The Sana’a Center Editorial
March marked four years since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a coalition of Arab states into a military intervention in Yemen. The campaign’s initial moniker, ‘Operation Decisive Storm,’ would now seem farcical if the consequences of the conflict, which continues to rage around the country, were not so utterly tragic. Yemenis and those who follow events in the country are already well aware of how the war and economic collapse have laid waste to the structures of society and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
There is a second assault against Yemen in which Saudi Arabia is engaged, however, one that is today going almost entirely unnoticed as world powers focus on salvaging the stalled United Nations-led peace process. Whether or not they succeed in saving the Stockholm Agreement from its current slide into irrelevance, or are eventually able to move toward a comprehensive political resolution to the conflict, if Saudi Arabia continues to expel Yemeni expatriate workers at pace it will condemn its southern neighbor to many more years of instability, insecurity and humanitarian crisis.
For decades, poor job prospects at home have driven waves of Yemenis to seek work abroad, mostly in Saudi Arabia, and mostly as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers. Given the irregular nature of much of their work, accurate statistics are difficult to come by, but available best estimates are that more than a million Yemenis currently work in Saudi Arabia. After large-scale oil exports from Yemen dried up following the coalition military intervention four years ago, remittances from these expatriate workers – worth billions of dollars annually – became Yemen’s largest source of foreign currency. This money helped prevent Yemen’s plight from being far worse: it slowed the Yemeni rial’s depreciation, supplied the local market with foreign currency to finance imports, and provided millions in Yemen with an income as unemployment soared.
In recent years, however, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its campaign to nationalize its workforce. This has included barring expatriate workers from many occupations, increasing the fees and levies those legally registered in the kingdom must pay to remain, and carrying out mass arrest campaigns and forcibly deporting unregistered workers. This has already led to tens of thousands of Yemenis being forced out of work and back to Yemen. In a soon-to-be released study, Sana’a Center researchers found that should Riyadh follow through with the labor market reforms it has already announced, more than 70 percent of Yemeni expatriates in Saudi Arabia may lose their jobs as of 2020. This would give new thrust to the suffering of Yemenis and their country’s dissolution.
Regardless of whether the current conflict ends or not, the return of hundreds of thousands of unemployed laborers to Yemen and the loss of their remittances would undermine any foundation upon which to build socio-economic and political stability in the country for years to come. Indeed, the economic hardship and social instability that resulted from Saudi Arabia expelling roughly a million Yemeni workers in 1990 in many ways helped set the stage for Yemen’s current volatility.
Saudi Arabia is the largest donor to the multi-billion dollar international aid effort in Yemen. It is also the party most responsible for Yemen needing such enormous amounts of assistance; by expelling Yemeni workers Riyadh will ensure this remains the case into the foreseeable future. If the aim of Saudi rulers is to avoid a failed state along the kingdom’s largest land border, a far better policy prescription would be to expel Yemeni government leaders, whose members have luxuriated in Riyadh hotels since 2015, to make them earn their keep back home, and allow the Yemeni workers to stay.
This editorial appeared in The UN’s Stockholm Syndrome – The Yemen Review, March 2019