IBB, YEMEN — Yemeni lecturer and professor Mohammed Ali (a pseudonym, by his family’s request) was in a dazed state when he was suddenly told that he was being fired and would longer be allowed to enter the Saudi University at which he taught. Last week, the head of the university in Asir province in southern Saudi Arabia told Ali over the phone that his contract was being cancelled without explanation and that he should leave the Kingdom. “I went home and just curled up in my bed in a fetal position for six hours; I was shocked,” Mohammed said. The Yemeni academic was not alone. “All of my colleagues at the university received notifications from the university that their contracts have been canceled or will not be renewed, without explanation,” he added.
Hundreds of Yemeni professionals — including academics, teachers, doctors, and workers with official labor contracts and regular residency — have already been kicked out of the oil-rich Kingdom en masse and replaced with non-Yemeni workers. And more than 700,000 Yemeni professionals are slated to be expelled within a few months.
The move against Yemeni professionals in the Kingdom, whose salaries are significant compared to their counterparts in Yemen, will force Yemenis inside Saudi Arabia to face a difficult choice: go home to a country on the brink — to face epidemics, bombings and war — or find work in another country. The move could also impact the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis in the Kingdom whose families rely on remittances to survive amid the Saudi Coalition’s war and blockade on their homeland.
Secret directives have reportedly been issued to government-run institutions and owners of private companies in Saudi Arabia’s southern districts — including Asir, Najran and Jizan — and the eastern regions, including Dammam and al-Ahsa. The directives require the termination of contracts with all Yemeni nationals — specifically academics, doctors, medical assistants and other professionals — in preparation for their deportation, according to several sources in the Yemeni expat community in Saudi Arabia. Sources told MintPress that Riyadh has given employers just four months to lay off Yemeni workers in the eastern Kingdom and two months in the south, in preparation for the mass deportation, and officials have vowed to impose penalties if their mandate is not implemented. From July to the 20th of August, at least 250 Yemeni academics at universities in Najran, Jizan, Asir, Albaha and other districts have been fired.
In Ibb province, located in the inland south of the country, Yemenis who have family members that work in medical and government-run facilities told MintPress that the Saudi government had already terminated their contracts or refused to renew them. Yemen’s Ministry of Expatriate Affairs, run by the Ansar Allah-led government in Sana’a, chided the move, saying in a statement that “Yemenis have resided in these areas for decades and have real estate and commercial property and capital registered in the names of Saudis, according to the sponsorship system.” A document dated July 27, from the Saudi Health Ministry and addressed to a hospital in al-Baha, demanded the hospital stop issuing new contracts or renew existing contracts for Yemenis.
Resentment and anger on all sides
The rich oil Kingdom’s new policy has provoked resentment from Yemenis on all sides of the Saudi-led war, including Saudi allies inside the war-torn country. Many Yemeni activists, news outlets, and even former government officials affiliated with the Saudi government, have criticized Riyadh’s move and by extension, ousted President Abdul Mansour al-Hadi’s government. The World Federation of Yemeni Communities has launched an international campaign deriding the policy. Meanwhile, the ousted Hadi government, which has long advocated for even more Saudi intervention in order to “save the economy,” has not commented on the move. Instead, many leaders in Yemen’s Saudi-backed government in Aden have incited mistrust of Yemenis expatriates, accusing them of “being spies for the Houthis.”
An estimated 2.5 million Yemeni expatriates were working in Saudi Arabia before the new policy, most of them highly qualified and working in education, medicine, and other professions across the Kingdom. At Najran University alone, 106 Yemeni academics now facing deportation have worked for years as professors, administrators and in publishing, contributing greatly to the construction and prosperity of the Kingdom during the past decades. During Saudi Arabia’s oil-driven economic boom of the 1970s and ‘80s, Yemeni construction workers provided much of the labor that helped to build the Kingdom.
