providers to make it easier and less expensive to transfer money home.
Already Squeezed, COVID-19 Delivers Another Blow to Yemeni Expats in Saudi
In Saudi Arabia, waves of crackdowns on foreign laborers as well as increasingly expensive permits designed to discourage them from coming or staying are running up the cost of working in the kingdom, making it harder to do so legally. These crackdowns, part of Saudi efforts over many years to reduce reliance on a foreign workforce, come in waves. They haven’t spared Yemenis, despite a unique relationship between the two countries as well as Saudi Arabia’s own part in perpetuating the Yemen war, which has made jobs in Yemen, other than as fighters, scarce. Additional financial pressure caused by the coronavirus pandemic makes the situation harder to bear.
The Yemenis in Saudi Arabia interviewed by the Sana’a Center spoke about how they, friends or flatmates had lost between 60 percent and 100 percent of their usual salaries for up to two months in April and May, during the height of the kingdom’s COVID-19 lockdown. Then, as stores and businesses reopened, grim measures to counter the economic fallout were announced: private sector salary cuts of 40 percent were being permitted through October, labor contracts could be adjusted or terminated early, some occupations no longer would be eligible for residency permits, and the value-added tax would be increased in July from 5 percent to 15 percent. In June, the Saudi Ministry of Labor released a list of professions – including certain drivers along with tourism, restaurant and hotel workers, human resources, employee relations and customer service managers as well as other positions – that no longer would be open to foreign residents. The most recent step to ease Saudi dependence on foreign labor took effect August 20, with significant cuts being made to positions foreign workers can hold in wholesale and retail outlets. Stores selling coffee, tea, honey, spices, dates, fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, plants, cleaning and stationary supplies and gifts are among those affected. According to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the move will reduce the number of foreigners working in these positions by half.
Saudi Arabia has legally tied migrant workers’ residency permission directly to their employers, known as kafeels, since the 1950s in a system that has been widely criticized as a “contemporary form of slavery.” With some exceptions, foreign workers require their kafeel’s permission to change jobs and exit or enter the country, leaving the system open to abuse and exploitation, such as withholding salaries and forcing a migrant to work. Under this sponsorship system, known as kafala, and because of Saudi laws and regulations, a common practice arose of non-Saudi entrepreneurs paying their kafeel a fee to be the legal owner of a business the migrant worker then invests in and runs, such as a small shop or restaurant. In considering kafala system reforms  and as part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s economic reforms, the Saudi Commerce Ministry is cracking down on these “commercial coverups,” making it increasingly difficult for foreigners to continue earning a living from stores they invested in and, informally if not legally, owned. A law passed in August poses stiff maximum penalties for convictions: Up to five years in prison, fines of up to SR5 million ($1.3 million), confiscation of illegal earnings, closure of the business, a five-year ban on commercial activity and — if the convicted person is a non-Saudi — deportation and a lifetime ban on entering the kingdom.  It is not known how many migrants, including Yemenis, participated in this sort of ownership system because it long has operated in the shadows.
Unskilled laborers and professional employees alike are feeling the pressure. A Yemeni dentist interviewed said she and her family were considering leaving Saudi Arabia, as they have been struggling since losing three-fourths of her salary in April and May, and then 60 percent of it in June, with no word on when it would be restored. “I cannot stay here for long as it gets harder with the kids’ school fees and permit fees,” she said.
A Special Relationship Hasn’t Resulted in Special Treatment
Historically, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen has been less like neighbors and more like that of a big brother responsible for a less well-off and often unruly sibling. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have similar customs and, before the ongoing conflict, trade flowed easily across their extensive shared border. Riyadh traditionally has also been Yemen’s biggest benefactor and today is the chief patron of the internationally recognized government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has spent most of his eight years in power governing from the Saudi capital.
Saudi Arabia, which intervened militarily in Yemen months after the armed Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, took over Sana’a on September 21, 2014, has a vested interest in maintaining some degree of stability in Yemen. Given its location, a weak Yemen threatens turmoil not only along the countries’ shared border but also near international shipping routes, including the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and their international oil clients are keen to protect. Saudi Arabia’s ability to find a face-saving end to Yemen’s war and help shape the future state would serve its broader economic interests of limiting threats to oil shipments and oil market stability.
