Thousands of Yemeni former expatriates are jobless and burning through their savings after being forced out of Saudi Arabia by costly fees, adding a new burden to the war-torn country gripped by the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The reverse influx of Yemenis began in 2017, shortly after Saudi Arabia imposed new fees on expatriates and their family members as part of a Saudization campaign to bring more Saudis into the workforce and generate revenue.
Forty-six-year-old Salah, who preferred not to give his family name, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and had never considered moving to Yemen. But now he, his wife and four children live in a crowded flat in the city of Al Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s government-controlled southeastern province of Hadramout.
“Five months ago I decided to leave the kingdom with my family as I could not afford paying the fees. I was working as a driver,” he told Asia Times with doleful eyes.
Like many Yemeni returnees who have never visited Yemen before, Salah says he has suffered culture shock. The man suddenly lost his friends and found himself stranded in a country where basic services such as electricity, water, and fuel are frequently disrupted.
“I could not find a flat for my family despite searching for weeks. This country does not help you to live normally. It does not provide you with basic services like cooking gas,” he said, adding that he advised his friends or relatives who are preparing to leave the kingdom to seek work in Sudan, Egypt or Malaysia, not their home country.
When Salah failed to find accommodation that fell within his budget, he rented a flat for 1,000 Saudi riyals ($265) monthly, which exhausted his savings after three months.
The family then moved into the apartment of his sister-in-law Fayza, and her three children. Fayza, 49, had left Saudi Arabia during a previous exodus of Yemeni expatriates in 2013.
“I work day and night to make ends meet. Life is difficult here,” she told Asia Times in a low Saudi accent. “We want one thing from the government: bring down the rent. It is killing us.”
For embattled Yemenis, the timing of the Saudi fees was devastating, arriving amid ongoing military operations by a Saudi-led coalition in their home country. Riyadh launched operations against the Houthi rebels in March 2015 with the aim of restoring the internationally-recognized government to power. The protracted intervention has triggered fierce clashes that have destroyed the country’s infrastructure and prompted more than two million people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration.
“If [Yemen] was stable and services were available, no one would have hesitated to return home,” Salah said, adding that he has been searching for a decently-paid job, with no success.
The bulk of returning expatriates have settled in the relatively safe southern and central areas of Yemen that are under the control of the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. But local authorities there say they cannot cope with the simultaneous influx of returning expatriates, internally displaced Yemenis, and African migrants arriving in Yemen in the hopes of finding work in the Gulf.
Major General Faraj Al Bahsani, the governor of Hadramout, says as many as 13,000 expatriates, many with wives and children, arrived in the province from Saudi Arabia between 2017 and 2019.
“They are putting huge pressure on hospitals, schools and electricity,” he told Asia Times.
Nearly 3,000 plots of land in the cities of Al Mukalla, Ghyal Bawazer, and Sheher are slated to be distributed to the returnees, Bahsani said.
Ahmad Abdullah, 56, who returned to the city of Al Mukalla with his four children more than a year ago, is skeptical.
“This is like when someone tells you there is a fish for you in the sea and to wait for him to bring it to you,” he smirked. The father added that his two daughters cannot pursue their college studies as he cannot afford tuition fees and other related expenses.
“No one is helping us. People think those who came from Saudi Arabia are rich,” he said.
On television and social media, the exodus of Yemenis from neighboring Saudi Arabia is often referred to as an “expulsion”. Riyadh has rejected the term, saying that Yemenis are just one group among the 10 million expatriates who must abide by the new laws.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jabir, told BBC Arabic last year that Yemenis still make up nearly 20% of expatriates in the kingdom. He added that his country received hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who fled the war and even admitted individuals with no official documents.
“We welcomed them with open arms and we did not accommodate them in tents,” the ambassador said emphasizing that Yemenis find jobs and dignity in the kingdom, as opposed to relying on charity.
When Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, visited Pakistan last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan implored the prince to take care of Pakistani expatriates in the kingdom. Mohammed bin Salman responded: “consider me Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.”
In Yemen, the returnees watched the conversation with jealousy. “Why doesn’t our president do the same thing and ask the Saudis to waive the fees for Yemenis,” wondered Ahmad Abdullah.