The Struggles of Returning Yemeni Expatriates

Yemeni Expatriates Caught Between Unemployment and Smuggling due to Saudi labor Policies
Mubarak Al-Yousifi
February 29, 2024

The Struggles of Returning Yemeni Expatriates

Yemeni Expatriates Caught Between Unemployment and Smuggling due to Saudi labor Policies
Mubarak Al-Yousifi
February 29, 2024
Photo by: Ali Al-Sunaidar

After working for over seven years in a private shop specializing in key repairs, Ghailan Yassin was imprisoned for about six months and subsequently deported from Saudi Arabia on charges of practicing a profession not allowed for non-Saudis. After that, he remained in his rural area for about a year and a half, during which he was compelled to sell his wife's jewelry to facilitate his livelihood.

Due to the dire situation here in Yemen, Yassin couldn't secure anything for himself and his family. Speaking to "Khuyut," he expressed that he found no other recourse but to head to the border areas with Saudi Arabia in northern Yemen, attempting to find any means of livelihood, even if it involves smuggling the "qat" plant into Saudi Arabia. This comes after receiving an offer for such work from one of his acquaintances, a major smuggler, offering to pay him up to 500 Saudi riyals for smuggling a quantity of "qat," with the amount potentially increasing depending on the quantity and the smuggling operation.

Yassin recounts tragic stories that unfolded before him in Al-Raqu, a border area in the far west of Saada governorate, which he used to cross for smuggling "qat," which, according to the World Bank's definition, is "a stimulant plant widely consumed throughout Yemen." This area is considered one of the most dangerous border areas, where Saudi border guards directly shoot at smugglers and those infiltrators evading capture, regardless of their intention, whether for work in Saudi Arabia or otherwise.

He affirms that after they were directly fired upon, which resulted in the death of one individual and the injury of another among those with him, he reconsidered his decision about that idea and stopped working in such activities. He returned burdened with the pain and psychological anguish of what he witnessed.

In this context, "Khuyut" observes the accumulation of large numbers of Yemenis, seeking job opportunities not only in Saudi areas but also in regions of Saada and Hajjah governorates (northern Yemen), or for smuggling, which is the most prevalent activity there. Additionally, many returning Yemeni expatriates in Saudi Arabia join the inflated ranks of unemployment in Yemen, reaching record levels due to the Saudization and localization of professions.

“For about 10 years now, the Saudi authorities have issued decrees prohibiting foreign labor from practicing more than 50 professions, restricting them exclusively for Saudi labor, as part of what they termed "Saudization" of professions. Additionally, they have implemented a mandatory Saudization program for private enterprises, impacting professions across the board.”

In this regard, Human Rights Watch states that Saudi border guards have deliberately killed thousands of individuals along the border line, using firearms and explosives at close range. Additionally, border guards also kill the Yemeni and African migrants they apprehend.

"Khuyut" documents, through the International Organization for Migration's displacement tracking matrix, the return of approximately 55,000 Yemeni expatriates from Saudi Arabia during the past year of 2023. The number witnessed a significant increase during the last four months of the year. The displacement tracking matrix recorded, between January and September 2023, the return of 92,357 migrants and 40,078 Yemeni returnees to Yemen. Additionally, IOM's Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) received a detailed report on the return of 76 migrants (including 74 Ethiopians and two Somalis) who initially traveled from Yemen to Oman but were eventually deported back to Yemen.

Expatriate on the Path of Death

Due to his inability to purchase a travel visa, Mohammed Abdulraouf was forced to travel through smuggling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in early 2017. He worked there for a full year in a mobile phone shop, then returned to Yemen in the same manner in order to enter Saudi territory legally, after managing to purchase an entry visa that cost him much more than what he had saved throughout the year, hoping to return and work officially.

The second time, Mohammed worked legally in the same previous job. However, he and other workers were surprised a few months later by a decision issued by the authorities there to evacuate Yemeni labor from a group of professions that had been Saudized (allowed only for Saudi nationals).

Abdulraouf tells "Khuyut" that he remained unemployed for four months. Afterward, he intermittently worked in delivering qat from the trader to the buyer, continuing for six months. During this period, he managed to settle his debts and regularly send money to his family. However, he was subsequently apprehended, detained for a month, and then deported to Yemen.

Amidst the escalating war and worsening humanitarian conditions in Yemen, with most families relying on aid and humanitarian assistance, Mohammed found himself faced with the option of returning—through smuggling—once again to Saudi territory in order to secure expenses for his family and work secretly in qat distribution. After a year, he was apprehended again, and a sentence of six months' imprisonment was issued against him for being a consumer, not a dealer. Mohammed says he feels no regret for his imprisonment because the lack of job opportunities and unemployment are no less severe than prison, with the difference being that at least now he is taking care of his own affairs.