Achieving its intended ends in Yemen, however, has proved both elusive and expensive for Riyadh. Beyond direct costs to fight the war, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said in June that Saudi Arabia has provided more than US$16.9 billion in aid to Yemen since September 2014. This funding, he said, included humanitarian aid, relief and development, assistance to Yemen’s economy and central bank, and landmine-clearing efforts as well as support to the Yemeni government and people inside the kingdom. Yemen’s dependence on such direct foreign aid could be eased — or at least not increased — by ensuring Yemeni workers aren’t forced out of the Saudi or other Gulf Arab labor markets. Were the Yemeni government to try and lobby for its expat workers in Saudi Arabia, the familial nature of the Saudi-Yemeni relationship, and the fact that Riyadh hosts President Hadi and his cabinet-in-exile, could provide it a platform to start from – though the Yemeni government has shown little interest in doing so.
Life in the Kingdom: Running the Risk of Deportation
From Dammam, Saudi Arabia, a young Yemeni man speaks about the risks he and some of his coworkers face. “We, as foreign workers, run away whenever we see any police patrol,” he said. If representatives of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development see Yemenis or other foreigners working jobs legally reserved for Saudis only — a situation some of his coworkers face — or catch workers with expired visas, the young man said the business is fined up to SR30,000 ($8,000). Owners generally pay, he said, then deduct the fines in installments from their workers’ monthly salaries.
“We always try to be careful. If we have any doubt about some people passing in the street by our store, that they might be from the ministry office or police, we close the doors and leave the place immediately,” he said. “I still recall the last time when there was a crackdown (in March), and my friend whose residence permit had expired had to hide for a couple of days. It’s just terrible.”
Deportation is a constant threat for those who have crossed the porous border and stayed without documentation or those whose legal status has lapsed. Legal residents also are wary of the risk of being deported for offenses unrelated to their status. Among the kingdom’s coronavirus measures, for example, deportation was announced as a consequence for foreigners regardless of their legal status who did not wear facemasks or observe social distancing. It is not clear if that penalty has been applied.
In general, however, risks are highest for those determined to find a way to stay as the kingdom steadily tries to shift away from foreign labor. In the face of rising permit fees, some expats began securing work permits as drivers — which had been among the cheapest at SR600 ($160) a year plus health insurance and other fees — and then would work other jobs to make ends meet. A Yemeni tech professional in Riyadh who is sponsored by his company said that a few years ago many Yemenis were exiting Saudi Arabia then returning to register as drivers, regardless of their planned work. Subsequently, the Saudi authorities undertook a campaign to deport those who had switched permits but not actual occupations, including many Yemenis. The loophole for drivers appears to be closing further with the June decision to include light-vehicle drivers among Saudi-only professions.
A Yemeni engineer in Riyadh said increases to residence fees since July 2017 have made matters worse. The fees, which varied depending on many factors and doubled or more from 2018 to 2020, were designed to support the Saudization efforts to ease dependence on foreign workers but that really began being felt as the Saudi economy slowed down. “Salaries have decreased dramatically in recent years, living costs have increased,” the engineer said, explaining the financial bind that has left many expat workers unable to renew their permits, trying to secure cheaper ones or taking on extra work beyond their authorized employment.
The Riyadh engineer described the intensity of the pursuit of workers without permits and the way they are forced to hide and get by as “an insult to the furthest limits,” while also acknowledging Saudi Arabia had the right to regulate its economy and benefit its citizens. Saudi authorities have officially taken steps to regulate Yemeni workers in the kingdom in the past. Shortly after the Saudi-led military coalition entered the war in Yemen in 2015, dramatically intensifying fighting in the country, the kingdom announced an amnesty for all undocumented Yemenis in what it said was “in appreciation of their circumstances.” The campaign ended in August 2015, with the dual announcement that 400,000 Yemenis had legalized their stays and an intense crackdown would begin on all foreign workers without correct documentation. In 2017, the Yemen embassy in Riyadh coordinated another amnesty with the Saudis, allowing Yemenis staying in the kingdom illegally to leave voluntarily without compromising their ability to return legally. Some other Yemenis were allowed in 2017 to regularize their legal status by converting from visitor to resident permits.
