Cities in the Arabian Peninsula, from Dubai to Mecca, often elicit images of cosmopolitanism, utopianism, and ambitious urban mega-development schemes. In recent years, with increased global interest in labor politics and the oppressive labor regimes within the Gulf states, these same cities have also become notorious for their enclaved urban structures, which segregate spaces not simply along class lines but based on ethnicity and nationality. Yet the less affluent urban geographies inhabited by low-wage expatriate workers remain marginalized in most journalistic and academic discussions. Highlighting the plight of these workers, who have borne the brunt of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has never been more urgent. It reveals how spatial and social structures of marginalization are a threat to urban welfare in contemporary neoliberal societies. Taking the form of a longstanding systematic exclusion from civil rights and basic infrastructure, this marginalization undermined expatriates' right to the city and placed them in a particularly vulnerable position. As the home of the third-largest migrant population in the world, and ranking among the top fifteen countries in terms of COVID-19 Cases, Saudi Arabia presents a critical case study to understand these spatial politics and advocate for a post-pandemic urban policy based on sustainability and inclusion.
Geographies of Infection
The spatial fragmentation at the heart of most of the peninsula’s cities is rooted in the social structure that draws boundaries between the indigenous and the foreigner or “stranger.” The stranger here is the expatriate worker who occupies a variety of jobs, whether in the rare skilled professions such as in medicine and engineering or in the more common domestic service and menial labor whose role is instrumental to the very building and functioning of cities. Labeled as "guest workers," their encounters with city life revolve around their work experience, which is considered temporary and lacks prospects of citizenship within the countries they build. This temporariness, along with the sponsorship system (kafala) that governs it, are the main ingredients of their marginalized existence.
In Saudi Arabian cities, as in other neighboring ones, nationality and social status govern geographies and typologies of living following a specific structure: many locals reside in detached units within suburban-like neighborhoods; middle and low-income Saudis along with some skilled migrant professionals live in apartments and flats; and the rest of the low-skilled migrant workers live in various accommodation types scattered around the city. The dwellings of the latter group, who are often single men, are restricted to their work locations and provided by their sponsor employers. In most cases, they do not have the option of moving elsewhere without violating their work visa.
In the capital, Riyadh, migrants make up thirty-six percent of the city’s overall population. Low-skilled migrant workers occupy dwellings that range from designated camps on the city outskirt to rented shared units in mixed-use buildings along commercial corridors. The majority occupy cheap accommodations in the old city center within neighborhoods such as al-Dirah and al-Shemaysi, once vibrant commercial districts that declined as the city expanded to the north. These areas maintained a level of commercial activity for low-income residents along with affordable housing options for the most marginalized in the community, seventy-eight percent of whom are migrants.
Across the otherwise sprawling capital, accommodations for migrant workers were marked by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Where individual space in housing units across the country ranged between forty-two to sixty square meters per person, migrants had about four square meters per person, usually restricted to the area of their bunk bed. The barracks-style living facilities in particular became perfect breeding grounds for COVID-19. According to the Saudi Ministry of Health, around seventy percent of the infected cases in the country were registered among migrant groups during the first wave in March. As migrants’ accommodations became foci for the virus during the first surge of the pandemic, Saudi authorities announced them as “places of danger.” The pandemic has severely exacerbated the already poor conditions of low-wage migrant workers.
Neoliberalism, Crisis, and Political Inevitability
In light of the pandemic, the very nature of the contemporary global neoliberal social structure was shaken. Local governments worldwide were forced to assume the frontlines of containing and combating the viral outbreak and mitigating its economic detriments. This was a problem that could not be solved through "individual entrepreneurialism." New forms of politics, therefore, emerged that unprecedentedly increased the role of local authorities in civic affairs.
