In southern Saudi Arabia, which is historically part of Yemen, the Yemenis who provide quality services to the local people in the higher education and health sectors are now under threat. Without warning, more than 100 university and medical staff have had their contracts terminated with immediate effect at Najran University and its hospitals. This measure by the Saudi Arabian authorities is expected to spread to the other universities and hospitals in the southern regions of the Kingdom.
Hundreds of Yemeni medical staff, business owners, employees and workers await their fate, knowing that such a measure amounts to forced expulsion. Many already live in difficult conditions and are not prepared to face the negative consequences of unemployment and its impact on their lives.
Over the past 15 years, dozens of university lecturers left Yemeni universities thanks to the growing demand for their skills in Saudi universities, in the south in particular. The Kingdom appeared to have a problem in recruiting experienced personnel. This also applied to medical staff, with hundreds flocking to Saudi hospitals over the same period.
These respected academic and medical staff now face an uncertain future after years of service in Saudi Arabia. They have been given just one option: leave the Kingdom. It is not only undignified, but also threatening, as they risk being regarded as potentially hostile aliens. This is consistent with the general sense of superiority common to Saudi Arabia and its citizens which has been seen throughout the years of the oil boom.
Yemeni businessmen have operated despite the demeaning residency rules which require them to put their savings, estimated at a combined total of billions of riyals, at the mercy of Saudi sponsors. They too face a humiliating exit.
However, these measures against Yemenis in the south reflect those taken by the authorities against Yemenis across Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of Yemeni families have left already in search of a more comfortable and safer living environment. A large number have returned to Yemen despite the ongoing war involving Saudi Arabia and hostile local forces wanting to destroy the state as it stands.
I have always objected to describing Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen as aggression, as the rhetoric of the Iran-backed Houthi militia claims. Nevertheless, the authorities' actions against Yemenis in the Kingdom are nothing less than an extension of the war against the Yemeni people, which has moved into Saudi territory. The authorities in Riyadh should reconsider these measures, because they represent a real danger to Saudi Arabia itself. It is not in its interest to convey the impression to Yemenis that the Kingdom is their only real enemy.
Moreover, targeting the Yemenis in the south of the Kingdom in this way tells them that Saudi Arabia is rewarding the Iran-backed Houthi attacks across the south. The suggestion is that the Yemenis have been turned into "sleeper cells" in the Houthi battle against Saudi Arabia. This is a risky strategy that ignores the fact that the vast majority of those targeted are mortal enemies of the Houthi project in their country.
How can the enormous military, security and economic capabilities of Saudi Arabia be unable to protect its border with Yemen? Do the Saudi authorities really believe that security will be achieved by targeting the peaceful Yemenis who live and work in the Kingdom, which they regard as the physical, historical and religious extension of their own country?
I am convinced that such unjust and unjustified measures will do nothing to hide the fact that the security challenges in the south and east of the Kingdom do not come from Saudi Arabia's Yemeni residents — who are opposed to the Shia coup and separatist militias in their country — but arise from other factors. Among these is the poor performance of the Saudi armed forces in Yemen and the corruption of its military, diplomatic and intelligence officer class, as well as the opposing position adopted by the Shia demographic blocs (Twelvers, Ismailis and Zaidis), parts of which are linked emotionally and financially to the Iran-backed Houthi war in Yemen. They must confront this risk with firm but fair measures, which primarily seek to strengthen the values of citizenship and partnership.
I will end by pointing out that Yemeni-Saudi relations are founded upon the 1934 Taif Treaty, according to which the Zaidi Imam Yahya Hamid Al-Din (the ruler of North Yemen from 1918-1948) conceded Najran, Asir and Jazan to the Kingdom in return for complementary relations that do not impose restrictions on the movement of citizens between the two countries. It appears that the terms of the treaty are being completely undermined, judging by what the Yemenis in Saudi Arabia are subjected to, including thinly-disguised slavery through the sponsorship system. Now they are also facing forced expulsion.
This article first appeared in Arabi21 on 3 August 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.