In November 2013, thousands of street cleaners in Mecca went on strike. The move was triggered by South Asian workers, primarily, complaining that intense police harassment was accompanying an immigration crackdown.
After five days, the strike ended, when many of the workers’ residencies and contracts were renewed. Cleaners had previously gone on strike in 2012, in order to protest a delay in salary payments, and successfully obtained their earned wages.
Near the end of the November action, five cleaning companies announced a change to their hiring policies, where they would move “toward non-dependence on a particular nationality to avoid problems that might occur in the future.” The stated justification of this change was to “prevent them from going on strikes.” Points for honesty. It is not surprising that the cleaning companies would seek to diversify their hired staff, despite the Saudi government pushing them to implement a program of “Saudisation.”
Saudisation itself is misguided. It ignores that a large part of the problem is that abusing migrant labourers is built into the Persian Gulf’s social fabric. It will take more than simply hiring more locals to overcome that reality, and the resistance from these cleaning companies is not surprising.
It is more intriguing that the Saudis decided to avoid hiring too many staff members from one nationality. Clearly, they understand that it is more difficult to pacify their workers if they are able to come together through shared grounding. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Severing bonds of language and culture, in order to inhibit organizing, is not exactly an original formula. But, of course, it still works, particularly in circumstances so dependent on migrant labor as that which exists in the Persian Gulf monarchies.
Many of the street cleaners that protested in Mecca were not just South Asian. They were Bangladeshi, which meant that, coming from one country, largely, they had more in common than if they hailed from more diverse national backgrounds. This is where cultural homogeneity worked on their behalf. It was was crucial to building the kind of solidarity that is necessary to plan, execute, and survive a prolonged strike. The cleaning companies recognized this, and sought to undermine it by hiring non-Bangladeshi employees.
However, there is a massive problem with such a strategy. Diversifying the nationalities of these workers may dilute certain tools for building community, but it also causes more emphasis to be placed on other ones. These workers are predominantly from Muslim countries, and in absence of other vehicles for expressing their distress, Islam will likely become the obvious rallying call for a purposefully fragmented labour force. After all, it is their strongest tool for solidarity, and the religion is already on many of their minds given that the context is Mecca.
The danger is that as Saudisation continues to evolve, and Saudi Arabia continues to crush politically threatening movements that could potentially capture migrant distress, we will come to see militant, right-wing readings of Islam being used to unite workers in their hatred of both management, and the system that is responsible for their difficulties. There is a possibility that alternative movements, particularly Islamist ones, will get off the ground and challenge even the religious legitimacy of the Royal Family. ISIS knows this.
In the short term, this is unlikely, given that the Saudi government crushes all of these movements rather quickly. Still, this will have long term consequences in Saudi Arabia, as well as the countries to which these workers may be deported, where they will be affected by unemployment, resource instability, and anger. Saudi Arabia might be able to stall them for the moment. However, eventually, they will resurface as extremist threats, whether in Saudi Arabia itself, or their home countries. The former is most unsettling. Given the resources, and armaments, amassed by the Gulf states, and recent gains made by groups like Islamic State, the wider ideological fallout of labour crackdowns is too dangerous to ignore.