Immigration

Saudi Arabia Barricades Its Border, U.S.-Style


Overlooking the border with Yemen

Photograph by Glen Carey/Bloomberg

Overlooking the border with Yemen

From a new stone tower overlooking the border with Yemen, Saudi soldiers send out patrols in search of illegal immigrants drawn to the biggest economy in the Arab world. In the past year, dozens of observation posts have gone up along a 1,100-mile stretch in the southern province of Jazan, some positioned on mountain ridges, others just yards from where Yemenis herd goats through sand and brush. Lieutenant General Meladaan al-Meladaan, who’s responsible for protecting 52 miles, says his patrols catch as many as 70 people—from Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Bangladesh—trying to sneak into the country each day.

Many more are able to get past the guards, a steady influx of cheap foreign labor that’s made it difficult for some Saudis to find work. Saudi citizens represent only 43 percent of the country’s 10.6 million workers, as 6 million foreigners build oil pipelines, fix cars, and bag groceries. In a report last month, EFG Hermes Holding (EFGD:LI), citing government data, said that people living in Saudi Arabia illegally may represent 30 percent of the workforce.

King Abdullah has made reducing unemployment among Saudi citizens, now at 12 percent, a priority since popular unrest began toppling leaders across the Middle East in 2011. That year he announced a $130 billion spending plan to expand the government workforce and raise salaries. He’s now putting an additional $500 billion into a public-works program to create jobs building and staffing new airports and railways.

Photograph by Glen Carey/Bloomberg

The tough border security measures are intended to make sure those jobs go to Saudi citizens, and not undocumented workers. The patrols are also on the lookout for drug smugglers and insurgents. Saudi Arabia has been attacked from across the Yemeni border in the past, and Saudi forces battled Shiite Houthi rebels for months in 2009 after they seized land inside the kingdom. Al-Qaeda militants based in Yemen, the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors, tried to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Jeddah in 2009. Al-Qaeda has also attacked Saudi oil installations. “The Saudis view the region surrounding them in political upheaval and are in the middle of fortifying their homeland,” says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “They are taking these precautions to protect the kingdom from outside influences, both human and contraband.”

Jazan province runs along the Red Sea and through desert and rugged mountains. The government is putting up motion-sensing cameras, infrared systems, and GPS trackers. “This is a very difficult area to patrol,” says al-Meladaan, sitting in the border guard’s regional headquarters in al-Arda. “The border area is mountainous. It will be easier as we install the new system.”

In the first six months of the Islamic year, Jazan border patrols reported catching 2,930 people smuggling hashish, the leafy narcotic khat, or whiskey into Saudi Arabia, where such offenses sometimes carry a death sentence. They also seized 4,025 weapons, including machine guns. Over the same period 126,000 people were caught trying to sneak into the kingdom for work, says Brigadier General Abdullah Bin Mahfouz, a spokesman for the Jazan border guard. Mohammed Chancel, a 26-year-old from Bangladesh, was one of them. After flying to the Yemeni capital Sana’a six months ago on a tourist visa and working illegally for $120 a month, Chancel says he paid a smuggler about 3,000 riyals ($800) to take him across the border. “I wanted to find a better job in Saudi Arabia,” he says. Instead, he was put in a detention center where he waited to be sent back.

Because about a quarter of Saudis between the ages of 20 and 30 are out of work, the government wants to spread the word that foreigners like Chancel should stay home. Bin Mahfouz says if the border security works as planned, within four years, Saudi Arabia will be “shut to infiltrators.”

The bottom line: Saudi citizens make up just 43 percent of the labor force, in part because of millions of foreign workers—many illegal.

Carey is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Riyadh.

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