The kingdom’s preference for workers from one side of India or the other would seem to have little to do with the workers themselves
PEOPLE have been moving from the Indian subcontinent to the Persian Gulf in search of work since long before the world had any industrial interest in petrochemicals, or indeed, any industry whatsoever. In 1716 a British traveller found that occupations held by Indians living in the Gulf included “barbers, punkah or fan operators, shopkeepers, doctors and customs agents”.
The punkahwallah may no longer exist, as a profession anyway, but in other ways not terribly much appears to have changed. The biggest employer of foreign workers in the Gulf by sheer numbers (though not by proportion) is Saudi Arabia. For a kingdom with an estimated 16m citizens, there are some 9m registered foreign workers and at least a few million more illegal immigrants.
No one quite knows how many people in Saudi Arabia hail from the big three labour exporters of South Asia. India reckons it has some 1.5m citizens living there, Pakistan claims a similar number and Bangladesh is routinely to be heard talking about 2.5m Bangladeshis working in the kingdom.
For the latter two, Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest overseas labour market. (India earns more money by its workers in America and the United Arab Emirates than by its workers in Saudi.) In the past fiscal year, Bangladesh and Pakistan received almost exactly the same amount in official remittances from Saudi Arabia: $3.7 billion, which is quite a lot more than either receives in economic aid. As a share of total remittances these Saudi-based workers accounted for a similar share of their national figures: 29% or 28%, for Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively.
The equilibrium has shifted however. Where before the ebb and flow of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were synchronised, their figures have since come unstuck. Bangladesh’s loss looks very much like Pakistan’s gain.
Up until 2009, in a good year Bangladesh would send as many of its nationals to take jobs in Saudi Arabia as there are Americans living in Des Moines, Iowa. Even in a bad year, a bunch of Bangladeshis equivalent to the population of Bruges, the medieval trading capital of Belgium, would take wing for Saudi Arabia, to start a job and remit money home.
No longer. Since 2009 Bangladesh has been sending to Saudi Arabia an average of only 14,500 people—which is slightly fewer than live in Nuk, the capital of Greenland. That decline, from a Des Moines-sized workforce to a Nuk-sized one, will be worth about $200m a year in remittances alone. Pakistan, by contrast, has seen a surge. More than 220,000 Pakistanis took up new jobs in Saudi Arabia in 2011 (the latest available figure).
Bangladesh appears somehow to have fallen out of favour as a source of labour with the Saudis. Last month, Saudi Arabia was reported to be pondering whether to resume its full-scale hiring of Bangladeshi workers. But nobody really thinks it will happen. Saudi Arabia silently disapproves of the imminent hangings of the leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the religious party that serves as a standard-bearer for its strand of Islam in Bangladesh. It grudgingly recognised Bangladesh as an independent country only after the assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. Sheikh Mujib is revered by his countrymen for having won the independence of Bangladesh, or East Pakistan, from what had been West Pakistan, in 1971. His death paved the way for the return of religion-based parties, which had been banned by Bangladesh’s 1972 constitution.
The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who is Sheikh Mujiib’s daughter, has brought back an explicitly secular constitution under which religious politics has no space. It will not have escaped the Saudis’ notice that Bangladesh’s foreign minister likened the Jamaat, a close ally of theirs, to a terrorist organisation in a briefing with diplomats in Dhaka on March 7th. (Her office forwarded it along to journalists the same day.) Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina’s government is weighing whether it ought to go the whole distance and ban the Jamaat.
Another flight of executions might stand in the way of this age-old migration across the Arabian sea. In 2011 Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded eight Bangladeshis for their alleged involvement in an armed robbery in which an Egyptian security guard was killed. (Never mind that in 2012, a speedy tribunal in Dhaka sentenced five Bangladeshis to death by hanging for the killing of a Saudi diplomat in Dhaka. Even by the principle of an-eye-for-an-eye, Bangladesh’s executions would be judged to fall short.) If, as is widely expected, the entire leadership of the Jamaat is found guilty in the ongoing war-crimes trials in Dhaka, they could be sent to the gallows this year.
As long as relations are what they are with the Saudis, Bangladesh must keep scrambling to find alternative venues for its migrant labourers. If Pakistan’s remittances should flourish in the meantime, then so much the better, as far as Saudi retribution is concerned.
Source: The Economist