The move — which comes on the heels of a Saudi decision to raise the U.S. dollar exchange rate used to calculate customs duties on essential goods that enter Yemen — is being used to leverage political pressure on both the Ansar Allah-led government in Sana’a and the Saudi-backed government in Aden, according to Yemeni economic experts who spoke to MintPress.
This isn’t the first time the Kingdom has used foreign nationals as a means to achieve policy objectives. The Saudi regime expelled some 360,000 Yemeni workers from the Kingdom after Yemen’s government under former President Ali Saleh signaled that Yemen would begin to develop its own oil from the country’s al-Jawf Governorate, a resource long sought by Saudi Arabia. During the 1991 Gulf War, Yemenis refused the United States-led military intervention and as a result, Saudi Arabia revoked visa exemptions and expelled an estimated 1 million Yemeni workers. However, those victims were low-skilled or undocumented workers; this time it is highly-skilled professionals that are being targeted.
What the targeted Yemenis most fear
In Ibb, the families of professionals are living difficult days with a fear of the future that awaits their only breadwinner, as their jobs are the only source of livelihood. Many said that Saudi Arabia’s measures target their children, who will starve. Some of them expressed serious fears that members of their families might be kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, or even killed, similar to what happened to the Saudi journalist/academic Jamal Khashoggi.
“Where will we get the money to buy food, medicine and pay the rent and transportation?” a family member of Izzy Nasser, a financial accountant in a commercial center in Jizan, asks desperately.
“I do not trust the Saudis. I am afraid. He could be imprisoned, or tortured or cut up,” another university teacher’s sister echoes.
Samah, 78, who lives in Sana’a and is the mother of a media professor, added, “They will fabricate shreds of evidence against our sons for communicating with Al-Houthi.” Stories like these are appallingly widespread among Yemeni professionals and their families.
Mohammed Ali was born in Saudi Arabia and worked for quite a few years in one of the Saudi universities in the west of the Kingdom. He holds a doctorate from a Kingdom university, and he resides there with his family. He has grandchildren born in the same country, while he is no longer linked to Yemen except by some of his relatives, who support them with some aid, and his family’s old house. “I have provided many services to Saudi Arabia, which I consider my country. Many of my colleagues worked in study centers and provided advice to the Saudi regime to help them in Yemen,” Mohammed said. “The decision to deport us makes us fear for our lives. We can’t anticipate the next steps of the House of Saud.”
Given the large scale of incitement that has been launched by Saudi activists, politicians and public opinion leaders inside the Kingdom and on social media, which the Saudi state thoroughly monitors, these concerns expressed by the families of Yemeni professionals are real and the most terrifying scenarios can come true. In fact, there are dozens of expatriates, even Saudis, in the prisons or killed by the Saudi regime on charges of “communicating with the Houthis” and sometimes for publishing video clips of drones and missiles hitting targets inside the Kingdom.
It is noteworthy that the new Saudi efforts came despite the fact that many of the Yemeni academics and other professionals helped Saudi authorities as researchers, analysts, advisors, and experts in Yemeni affairs, not only to defeat the national forces in the south and east of the country that oppose the Saudi occupation of their country, but also to control the whole country, including recruiting spies and troops. Saudi Arabia’s move to abandon those Yemenis who helped it is a lot like NATO`s move in Afghanistan, where many Afghans who helped NATO are being abandoned. Some expect that there will soon be scenes in the Yemeni-Saudi outlets, such as the one that the world watched at Kabul Airport, even if they do not receive such media coverage.
To be sure, there are academics, doctors, and other professionals who oppose brutal Saudi intervention in their country or stand on the sidelines, but there is no evidence proving that they support the Houthis or local resistance in their country of origin.
A counterproductive move?
