The Neom website tells us that “Neom will include towns and cities, ports and enterprise zones, research centers, sports and entertainment venues, and tourist destinations. It will be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world.”
Millions of foreign workers already labour in Saudi Arabia. They work as domestic servants to the rich and construct the famously spectacular modern skylines of Saudi cities.
Neom promises hundreds of hotels, a host of new cities, sports stadia, entertainment complexes and beach resorts. It promises to develop a region of Saudi Arabia more than 30 times the size of New York City.
These will mostly be built by migrant labourers. And in Saudi Arabia, they have some of the worst rights in the world.
Central to the kingdom’s approach to migrant labour is the kafala system, a means by which workers are allocated their visas. The kafala system in Saudi Arabia has been likened to modern day slavery by human rights organisations.
Migrant labourers need written permission from their employers to change jobs and even to leave the country. If they are mistreated, as they often are, there is little they can do to escape their hardship. Bosses are often known to withhold their workers’ passports and wages, forcing their employees to continue working often gruelling shifts. If those workers decide to leave anyway, they face deportation or imprisonment.
The impact of these laws have been horrific. Between November 2017 and September 2019 alone, Saudi authorities ran a campaign to arrest migrant labourers who had violated the terms of their employment, such as being found to work for employers other than their visa sponsor.
A total of 3.8 million arrests were made. According to Human RIghts Watch, 962,000 people were referred for deportation. Among them were 260,000 Ethiopians out of a total of 500,000 – meaning an average of 10,000 were deported each month.
Many of the workers who were deported recalled that before being expelled from the country they were detained with inadequate food and water, and regularly abused by guards.
Migrant domestic workers are also key to the Saudi economy, with some 200,000 thought to work in the country, most of them women. There are countless reports of the hardships faced by these women, who often endure violence, sexual assaults, overwork, starvation and forced isolation. Little is done by the state to protect such workers, and they are more often than not ignored.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to international refugee conventions, meaning that there is no hesitation in the expulsion of workers to their home countries, even if they risk persecution on their return. This includes those coming from countries such as Yemen, which has been torn apart through a war led mainly by Saudi Arabia itself, and Syria.
And of course, Saudi Arabia has no independent trade unions, and human rights monitors are banned, meaning some of the most vulnerable workers in the world often have no way of receiving help if they are abused or exploited.
No doubt Neom will treat foreign workers with large wallets from the western world very different to those from countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal and India. The idea of Neom being a paradise for a global workforce does not apply to them.