For about 10 years now, Saudi authorities have issued decrees prohibiting foreign workers from practicing more than 50 professions, restricting them exclusively to Saudi workers, as part of what they termed "job localization." Additionally, they have implemented a mandatory localization program for private enterprises, affecting various professions such as legal, marketing, and accounting. The percentage of Saudi workers in these establishments ranges from 20% to 70%. Whereas fines have been imposed on violators, including the expulsion of foreign workers from Saudi territory and the payment of a financial penalty. Likewise, employers are fined 20,000 Saudi riyals per violator. Consequently, thousands of Yemeni workers have become unemployed, facing difficult choices, including resorting to clandestine work, which may subject them to legal consequences or compel them to return to Yemen.

The Alternative Path for Yemenis

These continuous measures and decisions, ongoing for more than four years, have pushed thousands of returnees and laid-off workers from their jobs in Saudi Arabia to return and face a bleak and unknown fate in a country suffering from the repercussions of war and conflict, which have caused numerous economic, livelihood, and humanitarian crises.

Meanwhile, many Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia have found themselves compelled to engage in qat distribution after becoming unemployed due to measures they perceive as targeting their presence there. They deal with influential figures who smuggle qat from Yemen to them. Often, there are Saudi traders responsible for distributing qat to the workers, who in turn distribute it to their known clients.

For his part, Saeed Farhan, speaking to "Khuyut," stated that he searched extensively for a job, but there were no options available to him except to work in the qat field after his previous profession in women's clothing was Saudized, especially after he remained unemployed for a long period.

Farhan mentions that he works under the supervision of a Saudi trader, responsible for transporting qat from Yemeni territories, leveraging the privileges he receives due to his nationality. This facilitates the process of qat reaching the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Further, the traders distribute qat to numerous workers, at a rate of 200 kilograms per worker, usually wrapped in thermal tin foil to protect it from heat that may spoil it. Additionally, the trader provides the workers with a list of customers' names, addresses, and delivery locations, and they, in turn, carry out this task, as described by Farhan.

“Anyone found guilty of qat-related crimes faces an additional punishment, which involves Saudi citizens being banned from traveling for a period equivalent to the prison sentence served for these crimes, not less than two years, while non-Saudis are deported from Saudi Arabia after serving their sentence and are not allowed to return to the country.”

On the other hand, the distributing workers receive financial amounts that may reach up to 1000 Saudi riyals in each operation, in addition to a percentage that each person may receive for acquiring new clients. This process is the most challenging, in Farhan's opinion, as it could expose them. Farhan confirms that qat customers are not limited to Yemeni expatriates alone there, but some Saudis have also started consuming qat regularly and extensively.

Legal Fallacies

Saudi law criminalizes the trade, possession, or consumption of of qat, classifying it as a narcotic substance under the Anti-Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act, despite disagreements in its classification by international organizations and institutions, which consider it a "stimulant" substance.

The punishment varies according to the act; whereby any person apprehended consuming qat shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding two years, with aggravation. Additionally, anyone caught possessing “qat” without the intention of trading, promoting, or consuming it shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of not less than two years and not exceeding five years, along with flogging not exceeding 50 lashes each time, and a fine ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 Saudi riyals. Anyone who promotes it for the first time shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of not less than 5 years and not more than 15 years, along with up to 50 lashes and a fine ranging from 1,000 to 50,000 Saudi riyals.  However, if someone promotes qat for the second time, he will be sentenced to death. Anyone involved in smuggling, exporting, or cultivating qat shall also be punished with the death penalty. Furthermore, anyone found guilty of qat-related crimes faces an additional punishment, which involves Saudi citizens being banned from traveling for a period equivalent to the prison sentence served for these crimes, not less than two years, while non-Saudis are deported from Saudi Arabia after serving their sentence and are not allowed to return unless permitted by the instructions for Hajj and Umrah. Moreover, penalties may be further intensified based on the act committed.

However, security authorities may manipulate the cases there according to their interests. Mahyoub Abdulraouf, in his interview with "Khuyut," states that he was apprehended with a large quantity of qat (300 bundles). Instead of being charged with qat smuggling and trade and tried on that basis, he was registered as a consumer rather than a dealer. Abdulraouf further explains that he requested the police release him as long as they had overlooked the quantity of qat in his possession and that he was only registered as a consumer. However, they refused, and the officer justified his refusal by stating that they are obliged to arrest on a daily basis anyone involved in qat consumption or trade. However, he later discovered that the two officers who apprehended him had deceived him and sold the qat for their personal gain, leaving the owner and the one responsible for it to find that his qat was being sold in the market but not through his distributor.

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