Seventeen years after first setting foot in Saudi Arabia, Dominic Steck shipped his two cats and returned to Germany with his wife and school-age children, who hardly know their homeland. As Saudi Arabia steps up efforts to employ more of its own people, and with economic growth slowing, the ranks of well-paid white-collar expatriates like Steck are thinning.
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For them, the good times are over. Steck said that to reduce costs, his employers “sent the Westerners” away. “I have to admit, they will save a lot,” he told AFP with a chuckle. Cost-cutting, financial problems and a drive to employ more Saudis have all led to a noticeable reduction in expatriate employment as the Arab world’s largest economy adjusts to lower crude prices.
Saudi Arabia, which exports more oil than any other country, since last year has pursued its “Vision 2030” economic diversification effort to broaden its investment and business base, while placing more Saudis in the private sector. The drop in global oil prices by about half since 2014 left the kingdom with a huge budget deficit and billions of dollars in debt to private firms, chiefly in the construction business.
Saudi Binladin Group alone laid off around 70,000 expats from poorer countries, but the impact of slower economic growth has gone further and left many Western expatriates also saying goodbye. Latest official figures showed almost nine million foreigners employed in the kingdom but that was before the worst of the economic pain struck, sending home expats like Steck.
“People are leaving because there’s not enough business for their contract to be renewed,” said a foreign manager in the consumer electronics sector whose business is down 10 percent. “Everybody’s margins are seriously under pressure. There’s not a business out there that’s really doing well,” he said, declining to be named.
More pain is expected come July when the government plans to impose a levy on foreign workers with dependents. The fee will start at 100 riyals ($27) a month, rising to 400 riyals monthly by 2020, according to a government document seen by Bloomberg News. The electronics manager said his company will make its nearly 300 expatriates, largely Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos, pay these charges themselves.
With most of them earning less than 10,000 riyals monthly, this will encourage them to either send their families home or quit – creating space for hiring Saudis, he said. According to the document seen by Bloomberg News, the government will also raise monthly fees paid by employers who hire more foreign workers than Saudis as part of a programme to encourage local hiring.