The Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia, both legally and illegally, are upset because of the labour ministry’s new law requiring the foreigners to work with their sponsors on jobs mentioned on their visas, or they will have to leave the kingdom by July 3 (today).

(However, according to a latest report, the Saudi authorities have given foreign workers another four months to obtain legal status).

Apparently, there is no reason for the Pakistanis to worry as every country will want its laws respected. But the problem is that a large number of Pakistanis are living in the kingdom illegally. Many of them went on Umra or Haj visas but then chose to stay there.

The writer met with many Pakistanis both in Madina and Makkah who were involved in begging, which has become a ‘business’ for those in search of easy money.

A number of Saudis are making money by sponsoring foreign workers to the oil-rich monarchy. They sell visas to job seekers. And once they reach the kingdom, they are not given jobs but are told to find sources of livelihood anywhere they like. For this ‘independence’ they are required to pay a fixed monthly amount to such sponsors, or kafeels. This has become a business in Saudi Arabia. Any sponsor can bring to the kingdom workers from abroad and then ‘extort’ money from them till they are there.

Such foreign workers come under heavy burden as they not only have to earn for themselves but also for the sponsors. They have also to pay fee to the government for iqama, or residence permit.

The reliance on foreign workers has rendered a large number of locals jobless. At present the unemployment rate is estimated at 12 per cent.

To give jobs to the locals, the Saudi government has introduced a new policy called Saudisation. A job is allowed to a foreign worker only if a capable and qualified Saudi is not available.

But the kafeels are continuing their business of keeping foreign workers.

Under the new Saudi law, the kafeels are required to provide jobs to those they have sponsored, or send them back to their respective countries. And the foreigners cannot do any other work except the ones they had been brought for to the kingdom.

A Pakistani told the writer that he cannot afford to work according to the dictates of his kafeel because he can ask him to do any menial job.

A large number of foreign workers have already gone back to their countries and the remaining will chalk out their future course of action in the light of the unfolding situation. According to a report, some two million people were staying illegally in the kingdom, of which 1.2 million have already left.

The number of Pakistanis staying illegally in the kingdom was stated to be 50,000.

There were calls that the PML-N government use its influence and ask the Saudi authorities that the illegal workers should not be asked to leave. There is, however, no indication whether there is any progress on this front.

The writer met with a group of Pakistanis in Madina who had been sent by agents in South Punjab and Sindh but had no work to do. They beg near some food points close to the Masjid-i-Nabvi and spend the nights at the same place. They were Gul Muhammad, Azad Bukhsh, Ghulam Shabbir and Rab Nawaz. One of them said that Noor Muhammad of Dera Ghazi Khan had sent them to the kingdom, but after that he had been out of contact with them.

Many Pakistanis tell anyone they meet that they have lost their passports and money and need help to be able to go back home. These are usually false stories aimed at making money without any work. They have no plans to come back.

Pakistani beggars are also seen in large numbers outside Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah. At times one gets an impression as if the holy city is under attack from beggars.

In case the Pakistan government failed to take action against such people – and their sponsors – the country’s image, already tarnished at the international level because of the unabated terrorist activities, will be further dented. The presence of these beggars in such large numbers will portray a nuclear Pakistan as a country of beggars.

WASTING FOREIGN EXCHANGE: Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis perform Haj and Umra every year, but most of them also waste foreign exchange needed back at home by buying those items from the kingdom which are available in abundance in Pakistan, or even the ones which were imported from the Islamic Republic. Cloth, watches, perfumes, shoes, toys, briefcases and electronic goods are among the most favourite items for Pakistanis.

If the government disallows the Haj and Umra pilgrims to purchase anything which is available at home, huge amounts of foreign exchange can be saved. Such a step will also enable the pilgrims to devote more time to worship, the actual purpose of journey.

Zam Zam and dates are the best gifts from the kingdom and everyone should be allowed to purchase according to his/her requirements.

Another step that can help save the Pakistan government enough foreign exchange is the judicious use of the Pakistan Houses in Madina and Makkah.

Pakistan House provides accommodation to the pilgrims or no-profit and no-loss basis. Here, the accommodation is much better – and cheaper – compared to hotels in the market. A better quality food is also available under the same roof.

At present, there are two Pakistan Houses in Madina and one in Makkah. But they are away from Masjid-i-Nabvi and Masjid Al-Haram, because of which a lot of time is consumed in travel from and to the holy places. People who want to spend more time in these mosques don’t like to waste even a single minute in travelling.

If the government sets up Pakistan Houses near these mosques and runs them on commercial basis, many people will prefer to stay there – and pay to their own government. This will be in the interest of the country as well as the pilgrims.

Needless to point out that at present Pakistan has about $7 billion in foreign exchange, not sufficient for two months’ imports. It is for this reason that the PML-N government is holding talks with the IMF for a $5 billion package.