Saudi Arabia has assured India that it would continue to encourage regulated flow of foreign workers, within the framework of its labour reforms that hope to contain the country’s “youth bulge” by generating employment for hundreds of thousands of Saudi nationals in the future.

Utilising a pre-lunch break in the marathon talks with Salman Khurshid — the visiting external affairs minister — Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal said at a joint press conference that forces of “demand and supply” should regulate the inflow of guest workers into the Kingdom. He insisted that in future, foreign employees must sign watertight contracts before entering the country, so that they are not “at the mercy” of their local employers.

Prince Saud’s observations feed into the controversy generated by the fall-out on foreign workers of the Nitaqat system, under which all private enterprises in the Kingdom must ensure that 10 per cent of their employees are Saudi nationals.

Learning from the experience of countries such as Egypt where youth discontent fuelled a revolt that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis have embarked on a massive employment drive to ensure that the off-shoot of the “Arab Spring” does not take root in the oil rich Kingdom.

The enforcement of Nitaqat system, however, has had several unintended consequences. It has pencilled the spotlight on the vagaries of an out-dated sponsorship system that has so far governed the inflow of foreign workers into the Kingdom, which has benefited from a sustained economic boom fuelled by high international energy prices.

At the media conference, Mr. Khurshid referred to the three month time-line given by the by Saudi authorities that would allow expatriates whose paper-work is incomplete “to correct their status or return to their country without penal action”.

Analysts point out that the three month grace period would not uniformly help all expatriates who are now being drawn into the firing line. “There are many who have been working legally but find themselves displaced as Saudi nationals enter the workforce. These individuals can find another job under a new sponsor before July and continue to stay,” said a diplomat.

However, difficulties compound for those who have been declared absconding or “Huroob” by their sponsors. These workers can leave the country, provided they possess valid residence permits, and are not embroiled in criminal cases. But finding another job can be a mirage, unless they can persuade their original sponsors to arm them with a no-objection letter. In the entire unfolding scenario, a minority of expatriates who have not only been abandoned by their sponsors, but are also without the possession of an Iqama or residence permit, are the worst hit as they are unable to leave unless new rules evolve in the Kingdom to address their concerns. So far 75,000 Indians have requested Emergency Certificates (ECs) from the Indian embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah that would allow them to leave, Indian officials said.

Despite the sporadic hiccups in the relationship, the two foreign ministers delivered a uniform message that the “strategic partnership” of the two countries, anchored by the 2006 visit to India by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and its reciprocation four years later by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would continue to be substantiated. Mr. Khurshid identified frontier areas of Information Technology, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, education, new and renewable energy as fresh avenues for engagement.

Differences on issues

However, the subtle and sometimes substantial differences in perception on major regional issues were also reflected in the utterances of the two ministers. In response to a question on Iran’s role in Bahrain and Syria, Prince Saud criticised Tehran for “fanning the flames” of regional conflict. In response to the same question, Mr. Khurshid counseled a less confrontationist approach, pointing out that “impediments to peace can be best addressed through dialogue”. Indian and Saudi positions also seemed to diverge significantly on Syria. Prince Saud made it clear that Riyadh firmly rejected any role for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in peace talks to end the conflict. Distancing itself from a prescriptive approach, India has adopted a position that the fate of Syria should be peacefully determined by the Syrian people themselves.

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