SANA’A, YEMEN — Fifty-year-old Ali al-Za`ali grew up in Yemen’s Hajjah province. Around 30 years ago at the tender age of 20, al-Za`ali left Yemen, even then one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth, to seek opportunity in neighboring oil-rich Saudi Arabia. There he sent his modest earnings back to family members in Yemen. Al-Za`ali told Mint Press:
Before I was expelled from Saudi Arabia, I used to provide for my parents and my brothers’ families. Today, I can’t even provide for myself.”
This past August, al-Za`ali was rounded up in a Saudi government effort to locate and deport Saudis of Yemeni descent from the Kingdom. Now, after 30 years of life in Saudi Arabia, he’s struggling to get by in Sana’a, with no prospects for employment and living in a country decimated by a three-year Saudi-led war.
Al-Za`ali is one of more than 700,000 Yemenis who, along with their families, are struggling to survive after recently being expelled from the Saudi Kingdom. Last year, Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, rolled out a new “Saudization” policy in which Yemenis were forced to pay residency fees or face deportation, pricing out millions who came to the Kingdom from neighboring states seeking a better life in the wealthy Gulf monarchy. Many of them were born in Saudi Arabia, the children or grandchildren of migrants from Yemen. Unable to secure Saudi citizenship, owing to a policy that reserves citizenship for those of Saudi descent, most were unable to attend school and were denied any form of government aid, including healthcare. Experts estimate that at least two million Yemenis remain in Saudi Arabia and are at risk of deportation.
Saudi authorities say that Yemenis make up the majority of migrants in Saudi Arabia — around 77 percent, followed by Ethiopians at 22 percent. On March 29, 2017, Saudi officials set a three-month deadline Saudi residents of Yemeni descent to leave the Kingdom or risk fines and other legal measures, a policy that echoes Israel’s controversial policy towards migrants and refugees, which has drawn the ire of activists and human-rights groups alike. At 100 Saudi riyals a month, or $27 U.S. dollars, the fees are often out of reach for migrant workers. By the time fees reach 400 riyals in 2020, few will be able to afford them.
Fifty-year-old Saud Ba Mutlaq was born in Saudi Arabia; his father migrated to the Kingdom and it is the only country he has ever known. Ba Mutlaq told Mint Press:
I have seven family members. I have to pay 1,000 riyals Kafeel [sponsorship fees], and an additional 700 to Saudi authorities, meaning I only have 300 riyals left of my monthly salary. I can’t afford to pay for seven companions. Not that it matters after my profession was added to the Saudi-only list.”
Saudi Arabia imposes restrictions on certain jobs, allowing only those of Saudi descent to hold them.
As with many Saudi residents of Yemeni descent, the combined effect of fees and the “Saudization” policy has forced Ba Mutlaq — along with his sons, who have been in Saudi Arabia since their grandfathers migrated — to move to Yemen. They have nothing in Yemen save an old family home that lies in ruin. “They [Saudi officials] steal our money to compensate their losses in the war,” Ba Mutlaq said.
Last November, Saudi authorities launched a campaign against Yemenis in the Kingdom in which 19 Saudi ministries participated. At the onset of the campaign, Saudi authorities reported that approximately 100,000 Yemenis were deported; 70,000 were referred to their embassies or consulates to issue them with travel documents, which were rarely granted by Saudi authorities; and about 70,000 were forced to book flights out of the Kingdom.
Beyond the thin veil of “Saudization,” the Kingdom’s vulnerable non-Saudi population has frequently found itself at the whim of the royal family, often used as a political card to pressure foreign governments to cede to Saudi interests.
In 2013, according to high-ranking officials in Sana’a, the Saudi regime expelled some 360,000 Yemeni workers from the kingdom after Yemen’s government under former President Ali Saleh signaled that Yemen would begin to develop oil from the country’s al-Jawf Governorate, a resource long sought by Saudi Arabia.
Yemen’s governorates of al-Jawf, Shabwa, and Marib have a high potential for significant gas deposits, and according to a detailed 2002 United States Geological Survey (USGS), Yemen possesses vast offshore oil reservoirs in addition to its 3 billion barrels of proven reserves.
That wasn’t the first time the Kingdom used foreign nationals as a means to achieve policy objectives. In 1990 Saudi Arabia expelled well over one million Yemeni workers after Yemen’s government rejected the U.S. war on Iraq. The sudden influx of people returning to the country created an economic crisis that contributed to the onset of the civil war between the north and the south in 1994.
As many economic experts have observed, Yemeni economist Rashid al-Haddad told MintPress that he thinks Saudi Arabia will indeed expel more Yemenis that remain in the Kingdom if Saudi officials do not get what they want out of negotiations or peace talks with Yemen.
While Saudi Arabia’s role in the scorched-earth campaign that has decimated Yemen since 2015 is finally beginning to make headlines, its economic war against the country is often overlooked. Utilizing a cadre of devastating strategies — including a land, sea and air blockade; the destruction of infrastructure; the devaluing of currency through carefully-planned economic policy; and preventing Yemen from developing its natural wealth — the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed coalition has brought the country to the brink of total collapse. Now, with an influx of new residents seeking a share of the war-torn country’s meager resources, Yemen, already plagued by famine and rampant poverty, faces an even more dire situation.
