Yemeni immigrant life in Saudi Arabia [Archives:2008/1172/Reportage]

July 14 2008

Mahmoud Assamiee
Riyadh, capital of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a vast city with a large foreign community.

Al-Batha is the old city of Riyadh, famed for its markets filled with Saudi, Bengali, Pakistani and Yemeni laborers. Also in this area, one can see Saudi men with their own specialized vehicles working as drivers alongside poorer Saudi women selling cold drinks, clothing, accessories and incense.

In Al-Batha, one also sees Yemeni street vendors selling items such as fruit, clothing, accessories and more. Because they entered the country without visas, some of these Yemeni vendors working in the heart of Riyadh don't have residency permits.

Some 700,000 Yemenis are registered in Saudi Arabia, aside from those who entered the country illegally. The majority are laborers and storeowners.

Most Yemeni immigrants in Saudi are men who came either alone or with friends in search of work. They live in groups of about four or five in a one-room apartment or a building designated for singles, with the groups sometimes sharing meals to save money.

While some live with their families, the majority left their families behind in Yemen while they spend years attempting to earn a living in the kingdom, working from 9 a.m. until 11:30 p.m.

Arriving home at midnight, they often play cards or chess until 3 a.m. in an effort to ease their self-imposed exile from their families, as some leave their families for up to three years.

However, situations and work opportunities for Yemenis in Saudi Arabia differ from those of the past. In the 1990s, Saudis turned to Asian immigrants for cheap labor that Yemenis used to provide, at the same time strengthening immigration laws for border countries like Yemen.

During the 1980s, Yemeni immigrants in the kingdom were treated as Saudis and given high wages. However, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War in 1990, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia made Yemeni immigration much more difficult, possibly due to Yemen's support of Iraq in the war, among other reasons.

During this time, a large chunk of the 1.5 million-strong Yemeni community returned home and Saudis replaced Yemenis with imported laborers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who would work for lower wages.

Although most Yemeni laborers still working in Saudi aren't paid well, they say they're content and that their lives are much better than they were in their home country.

How do they view their home country?

While all of these Yemeni immigrants love their home country and had hoped to remain there, they were forced to leave to find work due to Yemen's economic deterioration and price increases. Some prefer to remain as long as possible in Saudi Arabia because they fear an extended economic downturn in their home country.

“When I came to Riyadh in the early 1970s, Sana'a was better in terms of construction and work,” observes businessman Haza'a Mujahed, who has a gold store and an electronics store in Al-Batha, “but now there's no comparison between the two.”

Although he likes his country and wished to remain there, the situation in Yemen is unsuitable for his businesses. “I used to travel home every two years. Every time I travel to Yemen, I see deterioration in everything, even in people's conduct,” Mujahed says.

“Because of the problems I've faced regarding my land [in Yemen], I decided to stay in [Saudi], building a house for my children, who told me to do so.” He adds, “I feel very happy in this country and I like it very much because everything in it is good.”

Due to working in Saudi Arabia, Mujahed was able to establish a Qur'anic school in his village of Same'a in Taiz, paying nominal salaries to those working there. Every year, he also sends zakat, or charity, to the poor in his hometown.

“I love my country and I want to live in it,” says Mujahed, who has been in Saudi Arabia for 36 years, “but the deteriorating economic situation and livelihood has forced me to remain here.”

Mujahed brought his family to Riyadh eight years ago and three years ago, he brought his two married daughters and their husbands, whom he later employed in his stores. Both of his daughters' husbands hold university degrees, but were unable to find jobs in Yemen.

Abdulghafour Abdullah, 30, works in a gold store for SR 2,000 (approximately $500) per month and also runs a small accessories store with one of his relatives, where he earns another SR 2,000 per month.

As he recalls, “When I came to Riyadh for the first time, I thought, 'How poor and how simple we are!' When you compare Riyadh to Sana'a, you'll find that Sana'a is a small village compared to the modern, giant capital of Riyadh.”

Tanzil Abdulwahed, 37, works in a store that pays him SR 3,000 per month, which is equivalent to around $750. He says he hasn't traveled to Yemen in three years due to the economically depressed climate there. “I wonder how large poor families can afford the food price hikes,” he said.

Accessories distributor Abdu Naji prefers to remain in Saudi as long as he can in order to amass more money. “The situation in our home country compels us to stay here as long as we can to make money and send to our children in Yemen,” he explains.

The majority of the Yemeni community living in Saudi Arabia is sad about Yemen's economic and social situation. Bitterness is evident in their voices when they speak about the conditions that forced them to leave their country.

They admit that Yemen is much better than Saudi Arabia in terms of weather because Yemen is a green country with a good climate and excellent weather, while Saudi is a desert nation with a tough climate, very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, with a constant dusty atmosphere.

Their problems

Most legal Yemeni immigrants are hassled by Saudi authorities, but they encounter a different set of problems.

For example, some Yemeni immigrants purchased Saudi visas for SR 15,000 but when they arrived, they didn't find work or stay long enough time in order to get work. Others who found low-paying jobs couldn't afford to live there and send money back to their families in Yemen.

Having obtained a visa from his relative for less than SR 15,000, Abdulhaqq Thabit now works as a sales agent in an electronics store for SR 1,500 per month, but he still struggles financially daily.

“This salary isn't enough for me because I have to live on it here while at the same time sending a large portion of it to my family in Sana'a,” he explains, noting that if he doesn't find something with a better salary, he'd prefer to return to Yemen.

How do they evaluate the Yemeni community and its embassy in Saudi?

While most laborers have no links to the Yemeni Embassy, those who do deal with it speak negatively of it.

Concerning the Yemeni community in Saudi, the immigrants say having a group of their compatriots nearby hasn't helped them that much.

“The Yemeni immigrants living here established a fund to take care of those families whose supporters have died or are imprisoned, but we received no help from the leaders of the Yemeni community here,” Mujahed points out.