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COVID-19 lockdown leaves Syrians in Saudi Arabia to fend for themselves

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia have found themselves unable to pay for basic goods due to the coronavirus lockdown.

14 June 2020

AMMAN — For Ali al-Shami (a pseudonym), it would have been unthinkable that conditions in Saudi Arabia, a country which was until recently a dream for Syrians and many other nationalities, would deteriorate to the extent that some Syrian residents ask for “financial assistance from community groups on social media, while others are unable to pay the annual [residency] fees that are piling up,” he said. 

Following recent economic, social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states in general, emigrant workers have become subject to a series of “expulsive legislations and procedures, such as increasing taxes and residency fees and nationalizing professions [replacing migrant workers with locals],” al-Shami told Syria Direct. Today, the fallout of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has come as “a blow that made our situation even worse,” he added. Al-Shami, who worked in Riyadh’s construction sector, has been unemployed since this past March due to measures aimed at containing the virus outbreak. 

While the Saudi government exempted some jobs from the work suspension, such as delivery services, permits to do these jobs were mainly limited to Saudis. Job opportunities for Syrians and other non-Saudi citizens, according to al-Shami, remain “limited to the temporary, partial periods where the ban is limited and on a narrow scale.” 

For Syrians working illegally in Saudi Arabia after entering the country on visas for family visits or pilgrimage, the problem is even worse. They are “the first ones to be affected by the crises, as happened with the Coronavirus outbreak,” one Syrian worker in the vegetable market of  the coastal city of Jeddah on the Red Sea, told Syria Direct

He arrived in Saudi Arabia on a family visit visa, coming from the city of Houla in the countryside of Homs province. Since then, he has been unable to correct his legal status and “convert the visitor’s visa to residency. [So] I keep changing jobs,” he said. 

The unemployment of breadwinners in some families “for the third month in a row,  has forced women to sell their jewelry to secure daily expenses, while some families face the risk of being evicted from their homes as they cannot pay the rent.” 

Growing helplessness in COVID-19 era

In October 2016, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that the kingdom had received “more than 2.5 million Syrians,” who were being treated “as brothers, not as refugees, in order to preserve their human dignity,” and they were “granted the right to enjoy free healthcare, enter the job market and enroll in education.”

However, it is not clear whether this figure includes Syrian residents (with legal residency permit) or is limited to “visitors” (who entered Saudi Arabia with visas for family visits, Hajj or Umrah, and whose residency is therefore illegal), especially given that the Saudi General Authority for Statistics does not provide figures for the number of non-Saudis by nationality on its website. The previous number has also been questioned by international organizations such as Amnesty International, which has reported that the Gulf states—particularly Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain—have not provided any resettlement opportunities for Syrian refugees. Additionally, the October 2016 number contrasts with what the King Salman Relief Center said in January 2019, that Saudi Arabia hosts “more than a million visitors,” among them only 262,573 Syrians. 

While the Saudi government initially eased restrictions for Syrian “visitors”, such as allowing them to work and educating their children in public schools, the measures later became more strict, by “banning children of visitors from entering public schools,” according to al-Shami. 

Furthermore, a Syrian “visitor” in Saudi Arabia does not enjoy the same rights as Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in other Arab countries, such as financial or food assistance, scholarships and resettlement in other countries. They have been left, therefore, facing economic crises—the latest linked to COVID-19—without any local or international support. 

The impact extends even to “resident” Syrians since the majority of them work “under what is known as commercial concealment, under the names of Saudi individuals or companies,” one Syrian economic expert living in Saudi Arabia told Syria Direct. This means that “while unemployed during the Coronavirus crisis, they will be left without financial resources while they are required to pay their annual fees, estimated at an average of 35,000 Saudi Riyal [$9,333].”

While the fees imposed on “visitors” are relatively low, at 100 Riyal ($26.6) per month for each individual, this year fees for residents to renew their residency reached 400 Riyal ($400) per person monthly. Coronavirus “completely paralyzed visitors’ movement, and prevented them from doing their jobs, for which they already received lower wages compared to residents,” said the economist, warning that “the arrest of any visitor for violating the curfew could expose him to deportation.” 

“Syrians who work illegally, or visitors—and their number is not small—are in a difficult economic situation during the curfew periods,” said the vegetable market worker in Jeddah. “The employees in big companies receive their salaries during the curfew, while an illegal worker or visitor’s salary is cut as soon as he stops working.” 

