Desperate and hiding, collapsed Saudi Oger workers left in limbo

Riyadh (AFP) –


Nearly two years after the collapse of the construction giant Saudi Oger rendered thousands jobless, Lebanese worker Mohammed remains stranded in limbo in Riyadh -- and desperate to avoid arrest.

The demise in 2017 of the once-mighty company owned by the family of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri forced thousands of its expatriate workers to exit the kingdom without months of unpaid wages and end-of-service benefits.

But many like 60-year-old Mohammed, who worked for the company for 35 years, are still stuck in Saudi Arabia.

The expiration of Mohammed's residence permit makes his presence in Saudi Arabia illegal, but he is also legally barred from leaving due to an outstanding bank loan taken while he was employed.

So Mohammed is left in a bewildering limbo, barely scraping by on the kindness of strangers and cut off from his family in Lebanon.

"I am a prisoner," he told AFP at the Riyadh apartment of another former Saudi Oger employee from Lebanon in a similar predicament.

"When I want to go outside, I choose a time when there are no (police) roadblocks so that I am not detained," he added.

Saudi Arabia, home to some 10 million expats, is in the midst of an intensifying crackdown on illegal workers that has seen hundreds of thousands expelled over the past two years.

There appears to be no recourse for the two stranded workers, who requested that their real names be withheld.

Without a valid residency, the two men are not allowed to legally find work and repay their debt.

And until the debts are repaid, they cannot get an exit visa, a mandatory authorisation to leave the kingdom.

According to court documents seen by AFP, Saudi Oger still owes Mohammed more than $100,000 in unpaid wages -- more than double his outstanding bank loan used partly to pay for his children's education.

- 'Where is justice?' -

The impasse spotlights Saudi Arabia's long-criticised sponsorship system, which binds workers to their Saudi employers.

It is unclear exactly how many of the company's nearly 40,000 former workers remain in the kingdom.

Company officials and the Saudi labour ministry have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

"Employees took car loans, housing loans -- they are not allowed to leave until they repay, in line with the kingdom's regulation," said Wissam Saab, a 48-year-old former employee, who left the kingdom after being bailed out by relatives.

"No one is helping," he told AFP from Beirut.

The testimonies encapsulate the human cost of the labour-intensive construction sector's slowdown amid low oil prices, causing turmoil in the lives of millions of workers and leading to the demise of what was once one of the kingdom's biggest builders.

Former Saudi Oger workers ?- from France to Lebanon, India and the Philippines ?- are still awaiting salary arrears despite repeated management assurances.

Many distressed employees regularly post screenshots of owed invoices on social media, pleading with their governments to intervene.

"Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is justice? Where is humanity?" workers chanted at a protest in front of the Saudi embassy in Beirut.

"We are asking for our rights, not charity."

Multiple workers said some colleagues have died of life-threatening illnesses as their health insurance -- once covered by the company -? expired.

"They were deported as dead bodies from the kingdom," Chahnaz Ghayad, who offers legal counsel to Oger workers in Beirut, told AFP.

- 'Fighting hopelessness' -

A job at Saudi Oger, which reaped billions for Hariri and helped establish his family as a dominant force in Lebanese politics, was once billed as a ticket to a secure future.

The mega-contractor, which shut up shop in July 2017 after nearly four decades in operation, built grandiose complexes including Riyadh's palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel and the all-women Princess Noura University.

But trouble for the company -- heavily reliant on the Saudi state for contracts -- started much earlier as the world's top energy exporter tightened spending following a collapse in oil prices in mid-2014.

The company's former employees, however, pin much of the blame on Hariri's personal and political ties with the kingdom's leadership, apparently helping him to escape stringent penalties over non-payment of wages.

Last year, the kingdom established a committee to handle the restructuring of the undisclosed debt owed by Saudi Oger, but its current status remains unclear. The company reportedly owed at least $3.5 billion.

"The fact that this firm, and the Hariri family, have a political relationship with the government clearly complicates matters," Karen Young, from the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP.

"The fact that Saudi Oger has been in a restructuring process by a government committee, even as it was due outstanding payments by the government, is also distinct from how other failing firms have been treated by the state."

Its former workers, meanwhile, are girding for an indefinite wait.

"Fighting hopelessness all alone," reads a graffiti outside the abandoned residential quarters for its workers in Riyadh.