Foreign workers for Saudi contractor Saudi Binladin Group (SBG) burned buses outside the company’s Mecca offices on Saturday in protest at unpaid wages and the reports of mass dismissals and deportation. Firefighters extinguished the blaze and there were no reported injuries.
The workers, many from the Indian subcontinent, had been staging demonstrations in Mecca and the Red Sea port of Jeddah for some weeks to protest unpaid wages, with some claiming that they were owed as much as eight months’ back pay. Â
Among the projects the workers had been employed on were large-scale schemes such as the King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh (pictured).
The demonstrations turned violent after an article in the Al-Watan newspaper quoted an unnamed SBG source as saying the company was going to sack 77,000 foreign workers and issued them exit visas. This led many workers to assume that they would be deported without being paid.
The report also said 12,000 Saudi managerial staff would be laid off, a highly unusual move given the expense and legal difficulty of dismissing Saudi nationals. The total workforce of the company is about 200,000.
SBG, which was founded by Osama bin Laden’s father, has been hit by a fall in work brought by lower Saudi public spending following the collapse in oil revenue. The firm has not published any information on its financial performance, however Al Jazeera quoted "Gulf banking industry sources" who said the company was believed to owe local and international banks about $30bn.
The unnamed sources added that the company had been meeting with banks to reassure them that their loans would be repaid, and that it had brought in outside experts to improve its project management and budgeting skills.
Another factor in the company’s difficulties is the decision of the Saudi government to bar it from bidding for contracts after a government investigation found it was partly responsible for a crane collapse in Mecca’s Grand Mosque last year that killed about 107 people.