In Saudi Arabia, the situation was no different. Authorities had to make difficult decisions despite their severe economic consequences. In early March, as the first cases of infection were announced in the country, domestic and international travel were suspended. Authorities implemented lockdown measures that included a ban on gatherings and the closure of schools, businesses, and places of worship. Total and partial curfews were announced in all cities along with a system of stringent penalties in case of violation. This continued until June, when the authorities started gradually easing restrictions on economic activities. They also enhanced medical capacities by increasing the supply of workers and equipment, both within existing facilities and the recent pop-up clinics (Tetamman) for testing and triage, providing free care to everyone, including visa violators. The response also included the deployment of a number of digital platforms in various languages to raise awareness and deliver fact sheets, provide medical assessments, and manage movement permits during curfew. The efforts to combat the novel virus were a result of the mobilization of several state actors, including the Ministry of Health (MOH), Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Weqayah), and the General Commission for Survey, among others.
The first infection cases among migrant communities in the country were detected in six slums in Mecca. The authorities subsequently isolated the neighborhoods of al-Nakkasah and Ajyad, preventing entry or exit. Days later, the entire city was under full curfew. The Ministry of Health sent medical teams to these areas to conduct mass testing and provide medical care. Similar field testing took place in all infected areas in large cities, typically inhabited by a majority of migrant workers. As the crisis deepened, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) was deployed to address the outbreak among workers and, on 13 April, formed a committee to do so. The committee sought to temporarily house migrants in school buildings. Around 3,400 buildings were dedicated to this effort.
MOMRA Also passed several regulations for a set of design standards for migrant dwellings to ensure healthy living arrangements. These regulations mandated durable safe structures for housing workers with adequate space of twelve square meters per person, proper lighting and ventilation, adequate sanitation and dining facilities, and the widespread availability of hygienic products and protective equipment. MOMRA inspection teams gave employers forty-eight hours to rectify the situation and relocate their employees to prevent overcrowding. To facilitate the relocation, MOMRA created an online platform allowing residents to register vacant property available either for rent or donation. Thousands of properties were quickly identified and thousands of workers were relocated there. By late May, infection rates among migrants decreased by fifty percent. However, a second wave of infection began as a result of easing lockdown measures, with total cases in the country doubling shortly thereafter.
The sponsorship system, or kafala, which aimed to privatize the management of the migrant workforce to relieve authorities from such a responsibility, is one major cause of this health crisis. Under private sponsorship (either individual or institutional), and in the absence of regulations, workers were subjected to exploitative practices. The jail-like overcrowded living arrangements were one flagrant example. The kafala system restricts the movement of workers and does not permit them to change residence or employment without authorization from the sponsor, which prevented migrants from enhancing their living and working conditions. Deportation, or the threat thereof, is another tool that sponsors could deploy if they were to terminate employment contracts. The government, however, eased up these restrictions during the pandemic, thereby allowing legal migrants to accept other jobs. Nonetheless, on 22 April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered voluntary repatriation (awdah) through an online application that facilitated departure after obtaining approval from migrants' home countries. This welcome move nonetheless placed the financial burden on workers themselves, who largely had to pay for the trip. By mid-July, over 47,500 people were repatriated. Large-scale deportations of illegal migrants were also reported during the pandemic, despite government assurances. Jadwa Investment estimated that around 1.2 million foreign migrants will leave the country in 2020.
Such developments recall discussions of the social structure in Gulf cities, one that is based on the temporariness of expatriate workers and how it operates in times of adversity. Adam Hanieh argues that this spatial structuring of class has provided a "spatial fix" which enabled the "displacement of crisis" away from the Gulf to migrant-source countries. He uses the 2008 global financial crisis to demonstrate how Gulf states avoided much of the social consequences of unemployment when funding for real estate projects was suspended by expelling thousands of migrant workers. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the “displacement of crisis” functions again through the expulsion of expatriate workers, which became a legal mechanism to transfer health and economic burdens to other countries.