“I hope that the (Yemeni) government will demand another campaign to correct their status, taking into account the catastrophic situation in Yemen,” the engineer said.
A Yemeni official in Saudi Arabia who is familiar with the government’s position regarding the issue, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.
A longtime expat in Saudi Arabia who only recently lost his legal status to work said that, amnesty or not, going back home, where no work awaits, simply isn’t an option for him. He’d always worked legally, but never earned enough to realize the dream he had when he first arrived 23 years ago — earning enough to buy a house back home and live “a simple, humble life.” Now, he describes feeling “terrifyingly cornered” by his predicament.
The 46-year-old spent most of his years in Saudi Arabia working in a Riyadh perfume store for SR2,600 ($693) a month. Around the time the war began in Yemen, he was denied a request for a raise and his relationship with his employer soured. Then, his annual permit fee rose to equal nearly four months’ salary, and he had no savings to pay for it. Back home, his earnings were needed more than ever.
“When the (permit) costs were raised, I came to the conclusion that neither me nor my family would be able to live off my monthly income. I tried everything and was even willing to beg for change,” he said. On hearing about work in a remote area of the kingdom with an employer willing to hire illegal labor, “I unhesitatingly jumped on it.” Today, he works 15 hours a day, seven days a week, in a restaurant, earning SR1,000 ($267) a month. He has been unable to send money home, aside from SR200 ($53) for medication for his son. With no work permit, he cannot command a living wage and had little choice but accept the conditions and risks he would face. “I just wanted to let my family simply live,” he said, “so I had nothing to lose by running and hiding.”
Ali Al-Dailami is a researcher with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, where he also coordinates content for the monthly report, The Yemen Review.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
This publication is part of a series by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.
- Author’s confidential interviews with a Yemeni worker, June 2, 2020, and July 12, 2020.
- “Yemen Economic Bulletin: STC’s Aden Takeover Cripples Central Bank and Fragments Public Finances,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, June 17, 2020,
https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/10219. Also see Anthony Biswell, “Yemen Economic Bulletin: The War for Monetary Control Enters a Dangerous New Phase,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, January 21, 2020, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/8674
- “Yemen Socio-Economic Update, Issue 44 – August 2019” Ministry of Planning and Economic Cooperation via ReliefWeb, October 7, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/yemefgdn-socio-economic-update-issue-44-august-2019-enar
- “Dr. al-Adil: The Annual Remittances of Yemeni Expatriates Are $8 Billion [AR],” Socotra Post, February 11, 2020,
- World Bank staff estimates based on IMF balance of payments data, “Personal Remittances, Received (CurrentUS$) -Yem, Rep.,” The World Bank,
- “Yemen Socio-Economic Update 2018,” Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation, Economics Studies & Forecasting Sector, February 2018,
- “Remittances to Yemen plummet as needs surge amid war and coronavirus,” Oxfam International, June 1, 2020, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/remittances-yemen-plummet-needs-surge-amid-war-and-coronavirus
- Mark Lowcock, “Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock: Briefing to the Security Council on Yemen, New York, 28 July 2020,” transcript from OCHA via ReliefWeb, July 28, 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/under-secretary-general-humanitarian-affairs-and-emergency-relief-coordinator-mark-30?dxp-token=AAm35_hmrT6Zd8nfCiGKX-F4EUL1v5VTBQn0dX61SfQ
- “Remittances in Crisis, How to Keep them Flowing,” Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), https://www.knomad.org/covid-19-remittances-call-to-action/. Accessed August 14, 2020.
