Saudi Arabia's ban on Umra Visa for Pakistanis under age 40
The News, June 24, 2006
Saudi ban on umra visa
As expected, the government of Saudi Arabia has refused to lift the ban on Pakistanis below the age of 40 years from performing umra. It was futile on the part of federal religious affairs minister Mohammad Ejazul Haq to visit Riyadh to try and make the Saudis change their mind on the issue. The Saudis formulate their policies after much thinking and in line with their national interest and decisions once taken are rarely changed.
Back home, Ejazul Haq sounded defensive when he told reporters that the ban would stay because the Saudi government had complained that over 100,000 Pakistanis had overstayed in Saudi Arabia after reaching there on the pretext of performing umra. Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, he had expressed concern over the Pakistan-specific umra restriction and had promised to take up the matter with the Saudi authorities. One could understand that he was on a weak wicket and could only request the Saudis to reverse or relax the ban on under-40 Pakistani citizens wishing to perform umra. It was up to the Saudi government to grant his request and it chose not to do so.
From all indications, it is clear that the Saudi government imposed the ban without consulting Pakistan. Islamabad has an unequal relationship with Riyadh and the Saudi government has repeatedly come to Pakistan's rescue by offering it oil free or on subsidized rates and providing financial assistance to it in times of need. The change in the umra policy means that it would now be the responsibility of the Pakistan government to enforce the ban at its end and stop its citizens below 40 from travelling to Saudi Arabia for performing umra. Those able to reach Saudi Arabia in violation of the ban will be deported and, in the process, earn a bad name for Pakistan.
It is safe to presume that the Saudis tolerated the arrival of young Pakistanis wanting to perform umra and then overstaying in the hope of finding gainful employment as long as the problem was manageable. There surely is a great demand for cheap manpower in Saudi Arabia and Pakistani workers, along with their South Asian counterparts from India and Bangladesh, continue to form bulk of the labour required to run the oil-rich kingdom's industrial, construction, services, farm and other sectors. The Saudis looked the other way as planeloads of Pakistanis flew to Jeddah for the onward road journey to Makkah to perform the obligatory umra before vanishing and getting absorbed into local labour-intensive workplaces. Saudi employers needed more and more working hands to man their businesses and farms and the ruling royal family was responsive to their needs. One way to appease the Saudi entrepreneurs was to let umra visitors from Pakistan and elsewhere stay back and work for them for comparatively lesser wages.
However, the Saudi government had to act when the problem appeared to be getting out of control. Earlier, half-hearted measures were taken to streamline the procedure for issuing umra visas. Intending immigrants and overseas employment agents found ways to beat the law. It didn't require much intelligence to figure out that young men of humble origin weren't exactly going to Saudi Arabia to perform umra. They simply lacked the resources to pay for the costly return air ticket to Saudi Arabia and arrange for their stay and other expenses in Makkah while performing umra. It was obvious that these young Pakistanis, mostly villagers who had never been on a plane before, were using Umra as a pretext to gain entry into Saudi Arabia hoping to find work with help from friends, relatives and co-villagers already working there.
During a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, one had the chance to talk to some of the young Pakistanis who arrived on umra visas and then stayed back to work illegally in the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. They said there was no problem in finding work even after the Saudi government's announcement that Saudis offering jobs to overstaying Pakistanis would be punished. There was so much work to do that the Saudis, or contractors from other countries, had little recourse than to hire illegal workers to complete projects within the prescribed time. Though they remain fearful of the Saudi "shurta" (cop) because many illegally staying Pakistanis have been arrested from workplaces and homes during regular police raids, the Pakistani workers are hopeful that economic compulsions and pressure from Saudi employers would force the government to continue to tolerate illegal labourers. Having spent a small fortune to reach Saudi Arabia, these hardworking Pakistanis are willing to do any work in extremely hot weather without being adequately compensated. They even take in their stride the abuses that young, spoilt Saudi boys increasingly hurl at them on the street. Returning home empty-handed after investing so much on their Saudi misadventure would put them under the burden of credit and destroy the hopes nurtured by their poor families.
The umra ban on Pakistanis under the age of forty has devastated families that were hoping to pool resources to send their young males to Saudi Arabia to earn a decent livelihood. It was a convenient and, in some cases, affordable way to buy one's entry into Saudi Arabia and find work. The Pakistan government, as usual, has failed to protect the interest of its citizens. There is no doubt that many Pakistanis were misusing the umra facility and working illegally in Saudi Arabia, but they were not a burden on the booming Saudi economy. In fact, they have been contributing to the economy and meeting the need for manpower in important sectors. It was simply a question of demand and supply and was tolerated as long as it suited Saudi needs. Now that the Saudi government has embarked on a process of Saudization of the workforce and is also able to legally get even cheaper manpower from Bangladesh, India, Thailand and some other Asian and African countries, it opted to ban umra visas for Pakistanis below the age of forty.
Pakistan will suffer adverse consequences of the new Saudi policy on umra visas. Unemployed men unable to find jobs in Saudi Arabia would stay at home and contribute to the growing number of the jobless. The country already has a large number of unemployed and underemployed men and women, though successive governments continue to come up with hilarious official figures showing an unbelievably low unemployment percentage. Workers from other countries, particularly Bangladesh, would take up the new jobs on offer in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan's impressive foreign exchange earnings, which are frequently highlighted by the present government as one of its major achievements, but which we owe to the tireless efforts of our diaspora, would also be affected.
Overseas Pakistanis, spread all over the world, made it to countries in the West, Middle East or Far East entirely on their own without any tangible support from the government. It has been a brave and risky effort and no words would be enough to praise the Pakistanis who succeeded against all odds to find work and prosperity in those faraway and alien lands. Many of them made it to the Gulf countries by boarding rickety motorboats that navigated the high seas; others entered Europe by walking across dangerous borders. Some of them used clever methods to outsmart immigration officials at major entry-points in the West and elsewhere in a bid to gain access to menial jobs shunned by locals. Those who died, got arrested, or lost their life savings while endeavouring to flee poverty and unemployment at home were quickly forgotten and never compensated. Pakistan has always been an uncaring state, unwilling to look after its own. It is time Islamabad gave the overseas Pakistanis their due and made concerted efforts to help them in times of need. Resolving the umra issue is one such occasion that calls for intervention from the highest authority in Pakistan.
The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org