The immigration of Ethiopians to Saudi Arabia can be traced to the advent of Islam and the pursuit of business opportunities. Saudi Arabia in particular has been attractive to Ethiopians for various historical reasons: the early Arab Muslims from Hejaz, today’s Makkah and its surrounding areas, were directed by the prophet of Islam Mohammed to go and seek refuge in Abyssinia which is regarded by many scholars as today’s Ethiopia. The Muslim Arabs first arrived in the Aksumite Empire, where Ashama ibn Abjar, a “Christian ruler received and allowed them to settle in Negash, a village in the region of Tagray”. It can be argued therefore that to some Ethiopians, the historical relations with Hejaz played a role in their decisions to go to Saudi Arabia.Besides the socioeconomic overhaul which this paper will discuss in the following paragraphs, there is another reason why there has been a crackdown on Ethiopian undocumented immigrants in Saudi Arabia, namely a backlash on the political position of Ethiopia in the ongoing Gulf crisis. When the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt led a blockade against the state of Qatar, there was a push by these countries on the African countries to join the blockade. Some of the African countries succumbed to the pressure but most did not including Ethiopia. According to Sheik Mohammed bin Abdurrahman, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, “the four countries mobilised all of their officials on the continent at the beginning of the blockade to pressure African states to adopt the same measures as them”.
Furthermore, while many Ethiopians were welcomed to Saudi Arabia when the economy of the country was booming, over the years things have changed as the economy has begun to slow down. Saudi has benefited from immigrants from poor countries particularly Ethiopia over decades. Hundreds of Ethiopians flocked to Saudi Arabia to contribute to its economy and for a better life. However, the saturation of African and Asian migrant labor and the failing economy has seen a change in attitudes towards immigrants. Moreover, the changes in Saudi Arabia’s laws regarding women’s participation in the economy and granting them permission to drive have also negatively impacted on the fate of immigrants who work mainly as drivers and domestic workers in the country. According to The New York Times, “Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom”.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has instituted several sociopolitical and economic changes in Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced that it has adopted a new socioeconomic strategy, the Saudi Vision 2030. This ambitious strategy aims at overhauling the Saudi economy and society in general by privatizing most of its public companies including Aramco, Saudi Arabia biggest company. It also undertook to invest in public and social infrastructure including tourism and development of human capital. The emphasis is to encourage economic participation of Saudis, both men and women, in all sectors of the economy. There has been a thriving parallel informal economy in Saudi Arabia which has utilised the services of illegal and undocumented labor. The government of bin Salman is looking at streamlining the economy by eradicating economic loopholes including “the exploitation of undocumented immigrants”. In March 2017, Saudi Arabia ordered all undocumented Ethiopian migrants to leave voluntarily. The majority of the migrants chose to remain and are now facing forced deportation. Since then, “70,000 illegal Ethiopian migrants have been expelled from the Gulf kingdom as the country seeks to reduce its reliance on millions of migrant laborers”. According to Human Rights Watch, the process of deportation has been awash with violations of human rights. Many of those arrested are reportedly beaten and kept at inhumane facilities around Saudi Arabia. Life in Saudi Arabia has become difficult for many African immigrants and cases of maltreatment and racism are rampant. In April 2015, a young Saudi boy posted a selfie in front of an African migrant picking through rubbish in Jeddah. The video invited mixed reactions in the social media with a number of people condemning the video. What the video communicated was the state of African immigrants in Saudi Arabia.
The timing of the crackdown on illegal undocumented immigrants in Saud Arabia has raised suspicions as it coincides with similar actions and discussions in Israel and the United States (US). In recent times there has been a growing convergence of politics between these three countries. The reported visit by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman to Israel, and the visit of Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor, to Saudi Arabia, has given credence to that argument. The argument continues to suggest that since the election of Donald Trump in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have found commonality on several global positions, including immigration.