In 2008 Mariam Ahmed and her family set off east from her homeland Egypt and landed in Saudi Arabia where they became part of the Kingdom’s two million strong Egyptian expat community.
Lured by the promise of a salary up to six times its equivalent in Egypt, Mariam recalls her life in the Gulf country as “stable” and “safe.”
Then the war on Yemen began and everything changed.
Saudi Arabia invests at least $5-6 billion a month on the air strikes and import restrictions it has imposed on the country along its southern border for almost half a decade.
As the war enters its fifth year and the Kingdom grapples with low oil prices, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has looked for ways to make savings. Foreigners in the country were one of the first casualties.
As of 2017 expatriates working for the private sector were obliged to pay 100 riyals a month for dependents, which included minors and unemployed relatives, a figure that is set to rise each year until 2020.
This, in combination with a levy on companies that employ foreign workers, pushed an exodus of overseas employees to leave the country.
Soumaya Mohammed, who is a civil engineer, left Egypt in 2009 along with her husband who is an electrical engineer. They have three children aged three, seven and eight.
Soumaya’s uncle held a senior position at the construction giant Saudi Binladen Group when it collapsed after the owners were swept up in the government’s anti-corruption drive which lasted 15 months and raised $106 billion.
At its peak the business, which constructed roads, mosques and palaces in the Kingdom, had 100,000 employees yet hundreds were laid off after a restructuring in which the government seized managerial control.
“Our life was not stable in Saudi Arabia, even before the decisions of Mohammed bin Salman. It has not been stable since the fall of the Saudi Binladen Group,” she says.
With the foreigners out Saudi has implemented a number of “Saudisation” programmes to push nationals into private sector jobs and reduce unemployment.
“The government raised the Saudi workers’ salaries and replaced the foreigner with a Saudi, even if he is not qualified for the job,” complains Mariam.
Many of the private schools where Rasha worked were shut down and the loss of her wage, coupled with the foreigner tax, created a heavy financial burden on her and her husband, who have four children.
“The aim of these decisions by the Saudi regime was to provide job opportunities for the Saudis under the slogan ‘Saudi Arabia is for Saudis’,” she says.
“The regime organised media campaigns to convince [Saudi society] that these decisions are in the interest of the Saudi citizen.”
The narrative that followed will be recognised by foreigners and refugees all over the world, who are regularly accused of stealing precious resources that belong to locals:
Some Saudis claimed that the foreign workers and expatriates stole their jobs and that the roads and transportation have become crowded and dirty
“The government is trying to satisfy a group of citizens while suppressing other citizens with human rights abuses.”
Long before MbS’ reforms were put in place foreigners have complained about how hard it is to integrate into Saudi society. When the eldest of Mariam’s children reached the end of secondary school and began to think about university, she knew she would have to leave Saudi Arabia.
“Sadly it was complicated for them as expatriates to apply for Saudi universities and I wanted to be with them in the same country.”
As her children approached their late teens, Rasha encountered the same problem. “Opportunities for foreigners to join Saudi universities is almost impossible so we left the Kingdom.”
The three women agree that the measures imposed by the Crown Prince have separated their families. Whilst the father continues to work in Saudi, the rest of the family felt compelled to leave.
“This led to psychological pressure and lack of stability for all family members,” says Rasha.
With the political situation in Egypt highly repressive and the economy at an all-time low, Mariam, Rasha and Soumaya decided not to go home, but to Turkey instead. They are part of a growing number of Egyptian families who have settled in the country.
“We chose Turkey because it is a Muslim country, and we will not be persecuted as Muslims. We have the freedom to go to mosques. Our life is stable to some degree,” says Mariam.
“We can easily be granted a residency permit by renting a house here. This allows us to accommodate and to register our children at government schools. The public transportation system is excellent.”
Rasha, however, has had problems with her tourist residency permit, which is only extended for six months at a time. She also admits to struggling with the language, and the racism directed at her children by their school teachers.
“Sometimes the feeling of anger from some Turkish nationals towards the Arabs, who do not welcome our presence [is difficult].”
Soumaya agrees: “Of course, language is the first difficulty. The second is the acceptance of the Turkish community of foreigners because of the large Arab community.”
Though foreigners legally have the right to education, health care and work, Turkish society is not always so accepting, she says. Taxes have increased and the lira is falling against the dollar which is an added worry.
But this is not always the case: “They don’t ask you if you are a foreigner or Turk if you want to buy government-subsidised bread for example.”
The names in this article have been changed on request of the interviewees.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.