Monday, May 30, 2011

Expatriates and Loyalty

As an ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, all too often I hear complaining about the treatment and attitudes of each other from both Saudis and foreign workers. I was taken aback when I first read the following op-ed piece written by retired Saudi naval officer, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.

During my early years, I saw very few expatriates — Americans working for Aramco, Germans working for Phillip-Hollzmann, Indians and Pakistanis working in hospitals and the Alhassa electric company.

But by the end of 1973, the Saudi demography changed forever. Oil prices rose sharply and the Kingdom had the biggest economic boom and the largest infrastructure projects in modern history. The mega projects during the 1970s required hundreds of thousands of skilled and non-skilled workers. The doors of Saudi Arabia were wide open.

Now, we have 8 million expatriates, Muslims, non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs. Expatriates entered our closed doors and closed society. In the past some small towns never saw a foreign man or woman except in some magazines. Nowadays, every home, hospital, company and school has many expatriates.

But, how about the loyalty of the 8 million expatiates to the Kingdom? Should we be worried about them? During the past 20 years, the loyalty of the expatriates was put to the most stressful test. The first was in August 1990 during the invasion of Kuwait. Then there were sudden terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia a few years after the 9/11 attacks in the US.

In both cases, the expatriates showed an amazing and genuine loyalty to the Kingdom. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, only very few expatriates left the Kingdom and some left because they already had scheduled their leave and simply took it earlier or extended it. But, we have to understand their motives. And during the peak of the war, we saw expatriates from the Arab world, Philippines, India, Pakistan and Western countries who were ready to die for Saudi Arabia. And nobody forced them to stay. Some Saudi embassies abroad received calls from former employees who worked in the Kingdom, and they offered to fly to the Kingdom to defend it. No one asked them to do so, but they stayed loyal to our Kingdom.

Former Saudi Aramco employees in the US were the most effective public relations means for the Kingdom when Saudi-American relations were shaky after the 9/11 attacks. And later on, during the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the cooperation of the expatriates with Saudi authorities won the admiration of every Saudi. I asked one Indian engineer why he wanted to defend Saudi Arabia during the liberation of Kuwait. I consider Saudi Arabia is my country, he said. And I once spoke to an American classmate of mine who works for Saudi Aramco of why he didn’t leave the Kingdom during the terrorist attacks, and he said, I would not leave Saudi Arabia till they tell me to leave. His loyalty is to Saudi Arabia.

The other beautiful side of expatriates in the Kingdom is that they are the ones who built the country. They came over because we wanted them to. They did not board a boat and land illegally on Saudi beaches. And if we want some of them to leave then we have to do a lot of changes in our habits. We have to change our work ethics. Why do we, the Saudis bring a nonskilled worker just to make coffee in a company office? Why do we have a lot of street sweepers? We can reduce their numbers by simply not throwing any garbage in the streets. We even can decrease the number of workers at McDonald’s restaurants if we pick and clean the tables after we finish from a big Mac Meal.

I am the biggest supporter of employing Saudis, but we have to get rid of some habits from our social system. Our fathers and grandfathers worked at humble jobs and were not ashamed of it. Now we have 8 million expatriates, the Saudis must win the hearts of the expatriates by thanking them for their work. A smile can make a big difference. This is in particular to the maids and nannies. I know some nannies in some Saudi homes are mistreated, but there are nannies who travel all over the world with their sponsors. Giving an expatriate his salary on time is the most important part of the relations. He has a family to feed back home. Also Saudi mothers have to share the responsibilities of raising the children and Saudi men have to be the main family driver, not someone from a faraway place. With 8 million expatriates, we should expect the frictions because of a few bad apples. Saudis and expatriates shouldn’t let the bad apple spoil our relations. Embassies in the Kingdom should also put more efforts to help their citizens. As for the loyalty of expatriates to the Kingdom, well, to some expatriates, our Kingdom is the only place they know and love.

— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is commodore (Retd.), Royal Saudi Navy. He is based in Alkhobar and can be contacted at:
The article can be seen in its entirety along with part of a panel discussion on this topic on this SUSRIS page. For a short bio and links to more thoughtful articles by Al-Mulhim, please see this SUSRIS link.