As of 2013, 99 nations had signed the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, first introduced by the League of Nations and later adopted by its successor, the United Nations. Yet, legalized slavery still persists in Gulf countries in the form of a sponsorship system known as al-kafala.

Al-kafala is a recruitment framework that emerged after the discovery of oil in the Gulf region in the 1950s.

Al-kafala is a recruitment framework that emerged after the discovery of oil in the Gulf region in the 1950s. It is a system that is used to monitor expatriate workers by requiring workers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.

Employees’ activities and freedom are restricted under al-kafala, and the sponsor, which can either be an individual or a company, maintains absolute control over workers. Saudi sponsors who bring migrant workers to the kingdom have repeatedly been accused of withholding payments that are due them for their work, as well as other egregious abuses.  

One foreign employee currently working in Saudi Arabia, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Inside Arabia, “The sponsors’ words are certified by Saudi courts . . . . They even confiscate our passports and prevent us from traveling without prior permission.”  In other words, courts simply take the word of the employer or sponsor over the testimony of the workers.

Expatriate workers do not have the right to enter and exit the country freely, and sponsors have the ability to call for their deportation just on a whim. They are not only subject to forced deportation, harassment, and sexual assault, but they are denied their wages, labor rights, and even the right to return home. Some workers have been arrested based on false accusations and held in Saudi prisons for months, or sometimes years, without fair trials.

Al-kafala has become an arbitrary instrument of oppression and exploitation. Millions of foreign workers are exposed to abuse and extortion through this system. For years, the inhumane treatment of expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of the controversial issues taken up by regional and international labor, human rights, and civil rights organizations. Gulf states continue to ignore international and humanitarian organizations’ calls to stop the ongoing violations against foreign workers.

During the October 2018 economic forum known as “Davos in the Desert,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) said in a TV interview that “the Middle East is the new Europe.” He vowed to investors that the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, would be quite different in five years as a result of the Saudi 2030 Vision plan.

MbS first announced the details of the Saudi 2030 vision in 2016.

MbS first announced the details of the Saudi 2030 vision in 2016. It is a plan to reinforce economic and investment activities and reduce the country’s dependence on oil through programs that include government restructuring, fiscal balance, performance management, and strengthening public sector governance.

Transforming the kingdom’s economic and social structure to achieve MbS’s 2030 Vision will require an augmented foreign workforce. A May 2017 report from the International Labor Organization confirmed that reforming current visa sponsorship arrangements for migrant workers in the Middle East would simultaneously benefit the economies of host countries, migrant workers, and their home countries.

Since the last quarter of 2016, “1,500 foreign workers have left [Saudi Arabia] every day . . . .” These workers are leaving largely due to a more stringent set of labor laws pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that seek to increase employment among Saudi nationals, at the expense of foreign workers.

To date, Saudi labor regulation reforms under the 2030 Vision have unfairly impacted hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers. Despite the government’s plan for the “Saudization of jobs”—a recurrent theme of MbS’s 2030 Vision—the unemployment rate continues to rise in Saudi Arabia. In the first quarter of 2018, the unemployment rate reached a record high of 12.9 percent, according to data from the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

The first phase of Saudization has proven to be a failure just one year after its implementation—more than 800,000 jobs left by expats remain vacant due to the lack of a qualified Saudi workforce. The total number of unemployed Saudi nationals, about 580,000, is far fewer than the number of jobs previously occupied by the expatriate workforce.

While expatriate workers represent only 30 percent of the Saudi population, they make up the vast majority of the Saudi workforce.

While expatriate workers represent only 30 percent of the Saudi population, they make up the vast majority of the Saudi workforce. Saudi nationals account for only 2 million of the 11.5 million people working in the kingdom. Expatriate workers account for the remaining 9.5 million.

MbS is facing real challenges to achieving the goals of the Vision 2030 program. Reforming the sponsorship system in accordance with international labor standards will be key to improving not only Saudi Arabia’s international reputation, but also the perception of the investment environment in the kingdom.

Before Saudi Arabia can aspire to become “a new Europe” to attract more of the international companies seeking to operate in the Middle East, MbS must implement labor reform and diversify the structure of labor in his country.