No social solidarity

As part of measures aimed at compensating those affected by the COVID-19 work suspension, the Saudi government decided to pay the salaries of those unemployed during the crisis. But, like in most other countries, the decision benefits “Saudis only, and under specific conditions, without the rest of the nationalities, even if they are completely out of work,” said Abdulrahman al-Ali (a pseudonym), who is a manager at building materials and supplies company in Riyadh. 

While the economic conditions of Syrians living in Saudi Arabia resemble those of their fellow citizens in Kuwait, which announced the imposition of a comprehensive curfew from May 10 to May 30, “the support of the Kuwaiti government and charitable organizations for those affected by the Coronavirus there, in a regular and systematic way and without discriminating between one community and another, whether Arab or Asian, mitigated the damages of the curfew on Syrian workers,” said Taha al-Rahabi, a Syrian journalist living in Kuwait. Al-Rahabi is one of the participants in a volunteer campaign to distribute aid to the Syrian community in the Mahboula and Jleib al-Shuyoukh regions, where “a total quarantine has been imposed since the beginning of the virus outbreak in Kuwait.” 

By contrast, this “social solidarity on a large and public scale is forbidden for communities in Saudi Arabia,” said al-Shami, and “individual solidarity in situations like these does not cover the need of thousands of impacted Syrians, and many times this number among other nationalities.”

More difficulty to come

Muhammad al-Omar (a pseudonym) used to send a monthly sum of money to his family in Reef Dimashq province to help them secure their basic needs. He stopped doing that since the COVID-19 outbreak. “I barely have enough money to get through the month,” he told Syria Direct

Al-Omar, 45-year-old and a father of four children who has worked in the contracting and construction sector in Saudia Arabia since 2011, was affected by increased fees imposed by the government on dependents. The fees began at 100 Riyal ($26.6) for each dependent, but reached 400 Riyal ($107) by 2020, in addition to fees for the Office of Labor and Health Insurance. As a result, the fees to renew his family members’ residency have reached “approximately 24,000 Riyal [$6,400], in addition to health insurance and labor fees, which are approximately 12,000 Riyal [$3,200].”

Saudi Arabia also imposed a five-percent value-added tax (VAT) at the beginning of 2018 and raised the cost of basic services such as electricity and water, in addition to fuel prices. The impact of raising the VAT will only increase as it will be raised to 15 percent in early July. 

This is in addition to the introduction of new customs duties, starting June 10, that cover hundreds of basic goods, including a seven-percent increase on sheep meat for slaughter and a ten-percent increase on dairy products, up from five percent. 

Also, there is the slowdown of the global economy due to Coronavirus and the fear of entering an unknown period of recession or even depression affecting the global demand for oil, the primary source of income for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

For all these reasons, al-Omar and many other Syrians living in Saudi Arabia, believe that “the Gulf countries, in general, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, are no longer economically viable.” Al-Omar expects the coming month to be “more difficult for migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, even if life goes back to normal after the Coronavirus curfew is lifted.” 

“The average salary of Syrian residents in Saudi Arabia ranges from 3,000-4,000 Riyal [$800-$1,065], and it is fully spent on monthly fees and expenses,” said al-Omar. The life of luxury once enjoyed by those living in the Gulf states “has become a thing of the past.”

“Going home is the best option for migrant workers [Arab and non-Arab] in Saudi Arabia, but this option isn’t available for Syrians in light of the security and economic situation in Syria,” said al-Ali. “Turkey was once an option for hundreds of Syrians, but it is now only a choice for those who have the financial means,” he added. As it is the only country open to Syrians, that could leave them “vulnerable to exploitation by the transaction review offices that work with the Turkish embassy in Saudi Arabia, with Syrians forced to pay a sum of up to 9,000 Riyal [$2,400] per person to get a visa.”

On top of all that, the risk of deportation remains for Syrians who live in the country illegally, whether because they violated the purpose of their visas (not for work) or as a result of losing their jobs permanently and are now unable to renew their residency. Some 9,000 Syrians face this situation now in Kuwait, though al-Rahabi expects that none of them will be deported from that country “in light of the humanitarian situation of Syrians.”

Based on that, “as soon as a political solution is achieved in Syria that guarantees the safety of Syrians in their country and prevents them from being pursued by the security services, more than half of the Syrians living in Saudi Arabia might return,” al-Ali believes. 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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