Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Mecca of Expats and Migrant Workers

Saudi Arabia has a reputation of being a closed-door separatist country because it remains one of the strictest countries to obtain a visa to enter or visit for tourism purposes.

However, a part of Saudi Arabia exists that you rarely hear about: a third (1/3) of the country’s population is made up of non-Saudis. The total population living in Saudi Arabia is around thirty million, and over ten million of those are foreigners. What’s the story behind Saudi becoming the Mecca of Expats and Migrant Workers?

The Many Types of Migrants

Unlike the United States, where migrants often arrive first and then search for work, migrants to Saudi Arabia almost always arrive based on the promise of a specific job. Indeed, entering Saudi legally without a prior offer of employment is difficult. Thus, Saudi immigration is typically based on an exchange between money and labor.

Saudi Arabia contributes significant financial inflows to many developing countries in the form of expats and migrant workers’ wages to their native countries. For example, an Oxford Business Group report states that in 2014, the amount of remittance from Saudi Arabia to home countries was about U.S. $40.9 billion, ranking second place only next to the U.S. in terms of wages sent home by migrants.

I see four largely generalized categories in this non-Saudi population:

  1. “The Compound-ers” — generally highly salaried, white-collar employees of companies mostly from Europe or the U.S., almost like gated mini-cities that mimic the lifestyle of their home country with pools, restaurants, bowling alleys, libraries, and shops that sell Mountain Dews and Pringles! Through a barb-wired security gate, once you enter, you feel you are in wealthy gated community somewhere in Western Europe or the U.S. For example, ARAMCO employees live in ARAMCO compound called Dhahran Camp, which has a population of over 10,000. Another unique example of compounds is the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh. It’s a gated community of all foreign diplomats, where all the embassies and diplomats work and reside.
A typical view inside a compound

2. “The Private Villa-ers” — usually white-collar non-western families that weren’t given a housing inside a compound live in private villas. Many of them also own small businesses as well. They are called Private Villas but essentially large-sized single family residents with tall walls, several rooms and floors. Many of them come with a separate “outhouse” designed for drivers, cleaners, nannies to reside. My family lived in a villa when I grew up.

A typical villa in Riyadh. Photo Credit: John Touma

3. “The Dorm-ers” — shorter-term contracted workers usually with a fixed start and end date. They can range from high-end to low-end quality housing depending on the job and employer. Many construction workers in the 70s lived this way. My father lived in a dorm when he first arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1977. These days, high-end dorms are still in use for many of the healthcare professionals such as nurses while low-end dorms are used in construction and similar industries. Many migrants chose to work in Saudi Arabia and live in dorms for a short period of time while their family members stay in their home country. The intent behind dormitories is to provide cheap housing to temporary employees at a low cost to employers.

KSAU Housing dormitory for nurses. Photo Credit: Chacha.girl

4. “The In-house residents” — generally are the domestic workers who are hired by Saudi families to do their house work. Saudi families as well as middle-high income foreign households often hire private drivers, housekeepers, nannies, and cooks for their homes. An average Saudi household size is 5.7 people and women are not allowed to drive, and so a hired male driver and cleaning staff is often essential.

This excludes the over a million annual pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, who are even more temporary and deserve their own blogpost.

Additionally, these categories are dynamic in that, for example, an individual that starts in a dorm occasionally switches to a villa if they stay beyond their original position. However, many migrants remain in one category during their entire stay in Saudi and significantly, unlike in the U.S., shifting from any of the categories to Saudi citizen almost never occurs even for migrants from neighboring states that live in Saudi for many years.

The Origins of Western Migration

The very founding story of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia revolves around a partnership and reliance on foreign skills — American geologists — that set the tone for how the country has been running to this day, together with foreign labor. The founding story goes something like this. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1932. He conquered and unified numerous distinct regions and tribes. Then, while the Western world was going through the Great Depression, American oil companies were invited to Saudi Arabia on an oil expedition and together they discovered oil in Dammam, the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Prior to this event, Saudi Arabia’s primary source of income was the pilgrims traveling to Mecca and Medina. In 1943, the company, renamed ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company), became the biggest oil company in the world, and so goes the friendship between Saudi Arabia and the USA.

