Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Saudis and Non-Saudis

Estimates of the population holding Saudi citizenship have varied widely. Official figures published by the Saudi government indicated a population of 14,870,000 in 1990. In the same year, however, estimates by one Western source inside the kingdom were as low as 6 million. United Nations estimates were slightly less than the official Saudi figure. Based on the official Saudi figure, at the 1990 rate of growth, a population of 20 million was projected by the year 2000. The 1992 Saudi census indicated an indigenous population of 12.3 million people and a growth rate of 3.3 percent.

In addition to the population holding Saudi citizenship, there were large numbers of foreign residents in the kingdom. In 1985 the number of foreigners was estimated at 4,563,000, with a total foreign work force of 3,522,700. In 1990 the number of foreigners had risen to 5,300,000. In 1990 the greatest number of foreign workers came from Arabic-speaking countries, chiefly Egypt, followed by Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Kuwait, then Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). About 180,000 came from European countries and 92,000 from North America. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of foreigners employed in the economy rose, in contrast to the substantial decline expected and called for in the Fourth Development Plan, 1985-90. This increase was reflected in the number of residence permits issued to foreigners, which rose from 563,747 in 1985 to 705,679 in 1990. A goal of Saudi planners continued to be a reduction in the number of foreign workers, and the Fifth Development Plan, 1990- 95, projected a 1.2 percent annual decline over five years, or a drop of almost 250,000 foreign workers. The 1992 census gave the number of resident foreigners as 4.6 million.

Whether such a decline could occur, or had already begun to occur in 1992, was questionable. From an economic point of view, there were difficulties in increasing the number of Saudi citizens in the work force. One difficulty was that potential Saudi workers for low-skilled and other jobs were becoming less competitive with foreigners in the private-sector labor market. Wages of non-Saudi workers had been adjusted downward since the early 1980s, and, with a ready supply of non-Saudis willing to work in low-skilled occupations, the wage gap between Saudis and non-Saudi workers was widening. In addition, as the government recognized, Saudi secondary school and university graduates were not always as qualified as foreign workers for employment in the private sector. Although the Riyadh-based Institute of Public Administration offered training programs to increase the competitiveness of Saudi nationals, the programs had difficulty attracting participants.

Social constraints on the employment of women (7 percent of the work force in 1990; 93 percent of the national work force were men) also hampered indigenization of the work force. Government and private groups actively sought ways to expand the areas in which women might work. The issue became more pressing as the number of female university graduates continued to increase at a faster rate than the number of male graduates.

Although such economic and social pressures have militated against increasing the number of Saudi nationals in the work force, the desired decline in foreign labor may have occurred as a result of new residency requirements imposed in the summer of 1990 to encourage the departure of Yemenis, the second largest segment of the foreign labor population. As a punitive response to the government of Yemen's sympathy with Iraq, the Saudi government issued a decree requiring Yemenis, who were previously exempt from regulations governing foreigners' doing business in the kingdom, to obtain residence permits. Subsequently, about 1 million Yemenis left the country. Only three weeks after the decree was issued, the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce announced that there were almost 250,000 jobs, especially in the area of small retail businesses, available for young Saudis as a result of the regulation of foreign residence visas. It was unclear in 1992 whether the types of employment and businesses vacated by Yemenis would prove attractive to Saudi job seekers, or whether these jobs would be recirculated into the foreign labor market.

Diversity and Social Stratification
Cultural Homogeneity and Values
Structure of Tribal Groupings
Tribe and Monarchy
Beduin Economy in Tradition and Change

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Saudi Arabia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress