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Arabization of jobs gathering pace
By Aftab H Kola

The policies of Saudization, Emiratization and Omanization are being adopted in right earnest as laid out in General Objectives of Development Plan of almost all the Gulf Co-operation Council countries that include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. 

Jeddah: The El Dorado is losing its lustre. Gulf States, where millions of Indians prospered and realized their dreams, are increasingly spurning their favorite work force to accommodate the sons (and daughters) of the soil, streaming out of educational institutions every year.

While restrictions have been imposed on the recruitment of new immigrant workers, a significant number of Indians as well as other nationalities already working in the region are being eased out of targeted areas of employment due to a policy of providing jobs to the people of the state.

The policies of Saudization, Emiratization and Omanization are being adopted in right earnest as laid out in General Objectives of Development Plan of almost all the Gulf Co-operation Council countries that include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. This move was necessitated after the Gulf governments found unemployment among their own citizens growing every year. According to Ibrahim Queidar, the head of the Arab Labour Organization, nearly 14 million people or 15% of the 90 million Arab youths are unemployed. He added, " By 2010, the total unemployment rate in the GCC countries is estimated to reach 39.4 million people. About 5,33,000 jobs will have to be created annually to meet the ever-rising demand".

Out of the total labour force, overseas workers represent 69% in Saudi Arabia, 83% in Qatar, 61% in Oman, 60% in Bahrain, 91% in the UAE and 82% in Kuwait. The Gulf region accommodates 31 lakh Indian emigrants. Saudi Arabia has the largest chunk of Indians with 14 lakhs while the UAE has 10 lakhs.

Saudi Arabia is taking a lead with its Saudization drive. The goal defined by the current Five-Year Plan (2000-2005) is to provide 817,000 jobs for Saudis by creating new job opportunities or replacing expatriates. Indians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Africans, Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Sri Lankans constitute the major sector that faces the axe. 

From a barren sandscape just a few decades ago, Saudi Arabia has catapulted its way into one of the richest nations in the world, thanks to the oil boom that started in the 70s and successive economic development plans that put the country on an equal footing with the advanced nations. 

While migrant workers from Arab countries flocked to the desert land initially, the last three decades have seen a flood of Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Nigerians and Filipinos to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities offered by the oil-rich country.

Times have changed. The population grew. Educational institutions within and outside churned out thousands of Saudi youths. And rumblings grew among them when they had to compete with the more experienced expatriates for employment.

Saudization drive was soon initiated and it became a goal in the successive development plans. The share of national manpower in total employment is projected to increase to more than 53% by 2004. The government's decision to integrate the growing number of young Saudis in the country's economy has accelerated in the recent years. It has drawn up a comprehensive programme to deal with Saudi unemployment that stood at 14% of the population. 

With an annual increase of 5 %, the development plans targeted to achieve 25% of Saudization of jobs in private sector. It is not easy to accomplish. Lack of proper skills and commitment among Saudis is a deterrent factor. To address these problems Chambers of Commerce in important Saudi cities are running training programmes. Simultaneous efforts are under way to reorient the education system to equip the Saudi youths to meet the challenges of the employment market.

As the pace of Saudization drive gains acceleration, the future of millions of Indian expatriates looks bleak. A grim state of uncertainty stares at them. A recent directive issued by the Saudi Government said all gold and jewellery shops in the Kingdom should employ 100% Saudis. As it was not feasible immediately the directive was modified to 50% this year and 100% after two years. Provision and vegetable shops had received such instructions earlier. 

Thousands of Indian expatriates have already left for good. The worst hit is the state of Kerala as a majority of work force in the Kingdom hails from the state. Visas are now selectively issued as emigration laws have been tightened.

The problem of illegal entry of immigrants has also been effectively tackled with new Umrah visit regulations and arrest and deportation of illegal 'overstayers'. Checks on such illegal immigrants are now regularly carried out. 'Free visas' -- a method by which people reach Saudi Arabia with purchase of visas for a fat sum from a Saudi sponsor without any guarantee of jobs - are still available. One can see a number of Indians who gained entry with such visas hunting for jobs unsuccessfully in the wake of Saudization drive.

The lustre has lost for majority of those who are able to cling to their jobs. Many firms are slashing salaries and other benefits and deny annual increments. This prompts many who think they have made enough to go for good. Says Mr Muhammed Aslam of Kerala settled in Jeddah, the commercial hub of Saudi Arabia: "In another five years' time the real exodus of Indian expats will begin. We are trying to be here as long as possible."

An economist says Kerala " will be the worst hit as its economy is to a certain extent dependent on NRI money". But P K Shamsuddin, a retired Kerala high court judge who was in Jeddah recently, disagrees: " Kerala has a thriving agricultural economy. The effect will be fractional. Moreover the state government has already initiated steps to launch a series of schemes and projects for the welfare of the Gulf returnees."

With the employment opportunities in the Gulf dwindling, the unemployment rate in India is likely to further rise bringing with it a fresh bout of problems.

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