Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared
Almost exactly a year after Salman bin Albdulaziz Al Saud, king of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and head of the House of Saud, hurriedly left his millionaire’s mansion near Cannes with his 1,000 servants to continue his vacation in Morocco, the kingdom’s cash is not flowing so smoothly for the tens of thousands of sub-continental expatriates sweating away on his great building sites.
Almost unreported outside the Kingdom, the country’s big construction magnates – including that of the Binladen group – have not been paid by the Saudi government for major construction projects and a portion of the army of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and other workers have received no wages, some of them for up to seven months.
Indian and Pakistani embassies approached the Saudi government, pleading that their workers should be paid. Economists who adopt the same lickspittle attitude towards the Saudi monarchy as the British Government, constantly point out that the authorities have been overwhelmed by the collapse of oil prices. They usually prefer not to mention something at which the rest of the world remains aghast: deputy crown prince and defence minister Mohamed bin Salman’s wasteful and hopeless war in Yemen. Since the king’s favourite son launched this preposterous campaign against the Houthis last year, supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni president against Shia Muslim rebels, aircraft flown by Saudi and Emirati pilots (aided by British technical “experts” on the ground) have bombed even more hospitals, clinics and medical warehouses than America has destroyed in Serbia and Afghanistan combined since 1999.
The result? A country with 16 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, whose Aramco oil company makes more than $1bn a day and now records a budget deficit of $100bn, cannot pay its bills. At first, the Yemen fiasco was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, which – once it proved the longest and least decisive Arab “storm” in the Middle East’s recent history – was changed to “Operation Restore Hope”. And the bombing went on, just as it did in the pre-“hope” “storm”, along with the help of the UK’s “experts”. No wonder the very same deputy crown prince Mohamed announced this year that state spending on salaries would be lowered, yet individual earnings would rise.
In Pakistan, whose soldiers make up a large number of the “Saudi” armed forces, there has been outrage, parliamentarians are asking why three Saudi companies have not paid salaries for eight months, refusing even to provide food for their employees. In some cases, the Pakistanis have paid their own nationals for food supplies.
In Saudi Arabia itself, the government seems unable to cope with the crisis. The Arab News says that 31,000 Saudi and other foreign workers have lodged complaints with the government’s labour ministry over unpaid wages. On one occasion, the Indian consulate and local Indian expatriates brought food to the workers so that their people should not starve. The overall figure that the government owes the construction companies owed may be billions of dollars.
Overtly xenophobic comments have emerged in the Saudi press. Writing in the Saudi Gazette, Abdulrtahman Saad Al-Araabi said: “Many expats hate us and are angry because we are a rich country. Some of them go so far as to say that we, Saudis, do not deserve these blessings and the money we have. That is the reason why some of them become violent when they do not get paid on time.”
Well, I suppose some people are paying a lot of cash to the Jabhat al-Nusra (recently re-named Jabhat Fateh al-Shamal-Nusrah) or Al-Qaeda or Isis lads out there in the line of fire in Syria.
Embassy staff from the Philippines, France and many countries in the Middle East, have raised the problems with the Saudi government. Typical of their responses has been that of Saudi Oger which said it had been “affected by current circumstances [sic] which resulted in some delays in delays in fulfilling our commitments to our employees”.
The Saudi government insisted the company paid its employees. Many of them, it should be added, are Lebanese whose Sunni Muslims come from the Sunni areas of Lebanon who traditionally vote for the Sunni leader’s son Saad.
An official of the company made the extraordinary statement that “the company’s situation is unstable due to the scrapping [sic] of many of its projects it was to execute,” Meanwhile, workers at United Seemac construction company are complaining they have not been paid for months – or even granted permission to leave the country. Some had apparently not been paid for more than a year and a half. Unlike the big companies such as Binladen and Oger, these men – and they are indeed mostly men – are consumed into the smaller employees. “All the attention is on the big companies – it’s easy to ignore us because we are not so many people.”
All in all, a dodgy scenario in our beloved monarchy-dictatorship, whose war against the Shia Houthis – and the Shia Hezbollah, the Shia/Alawite regime in Damascus and Iran – is unending. Wasn’t there an equally dodgy Al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis a few years ago? No cash flow problems then. And what does “yamamah” mean in Arabic? “Dove”? Let us go no further.