Ostensibly, Saudi Arabia’s move to deport Yemenis comes in the context of a plan aimed to “Saudize” jobs in the kingdom, an excuse that few outside of the monarchy are buying. The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, a pro-Saudi think-tank, said in a new report, titled “Riyadh’s unconscionable campaign to purge Yemeni workers,” that the move appears to be a punitive measure specifically targeting Yemenis. The report concludes:
After all this, Saudi Arabia is now targeting Yemeni workers in the Kingdom, whose remittances constitute one of the few remaining bulwarks between Yemen and the bottom of the abyss. This will not only undermine the Yemeni government Riyadh claims to want to return to power in Sana’a, but harm the Yemeni population at large.
The presence of Yemeni workers in the Kingdom is governed by two agreements between the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Taif Agreement and its annexes were signed in 1934 and renewed in the Jeddah Agreement in 2000. Article 14 of that agreement granted Yemenis the right to work, open residence, freedom of investment and property, and non-confiscation of property. Until 1990, Yemenis were able to enter the Kingdom without a visa, had freedom of movement, and could work without a sponsor (kafeel) anywhere in Saudi Arabia.
In targeting the southern Saudi provinces of Asir, Najran and Jizan in particular, the Kingdom may not only be in violation of the Taif Agreement, but it may also lead to renewed tribal tensions in the region, which could eventually even provide expelled Yemenis a rationale to demand these regions return to Yemeni control, according to Yemeni legal experts who spoke to MintPress. Moreover, the move could serve as the impetus for disenfranchised southern tributes to switch allegiance from the Saudi government to Yemeni resistance fighting Saudi forces in Najran, Jizan and Asir
What the Saudis most fear
Behind the headlines, there is a terrifying fate that the Saudis fear pushing them to expel the Yemenis wholesale from Saudi Arabia, especially from southern Saudi Arabia. Historically, the tribes of southern Saudi Arabia in Asir, Jizan and Najran belong to the Yemeni tribes, especially the “Yam and Hamedan” tribes, which preserve their Yemeni identity through customs, traditions and even traditional clothing. These tribes, who reject Saudi aggression against Yemen, have strong familial ties with the Hamdan tribes in Saad’a, Yemen, the stronghold of Ansar Allah.
Doctrinally, the tribes of southern Saudi Arabia belong to the Zaydi sect, a branch of Shia Islam shared by most members of Ansar Allah. The same is true for most of the expatriates, who either belong to the Zaydi sect or come from Zaydi areas inside of Yemen. This has led to long-term discrimination and mistrust from the Saudi government against tribes in Asir, Jizan and Najran, who have been accused of being spies for Ansar Allah. And indeed, many Saudis in the region sympathize with Ansar Allah and have even fought alongside them against the Kingdom. Tribal members from those regions and as far away as the Saudi city of Mecca, were even honored during a ceremony in Sana’a last March commemorating those who died fighting against the Kingdom in the battles of Abdulaziz Omar, Makkah Al-Mukarramah and Al-Sulaymaniyah, among others.
Since 2015, when the war began, Ansar Allah has gained popularity in southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is anxious lest the relationship between Ansar Allah and the tribes develop into a military alliance and lead to an armed uprising in the south and east of the Kingdom, or to assisting Ansar Allah with information and financing, at a minimum. Those fears could materialize in light of the arbitrary crackdown by Saudi authorities against Yemeni expatriates and Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens in the south and east of the Kingdom, according to tribesmen and strategic planners who spoke to MintPress.
Contrary to what the Saudi government wants, the expulsion of Yemeni professionals will not only lead to renewed hostility towards the Kingdom, it will inflame sympathy towards Ansar Allah and Iran. That is a natural reaction, in hopes that one day they may return to the homes where they were born or raised or that they may eventually find employment in Yemeni universities run by the Ansar Allah-led Salvation Government, or in the areas under its control. Meanwhile, Ansar Allah has already taken up a plan to absorb these professionals.
Feature photo | Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center right, and Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, center left, review an honor guard during the welcoming ceremony at Neom Bay Airport in northwestern Saudi Arabia, July 11, 2021. Saudi Royal Palace via AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.