- Wadhah Ahmed, Saleh Zaid and Yousef Mohsen, “Yemen’s Expatriate Workforce Under Threat: The Essential Role of Remittances in Mitigating Economic Collapse”, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, May 31, 2019, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/main-publications/7471
- A late 2019 crackdown reported on by Okaz newspaper, for example, noted that more than 31,000 Yemenis were arrested while trying to illegally enter the kingdom to live and work, 44 percent of the total of such arrests. They were among the 4.1 million people arrested throughout that crackdown on various work and residency-related offenses, though the total number of Yemenis on all charges related to the crackdown was not reported. More than 1 million were deported. See: “Security crackdown: 4 million violators and one million deportations,” Okaz, November 2, 2019, https://www.okaz.com.sa/local/na/1754241
- Sara Al Shurafa, “COVID-19: Saudi Arabia to cut salaries by 40%,” Gulf News, May 4, 2020, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/covid-19-saudi-arabia-to-cut-salaries-by-40-1.1588609488167
- Ibid.; “Human Resources: Reducing the wage of the worker or granting leave to face Corona,” Okaz, April 6, 2020, Sara Al Shurafa, “COVID-19: Saudi Arabia to cut salaries by 40%,” Gulf News, May 4, 2020, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/covid-19-saudi-arabia-to-cut-salaries-by-40-1.1588609488167
- “Starting Today.. Saudi Arabia is Implementing its Decision to Increase VAT to 15% [AR],” Arabic CNN, July 1, 2020,
- “The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs reveals a list of the most important professions that will be officially terminated [AR],” SADA, http://sada-now.com/?p=1309. Accessed August 13, 2020; “Saudi Labor announces the occupations that will be withdrawn from residents, their residency and termination of their residency during this period [AR],” Akhbar Al-Yemen, June 14, 2020, https://akhbr-alyemen.com/news14673.html
- “Economic/Human Resources and Social Development: Localization of 9 commercial activities … and promising opportunities for Saudis in the labor market,” Saudi Press Agency, August 20, 2020, https://www.spa.gov.sa/2123854
- “Policy Brief No. 2: Reform of the Kafala (Sponsorship) System,” Migrant Forum Asia, July 3, 2012, http://mfasia.org/migrantforumasia/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/reformingkafala_final.pdf
- “Saudi Arabia Events of 2019,” World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/saudi-arabia
- “Abolition of sponsorship system is imminent: Report,” Saudi Gazette, February 4, 2020, https://saudigazette.com.sa/article/588280
- Rebekah Smith, “Saudi Arabia Could Rewrite its Record on Labor Mobility by Ending Kafala,” Center for Global Development, March 3, 2020, https://www.cgdev.org/end-of-kafala-labor-mobility
- Dimah Talal al-Sharif, “Fighting cover-up trade effectively,” Arab News, August 26, 2020, https://arab.news/27www
- “The System against Business Cover-ups,” Ministry of Commerce of Saudi Arabia, circulated and made accessible for download on the ministry’s official Twitter site, August 19, 2020, https://twitter.com/MCgovSA/status/1295841012418580481
- Author’s confidential Interview with a Yemeni dentist, June 10, 2020.
- “The start of the virtual donors’ conference for Yemen 2020, organized by the Kingdom in partnership with the United Nations,” Saudi Press Agency, June 2, 2020, https://www.spa.gov.sa/2094073
- Author’s confidential Interview with a Yemeni worker, May 8, 2020.
- Public Security, Twitter post, “The penalty for any gathering of shoppers or workers…. [AR]” June 6, 2020, https://twitter.com/security_gov/status/1269300732529913859
- Absher-Passports, Twitter post from the Saudi government official account for arranging work permits for migrant workers, “Peace be upon you.. Fees for renewing or issuing the driver’s residency…,” July 15, 2019, https://twitter.com/EpassportGovSa/status/1150872918001410050
- Author’s confidential interview with a Yemeni tech professional, March 6, 2020.
- Author’s confidential interview with a Yemeni engineer, March 15, 2020.
- Wadhah Ahmed, Saleh Zaid and Yousef Mohsen, “Yemen’s Expatriate Workforce Under Threat: The Essential Role of Remittances in Mitigating Economic Collapse,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, May 31, 2019, p. 25, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/main-publications/7471
- “Today, the deadline for correction of the Yemeni brothers ends … and the security forces are tracking down violators [AR],” Al-Riyadh, August 15, 2015, http://www.alriyadh.com/1073202
- “The Saudi Ministry of Interior Responds to the Embassy’s Request “to Extend the Campaign ‘A Homeland without a Violation’ [AR],” Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Riyadh, September 15, 2017, https://www.yemenembassy-sa.org/Pages/1734
- “The Kingdom Grants Regular Residency to Yemenis Who Hold a Visitor ID [AR],” Yemen Embassy in Riyadh, September 11, 2017, https://www.yemenembassy-sa.org/Pages/1723
- Author’s confidential interview with a Yemeni worker, July 27, 2020.