Saudi Arabia's new reforms, as part of their 2030 vision, have compelled many expats and their families to leave the Kingdom over the last year
Sara Ansari is delighted. She can finally drive in her own country thanks to a recent change in reforms in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The changes have just begun to take effect; Sara, however, has been holding a license for a couple of years. She got it from Saudi Arabia's neighbouring country, Bahrain, and would go there every weekend, just to drive around and have a good time.
“Driving is fun. I am glad that people have realised it and will allow it here. I can't wait to drive to work,” she says ecstatically.
Allowing women to drive isn't the only change that the kingdom is going to delve into this year; several other modifications are about to hit the country.
For one, Saudis won't have to travel all the way to Bahrain just to watch a movie in the cinema. After a 35-year ban, the government has finally decided to allow commercial movie-theatre licenses. As a result, a number of malls in the country are now working on building cinemas, and quickly too.
Sara, who lives in Al-Khobar, says that the closest mall to her house, Al-Rashid Mall, has already begun constructing 17 cinemas. They are due to be completed soon.
In addition to all of this, the government has also decided to begin issuing tourist visas this year. Yes, that's right, until 2018, it wasn't possible for tourists to get access to the kingdom. Visas were previously given to people only for work or for the purpose of visiting holy sites. However, with this new move, investment in building resorts to attract tourists has increased.
The above changes made headlines all around the world and were welcomed emphatically. However, the country is also going through a number of other changes—changes that have drastically affected the expatriates of the country, changes that haven't quite been spoken of.
According to the country's General Authority for Statistics (GaStat), more than 94,000 expat workers left the Kingdom between July to September last year. The latest numbers are expected to be a lot higher.
One of the main reasons why a number of expats are leaving is because of the imposition of dependents' fees and foreign workers' levies. According to the new rules, companies which have hired more expats than locals will have to pay 400 Saudi Riyals (SR) per worker to the government. On the other hand, companies, which have an equal number of expatriate and local workers, will have to pay SR 300 per worker this year.
This cost will increase in the coming days. The companies that are paying SR 400 this year will have to pay SR 600 in 2019 and SR 800 in 2020. Similarly, the other group of companies will have to pay SR 500 in 2019 and SR 700 in 2020.
And it does not just end there. For every dependent that the worker has—for instance, the worker's wife or child—the worker will have to pay SR 200 per month in 2018. In 2019, that number will increase to SR 300 per month per dependent.
What this basically means is that if you are an expat family of four in Saudi Arabia, you will have to pay SR 1,100 or BDT 25,000 every month to the government.
Abul Faisal, originally from Chittagong, has been working in the Kingdom for more than two decades now. He lives in Al-Khobar, located in the Eastern Province and works as an accountant for an insurance company.
He explains that many Bangladeshi workers are sending their families back home in order to avoid paying the dependents’ fee. “My company has told me that they will bear all my costs. However, that will definitely have an impact on my salary. If they are paying for me and my wife, they will balance out their spending from my salary,” he says
According to Faisal, he can already feel the impact on his monthly salary. “For now, my company has decreased the money that it used to give me for my air-ticket back home every year by 50 percent. I don't know what's going to happen next,” he says.
Faisal's case is just one example. There are several companies that are planning to deduct the expat levy fee from the employers' salaries.
The decrease in salary is accompanied with a five percent tax on all goods that are purchased. There has also been an increase in water and electricity bills. Fazlul Karim, a resident of Dammam, says that he was compelled to shift to a smaller house so he could continue to afford sending money home to Dhaka.
“I am practically at work all day. My home is empty till evening and there's no electricity usage. Despite that, my electricity bill has nearly doubled in the last few months. How can my bill double if I am not even spending time at home?” he asks.
Mohammad Sarwar Alam, counselor of the Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia, admits that the changes have made it difficult for Bangladeshi expats to continue living in the kingdom. “It has definitely made an impact. The costs have increased and unless you earn around SR 10,000 per month, it will be difficult for you to stay here with your families. As a result, many families are leaving the country,” he says.
“It's not just Bangladeshis. People from other countries are facing a similar problem. This is a part of their Saudisation process. It has also affected the international schools over here. Many parents are sending their children back home,” he adds.
Due to the huge exodus, teachers from schools have already begun asking parents whether or not their children would continue their studies there. The exodus of foreigners, in addition, has also led to a decrease in house rent in a number of areas, according to a report published by the Saudi Gazette, a national newspaper. The housing sector, according to the report, has been badly affected.
The impact has been worse for those who are involved in businesses over there. That's because expats have been restricted from 12 areas of work from this year onwards. They cannot work in watch shops, optical stores, medical equipment stores, electrical and electronics shops, outlets selling car spare part, building material shops, outlets selling all types of carpets, automobile and mobile shops, shops selling home furniture and ready-made office material, sale outlets of ready-made garments, children clothes and men's supplies, household utensils shops and pastry shops.
One who has been to Saudi Arabia will easily tell you that shops selling clothes, pastries or electronics have long employed Bangladeshis and other expatriates to run them. The ban, according to the Bangladesh embassy, has had an adverse impact on Bangladeshi workers.
45-year-old Golam Uddin has been selling clothes at a shop in Dammam since 1996. Following these changes though, Golam does not know if he will be able to continue living in the Kingdom. “As per the new rule, we are not allowed to sell women's ready-made clothes. Only Saudis are allowed to do that now. It's difficult to earn as much as before because that's the product that used to get sold the most,” explains Golam.
“There's a strict vigilance. Every other day these inspectors from the government come to the shops to check what we are selling. I have changed my products. Now I only sell children's clothes. But six months later, I don't even know if I will be allowed to sell that. There's a lot of confusion among expatriates here,” he adds.
41-year-old Mehedi Rahman narrates a similarly distressing tale. He has been involved in the car rental business. He ran three cars in partnership with a Saudi owner and would live on his share. However, now that women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, his owner decided that the owner's wife would use the cars, leaving Mehedi all of a sudden, without any source of income.
“I spent a lot of money to come here in the first place. I have not even managed to break even, considering all the loans that I had taken to get a visa to come to Saudi. The situation is quite desperate, honestly speaking. I don't know what I will do next,” says Mehedi.
With the fees and expenses likely to increase, Bangladeshi expats like Mehedi and Faisal will have to quickly decide what steps they are going to take in the coming days. The decision isn't likely to be easy. People like Faisal have been living abroad for more than two decades and for him to leave the country all of a sudden will be difficult. For people like Mehedi, who have sold lands and taken loans in order to go to Saudi Arabia in the first place, it's going to be a lot more difficult.
What's also going to be interesting to see is how quickly the majority of the Saudi population can replace the expats. After all, it's not just a case of reforms. The issue of training and skill development also becomes highly important.