Education in Saudi – the crippling Kafalah system

July 20, 2012 9:36 am0 commentsViews: 23

Education & employee’s rights are both areas negatively affected by the KSA’s Kafalah system, writes Arman Osmany.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has seen a rise in its youth as demonstrated by the median age of its population at 25. Initiatives have therefore been pursued by King Abdullah to invest further into education, as demonstrated by the 2012 budget for King Saud University, the largest Higher Education institute in the Kingdom. The sum of the budget is estimated at 8.625 billion SAR, the equivalent of 2.3 billion USD. Although such schemes have taken place, the Kingdom still must deal with its unemployed male youth population (15-24), which is at 23.8%. It is no secret that the abundance of wealth has always played a role in developing the country’s institutions, yet why is it that the Kingdom does not produce skilled national workers in its market? The answer can be determined by two entwined factors; the system of the economy and the attitude in which it breeds.

The economy of Saudi Arabia is largely dependent on its expatriate workforce. The higher-skilled work force is mainly comprised of expatriates from other Arab countries (such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria) or from Western countries (primarily America and the United Kingdom) and the lower-skilled work force tends to be primarily from Asian countries (such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc). Furthermore, workers of all spectrums are bound by the system of Kafalah, or sponsorship.

Kafalah is a system whereby a Saudi national employer acts as a sponsor for their employee granting them permission to work; it also means that the sponsor is in control of when the employee leaves the country as the sponsor is the person responsible for issuing an exit visa from the country and is also responsible for permitting the employee temporary residence. No company in the Kingdom can run without a sponsor and no employee is allowed to work with a company unless approved by the sponsor. This has been cause for human rights abuse towards foreign labourers and has led to numerous cases of ill treatment; workers are held in the country without a chance to leave and are trapped to work under any conditions the company may stipulate. Such is the case of Indonesian maid, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustap, who was viciously beaten to near death by her Saudi mistress, as well as the case of Kusuma Nandina, who spent 17 years of her life as a maid without pay in the Kingdom.

In addition to the aforementioned, the Kafalah system creates an attitude of indifference towards work. Strong work ethics are abased due to numerous aspects of Saudi work culture. A major reason for this is the fact that the head of a company is always a Saudi national, regardless of whether he is qualified or not. Foreigners are not allowed to enter the country without a sponsor; similarly, one cannot setup a business except with a sponsor. The sponsor effectively gains control of the business and has no obligation to invest in it either, but reaps all the profits acting as the head of the company.

This in turn allows unskilled individuals to become partners in a business due to the hereditary Kafalah system. The system itself diminishes the need for skilled workers as the head of a company must be a Saudi and the position is then inherited to the relatives of that Saudi sponsor. Therefore, businesses become dynasties and in turn the family attain a steady income through its revenue by sheer fact that they are the sponsors of the company in question.

The consequence of the Kafalah system is that it raises a culture of work whereby meritocracy is traded in favour of nepotism. Foreign labour is utilised to fill the gap in the national workforce and these same labourers are subject to laws which devalue their worth as human beings; the kind of relationship they engage in is that of a slave and master, as is demonstrated by the numerous cases of domestic worker abuse. Furthermore, skills and qualifications are highly undervalued because income is available to Saudi nationals purely on the fact that they are Saudi nationals. The concept of running a business becomes a simple equation for most; all one needs to do is find a partner and then propose to sponsor the said partner.

Human right groups have been constantly pressuring the kingdom to abolish the system of Kafalah due to its notorious reputation in abusing the rights of its foreign work force. Recent talks have begun proposing a removal of the system in order to counter these injustices perpetrated by the many that are all too willing to abuse their power.

The investments made into the institution of education are admirable, but the key drive in ensuring development and securing the future of the Kingdom lies in the rectification of employer-employee relations and how the economy operates. Unless the system of ethno-patronage is replaced by meritocracy, the value of education will never be truly recognised and the Saudi government will continue to face the huge problem of developing a nation of skilled and educated workers.

Arman Osmany