25 lakh foreign workers to be affected as Saudi Arabia cracks down on ‘free visas’

An estimated 25 lakh foreign workers, including lakhs from India, will be forced to return to their home countries after Saudi Arabia decided to stop the practice of issuing ‘free visas’.

“Free visas” allow subjects of Saudi Arabia to bring (or sponsor) workers from abroad under more relaxed rules, and often send them off to work for other people, establishments or companies in the kingdom. This is different from tightly-monitored visas which are used only for bringing workers for own use.

A recent report found that many people have arrived in Saudi Arabia under free visas and are not able to find any work, adding to the ranks of the unemployed in the country.

Out of the estimated 25 lakh free visa workers, a large chunk, including an estimated 2 lakh Keralites, are from India. Other countries that will be affected include Bangladesh, Pakistan and several of Saudi Arabia’s northern neighbours like Lebanon.

A recent report by the Saudi Interior Ministry had identified unemployed foreigners under free visas as a major problem facing the country. The report had urged the government to conduct checks to ensure that those who are in the country on such visas are suitably employed, and if found to be unemployed, to be deported.

The government has decided to implement the recommendations.

Any person deported for violating visa rules (concerning employment) will find it impossible to re-enter not just Saudi Arabia, but also any of the other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The new rules will make it more difficult to ‘import’ people and supply them to other concerns in the country.

The move is part of efforts by the Saudi government to address the issue of unemployment in the country. Like most oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia depends on foreign workers to keep the economy moving – a large part of whom are from South Asia.

However, a fast-increasing population and higher education among the locals have created a demand for jobs.

The affected Keralites are estimated to form about 2-3% of the total workforce in the South Indian state.