Saudi Arabia-born expats face an identity crisis
There are 8.4 million expatriates in Saudi Arabia. Of these, over two million are estimated to have been born in the country and spent all their lives here. According to Indian diplomats, 10 percent of the two million Indians living and working in the country were born here. When it comes to third-generation Indians, it is thought that there are around 30,000. If those figures were replicated across other expatriate communities, it would mean 820,000 Saudi-born expatriates living in the Kingdom. Of these, a quarter of a million would be third-generation expatriates. In fact, the number is probably higher. According to official figures, in 2009, over 14.4 percent of births in the Kingdom were registered to foreign parents.
More specifically, there are well over a million Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them born in the Kingdom. There are groups such as the stateless Burmese, now into their fourth and fifth generations, of whom there are more than 300,000. In addition to the Saudi-born Indians, there are large numbers of Saudi-born Pakistanis. Although there are half a million fewer Pakistanis than Indians, it is claimed that the percentage born in the Kingdom is over 30 percent.
Despite not being given Saudi nationality, these Saudi-born foreigners strongly feel they belong here. In the case of third generations expatriates, they have inherited the Saudi culture from parents also born in the Kingdom and themselves with a strong sense of being Saudi.
"It is a complicated situation. My son knows very well that both his father and mother were born in the Kingdom. He has no connections whatsoever with his original country and does not know anything about it other than the fact that his grandfather lived there for some time before coming to the Kingdom," Adel Abu Hassan, an Eritrean expatriate who has a son and a daughter, told Arab News.
He was worried about the future of his children and said he would not know what to say to them when they grow up. "Do I consider my children Saudis or foreigners? They were born here. So was I. I have no answer to this question," he said.
Abu Hassan said there was no chance his children would ever go back to Eritrea. "All connections with our ancestors’ country were severed. We belong to Saudi Arabia where we were born, raised, educated, married and had our children," he said, expressing fears that the problem will exacerbate as more generations are born in the Kingdom and still treated as foreigners.
Second and third-generation expatriates say the fact they are treated as non-Saudis may prevent them from finding jobs or being admitted to schools and universities. They are also upset at not being able to benefit from government services provided to its citizens.
Many Saudi-born foreigners complain that they are treated like expatriates who have just arrived in the country. They said this depresses them, adding that they belong to this country but are not nationals, nor are they given permanent iqamas (residence permits) that would allow them to live in peace and security without having to constantly worry about sponsorship rules.
Salim Marwan, a Syrian born in the Kingdom, says he has forgotten that he is from Syria. "My father came to this country more than 50 years ago. I am worried about my future and the future of my children who see themselves as Saudis and are no different from their Saudi counterparts in schools. Our sense of belonging to the Kingdom has been reflected in our dress, customs and dialect. We are citizens in every sense of the word except that we do not have citizenship," he said.
Marwan said his eldest son, who is 15 years old, has never been to Syria and that his life is attached to the system of iqama that has to be renewed every two years. "My son is not concerned about the difficulties we face every time we want to renew our iqama. He does not know any other home apart from the Kingdom. If he goes back to Syria he will feel like a complete alien. He will be different in terms of his dialect, customs and costumes. The Syrians will think he is a Saudi while the Saudis consider him a foreigner," he said.
Um Hussain, a Yemeni expatriate and a mother of three, said she fears for the future of her children who will always be considered foreigners. "My children were born in Jeddah, the same as myself and their father. They spent all their lives in this Red Sea coastal city and know nothing about Yemen but are still treated in schools as foreigners," she said.
Um Hussain, however, said she had no difficulty raising her children according to Saudi customs and traditions that are similar to those in Yemen. "Though we do not have anything to allow us to stay here permanently, the long years we spent here may help," she said.
Um Saeed, another Yemeni woman, has a different problem. She says she does not have enough money to renew her iqama every two years. "I was born in the Kingdom. My husband was also born in the Kingdom and so were my three daughters. My husband's monthly salary is only SR1,500 so we face financial problems every time we want to renew our iqamas. We have to borrow money from our friends and relatives," she said.
Um Saeed complained that sometimes they have to look for a new kafeel (sponsor). "I am not hoping for citizenship but I do wish that this system would be abolished," she said.
Dr. Muneera Turkistani, a sociologist, said the children of migrants are usually more loyal to the countries where they are born. "They love this country and consider themselves to be part of it but society does not accept them as Saudi citizens," she said. She added the difficulties they face in joining universities or finding jobs make them feel alienated and unwanted.
Turkistani’s observation was confirmed very effectively by Abdul Rahman Bashir, a 13-year-old boy playing football in the street. Asked about his nationality, he said he was Saudi, but his friends said: "He is not Saudi, he is Indian but he was born in Jeddah".
The boy’s rejoinder said a great deal. "I don't know what nationality means. I want to be Saudi, like my friends."
Many Palestinians on the other hand have remained committed to their nationality, hoping to return to their homeland in the future, even though the community is well into its fourth generation in the Kingdom.
Jihan Jamal is a Palestinian who was born in Jeddah where she now works as a reporter. She does not want to change her nationality and become a Saudi citizen. She hopes to return to Palestine “in the near future." But she admits that of the estimated one million Palestinians in the Kingdom, most were born in Saudi Arabia and “know nothing about their home.” She admits though that her case is an exception. “The majority of this community intends to obtain Saudi nationality, regardless of their right to return home," she explained.
In the case of many Indians and Pakistanis who were born and have lived all their lives in the Kingdom, there is not the same longing to return home. For them home is Saudi Arabia.
Anyone who sees Ali Abd Al-Raoof thinks he is Saudi not a Pakistani. Aged 30, he works in marketing, wears a thobe like a Saudi and speaks Arabic with a Saudi accent. "I was born in Jeddah,” he says, “ but I’m still an expatriate. One day, I hope I’ll get Saudi nationality. That will guarantee a good future for my sons."
By IBRAHIM NAFFEE