Saudi Arabia has recently begun a campaign to purge its government-run institutions of Yemenis, many of whom have held their jobs in the kingdom for decades. The implications of this policy appear likely to cascade through the Saudi labor market and could potentially impact hundreds of thousands of Yemenis in the kingdom and millions of their family members back in Yemen who depend on remittances to survive.
Given the central and effectively irreplaceable role that remittances play in propping up what is left of the Yemeni economy, the expulsion of these workers, if allowed to continue, would further undermine whatever possibility remains of the Yemeni republic emerging from this war intact. The decline in remittances will almost certainly exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, social instability and armed conflict for years to come.
The kingdom has instructed its government institutions to deny Yemenis contract renewals. Reports of mass layoffs of Yemeni academics at universities in Najran, Jizan, Asir, and Albaha in July are just a few examples. While cities in the kingdom bordering Yemen appear to be the focus of the purge, reports of Yemenis losing their jobs are emerging from across Saudi Arabia. Given how centralized the Saudi economy is and that a massive share of the private sector is dependent on, and contracted to, Saudi institutions, the impact of the new Saudi policy will almost certainly sprawl through the wider labor market. This means hundreds of thousands of Yemenis and their families in the kingdom could potentially be forced out.
During Saudi Arabia’s oil-driven economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Yemenis provided much of the labor that helped build the kingdom. Until 1990, Yemenis were able to enter the kingdom without a visa, had freedom of movement and could work without a kafeel (sponsor) anywhere in Saudi. In 1990, shortly after North and South Yemen unified, the new republic was granted a rotating seat at the United Nations Security Council; Yemen subsequently abstained from the UNSC vote authorizing the United States-led military intervention to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, enraging the Saudis, who retaliated by revoking the visa exemption and expelling an estimated 1 million Yemeni workers. The loss of remittances, coupled with the rapid influx of so many unemployed Yemenis back to their home country, spurred a dramatic economic downturn and social volatility from which the country never fully recovered.
The number of Yemenis working in the kingdom gradually increased in the decades that followed. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, however, and particularly in more recent years, Riyadh has accelerated a campaign to nationalize its workforce by making it progressively harder for expatriates to work in the kingdom. This has seen the costs and bureaucratic requirements increase for all non-Saudi workers, and undocumented laborers rounded up and expelled. This has already forced tens of thousands of Yemenis back to Yemen. The impact of the loss of remittances is made even more acute by the ongoing war. As the Sana’a Center has documented, the cessation of large-scale oil exports from Yemen and the onset of the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015 set off a precipitous economic collapse and foreign currency shortage. The Yemeni rial has plummeted in value and basic commodity prices have shot upwards, with Yemenis’ loss of livelihoods and purchasing power in turn being the primary driver of the country’s humanitarian crisis. One of the few mitigating factors that has prevented the crisis from becoming far worse is the billions of dollars Yemeni workers abroad send home every year – by far Yemen’s largest current source of foreign currency – with the majority of this money originating from Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s new policy, however, is not part of the Saudization of its workforce, but appears to be a punitive measure specifically against Yemenis. This comes after Saudi Arabia sponsored Yemen’s failed post-2011 transition process that set the stage for the current war, and after its disastrous military intervention that has sowed untold death and human suffering, shredded Yemen’s economy and left the armed Houthi movement firmly entrenched in power in Sana’a. Meanwhile, Riyadh has continued to prop up Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose ineptitude and corruption has consistently fragmented any cohesive Yemeni opposition to the Houthis and shattered public confidence in the Yemeni state. After all this, Saudi Arabia is now targeting Yemeni workers in the kingdom, whose remittances constitute one of the few remaining bulwarks between Yemen and the bottom of the abyss. This will not only undermine the Yemeni government Riyadh claims to want to return to power in Sana’a, but harm the Yemeni population at large. That President Hadi has done nothing to bring the issue before the Saudis also speaks to his uselessness to the Yemeni people and is further evidence that he should be removed from office.
This unconscionable moral failing of the Saudi purge is obvious. What should also be obvious to international stakeholders is that a failed state at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula – one in which the most powerful actor, the Houthis, is aligned with Iran – will have global implications. The Saudi purge of Yemeni workers must be halted.
This editorial appeared in ‘The View from Sana’a – The Yemen Review, Summer Edition, July 2021‘
Editor’s Note: (2021-08-07) A previous version of this editorial made reference to stipulations in the 1934 and 2000 treaties between Saudi Arabia and Yemen related to the movement of labor that were erroneous and have been removed. The Sana’a Center regrets the error.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
- June 2021: The Urgency to Protect Yemen’s Minorities
- May 2021: A Presidential Council: The Best of Bad Alternatives to Hadi
- March/April 2021: Diplomacy May Pause the Fighting; It Cannot Impose the Peace
- November 2020: Biden Needs a Yemen Policy That Doesn’t Look Back
- October 2020: De Facto Partition of Yemen Looms with Riyadh Agreement’s Continued Failure
- September 2020: Six Years of Houthi Rule in Sana’a
- July-August 2020: FSO Safer: Why Are We Still Waiting?
- June 2020: Hadi Must Go
- May 2020: Will Yemen Survive COVID19?
- April 2020: The Drowning of Dissent
- March 2020: End the War Before the Pandemic
- January/February 2020: Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War
- November 2019: The Minefield of Combating Corruption in Yemen
- October 2019: Signing Over Sovereignty
- September 2019: The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster
- August 2019: Where Coalitions Come to Die
- July 2019: The March on Al-Mahra
- June 2019: War by Remote Control
- May 2019: A Houthi Masterclass in Dystopia
- April 2019: Yemen’s Game of Parliaments
- March 2019: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Deportation Storm’
- February 2019: The Apology of Aid
- The Yemen Annual Review 2018: Beyond the Brink
- November 2018: Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process
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, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.