The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is not one pilgrims or foreign tourists normally visit. Set against the Persian Gulf, it is the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry. Unsurprisingly, it is also home to most of its migrant workers whose labour populates this sector.
Other than migrant workers, mostly Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan or from one or another poor labour-exporting nation, the Eastern Province is also home to the majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shia population. Perhaps because of this diverse mix, the province has also been the place where the government has chosen to launch a programme called ‘Ehna al-Ahl’ or ‘We are one family’. According to an article in the Saudi Gazette, this programme, which organises performances in the region’s malls and arranges for the distribution of brochures, is meant to enhance national cohesion and denounce extremism and divisions. The programme is supposed to last throughout the month of Ramazan.
It can be safely assumed, however, that the Pakistanis labouring in the Eastern Province are not part of the ‘one family’ whose cohesion and lack of division is a priority for the kingdom. Among them is Mohammad Ilyas who works as the head of budgeting and finance at a multinational steel company. For several months now, Mr Ilyas has been trying to obtain an exit permit that would enable him to visit Pakistan. As some may remember, a confusing directive by the Saudi government several months ago stated that Pakistani workers living in Saudi Arabia would only be permitted to visit Pakistan once every year. A few weeks later, however, the Saudi government said that the directive had been withdrawn and that Pakistani workers could go back home for visits multiple times as they did in previous years.
The issue of Pakistani workers trapped in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region deserves the urgent attention of both Islamabad and Riyadh.
The renewed permission to leave more than once seems only to apply to Pakistanis in certain parts of the kingdom. In the Eastern Province, which includes the areas of Jubail and Dammam, however, things are far more complicated. As per the kingdom’s latest requirements, workers must apply for the entry/exit permit through the computerised system known as muqeem. However, when Mohammad Ilyas and others in the Eastern Province use it to apply for the permit, the system gives them an error message and asks them to visit the passport office in Jubail in person.
Both Mr Ilyas and his company representative have visited the passport office numerous times. When Mr Ilyas did so, the people at the passport office told him that he was only permitted to visit Pakistan once a year and that if he could not obtain a permit online, he simply could not go home. To add to the humiliation of denied workers like Mr Ilyas, colleagues of different nationalities, including Indians, have no problem obtaining the multiple exit/re-entry permit via the system and can visit home as many times as they wish.
Nor is Mohammad Ilyas alone in this predicament. According to the online forum Life in Saudi Arabia, where numerous overseas Pakistani workers share their issues, many other Pakistanis in the Eastern Province are similarly being denied exit permits to go home. Saudi officials at the passport office either tell them that they must try again online or simply state that no permit will be issued at the office itself. In other cases they are told that they have already visited Pakistan more than once this year and are hence not eligible for an exit permit.
On May 5, the embassy of Pakistan in Riyadh took note of the problem. The press release posted on the embassy’s website says: “The embassy of Pakistan, Riyadh is aware of the fact that some of our nationals face difficulty in obtaining multiple exit/re-entry visa from the passport offices of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The embassy is in constant contact with the concerned authorities to resolve the matter.” In a previous communication issued on April 16, the embassy has stated that it had brought up the issue in writing and in person with the Saudi authorities concerned and was trying its level best to handle the situation.
It is now June 15 and Mohammad Ilyas (who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for the past 10 years) and many other Pakistani workers in the Eastern Province continue to be without exit/re-entry permits and are hence unable to leave the kingdom. It is true that the embassy of Pakistan has many issues on its hands. Some weeks ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that over 2,000 Pakistanis are languishing in Saudi jails on various charges. The Pakistani embassy is the only recourse for all of these accused. Add to this the demands of the upcoming Haj season and the ever larger number of pilgrims that wish to travel to Makkah, and you have a small consular staff beset with large problems.
Even so, the issue of Pakistani workers trapped in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region is one deserving the urgent attention of both governments. At the Saudi end, the kingdom’s commitment to the principles of justice and fair treatment, particularly in this, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, means that they should not entrap Pakistani workers in a situation that is akin to enslavement.
At the Pakistani end, some honest answers must be demanded on the discrepancy between the ‘official’ statements given by the Saudi government’s representatives (ones that state that no restriction exists on the multiple exit/re-entry of Pakistani workers) and the reality via which Pakistani workers are being denied exit.
It is Ramazan now and soon it will be Eid. Pakistan’s workers — forced abroad because of the scant sources of employment at home — should not be permitted to become pawns of a Saudi government that seems to care little about whether or not they can be with their families for the holiday. Workers, it must be remembered, are not slaves chained to their place of employment and must be accorded the very basic right to leave and return.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2016