When he was employed in Saudi Arabia, Ali al-Za`ali was sending home about two-thirds of his monthly salary, 2,000 Saudi riyals ($530 USD), back to his family in Yemen. “Even then, with the local economy deteriorated and with the blockade, it just wasn’t enough for my family,” he told MintPress. The breadwinner for three families, al-Za`ali now struggles to secure even the basic staples needed for a single meal.
Millions of families in Yemen once relied on remittances from family members living in Saudi Arabia. According to surveys by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), three-quarters of those recently expelled from Saudi Arabia were sending money back to family in Yemen. Today, they find themselves in a country they are often unfamiliar with, suffering comprehensive economic collapse with no source of income, so fragile that in coming months the UN expects two in five Yemenis, around 12 million people, to face the worst famine in 100 years.
At least 3 million of Yemen’s 25 million citizens are estimated to work abroad, more than half of them in Saudi Arabia, the country that has spearheaded the destruction of their homeland. Remittances once contributed $2 billion annually to Yemen’s economy. Today, that economy is being deprived of one of its last remaining lifelines amidst an already staggering currency collapse.
Ali al-Za`ali recounted his experience, no less disturbing for being so common:
The police grabbed me while I was at the supermarket shop in north Jeddah. First, they took me to jail and put me in a small overcrowded cell filled only with Yemenis. When I got there two guards kicked me and beat me with a wire cable while they were hurling insults about my father and my country.”
Saudi media reported that more than 12,000 Yemenis — 10,371 men and 2,078 women — are currently being held in detention centers across the Kingdom.
During the deportation process, they are often subject to physical and psychological abuse including beatings, rape and reportedly even the theft of their organs. The abuse often comes not just from authorities but at the hands of their sponsors (Kafeel) who enjoy vast legal rights over those they employ.
Yemeni lawyer and jurist Taha Abu Talib told MintPress:
Saudi employers have inordinate power over expats outside of the law and with little accountability. The workers have no options because they need their initial employer’s approval to change jobs. The worker system means they have to face abuse or work under the table illegally.”
Eight out of the ten Yemenis expelled from Saudi Arabia who were interviewed for this story told MintPress that they were beaten, deprived of food, had their personal property stolen, or faced sexual and physical abuse.
One of the men MintPress interviewed, who wished only to be identified as A.W.S., said:
When I was in jail in Jizan, one of the guards took me into the bathroom and wanted to rape me; when I resisted he beat me with a wire cable.”
According to the International Organization for Migration, physical abuse and the theft of personal possessions is commonplace against Yemenis in the Kingdom.
Amar Haddi was expelled from Saudi Arabia last month. He was planning to open a store in Yemen like the one he once ran in the Saudi province of Jizan. Those plans were short-lived as Saudi authorities confiscated his store in Jizan when Haddi failed to sell it before the three-month deadline imposed by Saudi authorities. Today he lives in Hodeida — a city lying in ruin thanks to a seemingly endless barrage of Saudi coalition airstrikes — where food is scarce, outbreaks of disease plague residents, and work is nearly impossible to find.
Saudi Arabia claimed that it warned those marked for deportation that they would have to pay fines ranging from 15,000 to 100,000 riyals if they failed to validate their residency status or leave the country within 90 days. “I offered my shop for sale, but no one came; a three-month period just wasn’t enough,” Haddi told MintPress.
In July, Saudi authorities banned deportees from leaving the Kingdom with any four-wheel drive vehicles or heavy equipment, forcing families to leave behind their SUV’s and to instead hire cars or buses to ferry them to Yemen. Saudi authorities never provided an explanation for the ban.
“I had to go back to Sharurah city in Saudi Arabia and leave my car with a friend of Saudi nationality,” Sameer Masudi told MintPress.
On the first day that the Saudi policy was announced, Saudi border guards detained entire families as they were being expelled back to Yemen at the Wadiah border crossing, preventing them from leaving with their family SUVs and forcing them to find other transportation into Yemen.
Saudi Arabia did give the now jobless masses of Yemeni deportees one option for employment: forgo training and become mercenaries for the coalition waging a bloody war against their homeland. Offering few options save starvation, Saudi Arabia capitalized on the deportees’ desperation by turning former shopkeepers into soldiers tasked with protecting Saudi troops in Jizan, Asir, and Najran from attacks by Yemen’s military. Saudi Arabia’s regular forces, equipped with the latest U.S.-supplied weapons, tend to stay far from the front lines.
A 25-year-old deportee, who wished to be identified only as A.S., recounted how he had been captured by Yemeni troops while fighting on the Najran border as a mercenary for Saudi Arabia. He told MintPress that he had the choice of either fighting for the Saudis or living in extreme poverty in Aden: “I am not in favor of the Saudi campaign against my country, but I am fighting with them for the sake of money.” A.S. is not alone. He is one of many desperate Yemeni deportees forced to fight and die in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border region.
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