Currently, the Americans and Europeans are fewer in number than other migrants, but their presence is visible due to the notably gated and separated communities called compounds in the major cities.

The Origins of Korean Migration

Similar to the US’s Great Depression, in the ’60s and ’70s, South Korea was living in dire poverty conditions after suffering from the aftermath of the Korean War in the ’50s and striving to kick off the poverty level of less than $100 per capita income. As an international development professional and as a modern Korean citizen, I find difficulty imaging that the very first American Peace Corps volunteers arrived in South Korea in 1966 to aid the effort to alleviate extreme poverty. But that is what happened.

Out of this nationwide effort of economic development, a special history and friendship formed between Saudi Arabia and South Korea as well. Koreans were hired by Saudi Arabia in large numbers in early 1970s as migrant workers to build its infrastructure like buildings and roads. In 1974, the very first construction contract was awarded to a South Korean firm and thousands of Korean construction workers migrated to Saudi Arabia. My father was one of those people who was given a job opportunity with a construction company in this completely foreign desert land. It was at this opportune time while families were struggling from poverty that Saudi Arabia sought construction workers and knocked on the doors of South Koreans with well-paid construction contracts.

Currently, because the South Korean economy has improved so rapidly, and Korean wave of migrants originated so long ago, many of the remaining Korean migrants who began in dorms now live in villas. The recent migrants with white-collar positions live in luxurious compounds.

My father (right) and a German colleague (left) at a construction site in Saudi Arabia. 1978.

Arabs and Other Migrations

Special stories of alliance in exchange for money and labor apply to all Saudi’s bordering and nearby countries as well — Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen — as well as a significant number from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Currently, many of these migrants live in villas, dorms or as in-house residents.

The Long-Term Consequences

With several decades of “needs-based-transactional-migration” between money and labor, without a clear long-term Saudi plan to create home-grown talent in many jobs categories, nor the potential for foreigners to naturalize into permanent residents or Saudi citizens, Saudi Arabia has become a mishmash of foreign lives with unique lifestyles almost unseen elsewhere.

The challenge is the vulnerability of the livelihood of migrant families. Their job security is wholly dependent on the economic condition of Saudi Arabia. In fact, the recent global plunge of oil prices has led to significant job cuts, decreases in pay, as well as closing down projects and companies. This, in turn, has resulted in turmoil that leaves many of my friends and many other long-term residents with no choice but to leave the country unexpectedly.

Recognizing the many dependency risks of such an oil-reliant-economy and its inevitable consequences, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is currently spearheading an economic reform towards moving beyond oil with Saudi Vision 2030.

Conclusion

I reflect on ‘immigration’ and how this word generally ties in with the identity of Europe and the U.S. It has become a public concern in some people’s minds as they see their national identity and job security being threatened as a result of such a high level of immigration. I find it ironic and worthy of a note that countries like Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have much larger proportion of immigrants in their population size and this trend is increasing. Sure, the U.S. has the largest number of immigrants in the world in terms of raw numbers but they make up less than 15% of the overall population, and about half of that 15% are naturalized U.S. citizens. Could you imagine what America would be like if 30% of the population was composed of non-naturalized, often transitory immigrants?

A Call for Stories:

To all you readers with Saudi connections, especially my fellow TCKs, if you or a friend has a personal story, photos, videos, art, to share about living in Saudi Arabia as a compound-er, a private villa-er, a dormer or an in-house resident, I want to hear from you to be incorporated in future posts! Leave me a comment or email spark@magpieventure.com

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SaEunShine

SaEunShine

I am an Adult Third Culture Kid, life coach, speaker, and a writer. Here, I write about Saudi Arabia and women, to offer third culture perspectives.