The displacement of crisis took another form too. Saudi authorities attempted to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 by passing several stimulus packages to safeguard private enterprises that had suffered financially as a result of the pandemic. The packages, however, only benefited national citizens who applied for assistance, altogether excluding expatriate workers who made up around eighty percent of employees in the private sector. These faced greater precarity and were left with few real options: unpaid leave, changing employment, or returning to their country of origin. The authorities defended these measures as continuations of the labor nationalization policies, known as Saudization, that started decades ago to replace foreign workers with Saudi nationals through a set of incentives for private enterprises. However, unpaid leave and job losses posed financial challenges for many low-income workers as well as some vulnerable Saudi communities. To assist both groups, the Ministry of Human Recourses and Social Development established a fund with twenty-five million SR in April. Partnering with several charities, the fund established the "our food is one" initiative to provide food baskets for those in need. It is unclear though if a wide range of low-income workers have benefited from such initiatives.
Saudi authorities’ marginalization of low-wage expatriate workers has led to the long disregard for their dismal living conditions. The authorities only intervened, as they did during the pandemic, when these workers posed a threat to the health of the “nation.” The ability to devise and enact housing regulations on such short notice, and during times of social and economic duress, only amplifies the fact that the decision not to do so in the past was a political one. Also, as migrant workers continue to bear the majority of the economic burden of the crisis, their financial security and overall wellbeing remains jeopardized. Unsurprisingly, state interventions were increased only to the necessary extent of protecting public health while shifting a great deal of risk to individual migrants who are treated as a national security threat that should be removed. This highlights how neoliberalism operates in migrant-destination countries and how it contributes to systematic structures of injustice.
A Trajectory for Reform?
The COVID-19 crisis highlighted where many cities went wrong, with most early responses calling for a capacity increase of healthcare infrastructure, including hospitals, testing, and tracing capacities. These calls were detached from health conditions in the urban environment and the underlying socio-economic inequalities which determined geographies of infection. Instead, sustainable housing infrastructures should be seen as the main defense mechanism against infectious diseases, forming the cornerstone of urban welfare. The pandemic has shown that the commodification of housing has especially hindered sustainable city-building initiatives. Adequate housing was recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and it was at the center of the New Urban Agenda announced during Habitat III in 2015.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the commitment toward sustainable development was announced in 2014 through the Future Saudi Cities Program (FSCP), which aimed to align with the UN New Urban Agenda's call for the creation of inclusive and prosperous cities. The FSCP deployed different indices to determine prosperity levels in Saudi cities, including a social inclusion index. Yet, expatriate workers are not part of this index and are mentioned as mere numbers in demographic data. For a city to be truly inclusive, all social groups must be presented. To this end, reconciling concepts of temporariness and sustainable livelihoods based on the right to the city should be explored.
The post-pandemic Saudi city should place social equity at the center of urban living, paying more attention to those on the margins whose suffering was foregrounded by the COVID-19 crisis. A recent report by Amnesty International declares that "COVID-19 makes Gulf countries’ abuse of migrant workers impossible to ignore," pointing out that the pandemic poses an opportunity for reforms that entail all aspects of expatriate workers’ lives. Such reforms should consider adequate living conditions, fair pay, health care, and rights of domestic workers, among others.
While the recent housing regulations issued by the Saudi authorities is a step in the right direction, some concerns can be raised as a result of these regulations being labeled as pandemic precautions. Such regulations should be a permanent practice providing the needed safety net to protect low-wage expatriate workers’ rights for adequate living conditions and should not be viewed as a crisis pop-up solution. Furthermore, the fact that many foreign workers will be in precarious conditions as long as they remain excluded from governmental financial support calls for immediate action to ensure the protection of their livelihoods in the long term.
Disasters and global pandemics cause destruction and suffering, but they also present opportunities for change. The encounter with COVID-19 has revealed that sustainable political choices need to be made to challenge the old economic, environmental, and social models of city governance that are contributing to the creation of various inequalities and vulnerabilities that threaten urban welfare. This could be the wakeup call that cities need to initiate positive change that leaves no one behind.