12:18 GMT +318 August 2019
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    Hundreds of French Workers Trapped in Saudi Arabia, Paris Remains Silent

    © AFP 2019 / HASSAN AMMAR
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    For months, the Saudi Arabian construction company Saudi Oger, facing mismanagement and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, has not paid the salaries of its employees. Among them are two hundred French expats who, unable to renew their residence permits, can't get an exit visa, and are therefore stuck in the country.

    In an article for the online supplement to French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Remy Catusse, an architect and urban planner who worked for Saudi Oger for six years, laid out his ordeal, noting that "after six years of loyal service," he found himself "stuck in the Islamic monarchy without work and without money. I'd just been fired, without having received my salary since last September. In all, the company owes me nearly 65,000 euros. We 200 French are in a living hell, amid general indifference."

    Catusse's story speaks of grandiose projects, massive debauchery in projects for the monarchy, and fantastical mismanagement, eventually leading to construction sites stuck without electricity, no heating and no air conditioning. Left without work, the architect contacted a French lawyer defending expats to negotiate the terms of his departure back to France. "But the company remained indifferent, since it operates by Saudi work laws: the French state has no recourse."

    Eventually, things went from bad to worse. "When not paid, expatriates in Saudi Arabia find themselves in an ambiguous position: they lose their right to work," Catusse explained. 

    "In the Saudi system, if a company does not pay its employees in a timely manner, it cannot renew their visas, or 'Iqama', which depend on their work permit…Moreover, without a valid residence, Saudi bank accounts are automatically blocked. It is therefore impossible to renew one's insurance, one's vehicle registration, or simply put money on one's phone. This measure is intended to protect employees in Saudi Arabia, but on the contrary puts them in very dangerous situations. Especially since at Saudi Oger, the human resources system is catastrophic, and unions obviously do not exist."

    "From the moment when our Iqama expires, we can no longer apply for an exit visa. Entire families are trapped in Saudi Arabia for months at a time…We are in the midst of Ramadan, it's 45 degrees out, people do not eat between 5 am and 7 pm. Stuck on sites without electricity or water, they remain in their barracks, overheated, with rain pouring on their flea-infested beds."

    Catusse was lucky. Receiving a sponsorship from a company owned by a Lebanese friend, the architect explained that he was able to renew his Iqama, giving him the opportunity to leave the country, which he promptly did. Back home he received an unpleasant surprise: the dues deducted from his wages were not paid out in order to be eligible to receive French unemployment benefits.

    "Meanwhile," he noted, "200 French expatriates remain stuck in Saudi Arabia, with their families or without them, continuing to work without pay, seeking to return but unable to do so, and waiting in silence" for the government to take some action.

    Speaking to Sputnik, French journalist Alain Menargues recalled that while the situation with the French workers was bad, it's even worse for others.

    "Yes, there are 320 French workers who are not paid for four, five, six months, but there are also thousands of foreign workers who are not paid [at all]. Things were good for Saudi Oger when it was run by Rafic Hariri. Unfortunately, his son [Saad] has proven unable to manage it as well." 

    Saad Hariri has political ambitions, Menargues explained, and "wants to [again] become the prime minister of Lebanon…Corruption reigns, and wages are not paid, because he himself cannot get money for the work done [from the government]." Unconcerned with French wage laws, "he enjoys his dual citizenship: Saudi, where Saudi law is applicable, and Lebanese, where Lebanese law applies."

    Now, the journalist notes, Hariri has directed his energies on trying to retake control of Lebanon, "and many Lebanese are left wondering how he might manage a country like Lebanon, when he cannot even cope with the management of his own company."

    Commenting on the Saudi reaction (or lack of one) to the expats' ordeal, Menargues pointed out that "the Saudi government is very concerned about their image internationally. And if it decides not to pay [someone], it means that it is not interested in doing so."

    "By the way, the Saudi government has already issued a decree according to which it will no longer pay the bills for debts levied before July 2016, and it is unknown whether this deadline will be postponed; Saudi Arabia is experiencing a serious financial crisis caused, on the one hand, on the drop in oil prices, and, on the other, by fighting in Yemen and Syria, which has proven very expensive. Saudi Arabia is not very interested in the payment of wages to foreigners, since they are seen in Saudi Arabia as 'unclean'."

    As far as the French government is concerned, Menargues recalled that at the moment, "it's doing nothing. When I say that, I mean that appeals have been made, including to the president. French citizens who had not received their pay have sent Francois Hollande a letter a few days ago. We are still waiting for some signal. This is not the first time. Appeals have been made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the French Ambassador, and to the Consulate…I want to say the following: there must be a mobilization on the part of France: it's necessary to present an ultimatum [to Saudi Arabia]. Can France do so today? Personally, I doubt it," the journalist concluded.

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    trapped, exploitation, visas, Saudi Oger, Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia, France
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