Abdessamad al-Muhammadi had fared much better than the majority of his fellow Yemenis who migrated to neighboring Saudi Arabia for work. Over the course of 25 years, the 49-year-old had worked his way up in the oil-rich kingdom, starting at restaurants specializing in mandi, a favorite Yemeni dish of spiced meat and rice, until he managed to open and run his own restaurant named after the nearby Fifa mountains in the city of Sabya, in southwestern Saudi Arabia's Jazan province. The popular restaurant brought him considerable wealth and made him a familiar presence in Sabya, where he lived with his wife and, eventually, eight children.
Abdessamad considered Saudi Arabia his home. But his fortunes abruptly changed in September, when armed men raided his restaurant, took the passports of his 40 employees and dragged him to an unknown location. They also seized an estimated $70,000 from the restaurant, the family said in interviews. That day same, another group of armed men raided Abdessamad's house in Sabya, while his wife, Asmahan, and their children were home. The family said they searched the house and took all the mobile devices they could find, along with jewelry and a substantial amount of Saudi riyals in cash, equivalent to more than $200,000, some of which Abdessamad had saved for an upcoming wedding party for his two daughters that was set for November.
His family couldn't imagine why the restaurant and their home would be raided and all their money seized. But three days later, Asmahan got a phone call from her husband, who said he was in a hospital. He told her that he had been beaten and had three of his left ribs broken, and had difficulty breathing. Abdessamad, who had been a popular figure in the community for years, told his wife he had no idea why this all had happened. She didn't know where he was being held at the time, or what hospital he was in.
The next day, her phone rang again, but when Asmahan answered, a nurse—rather than her husband—was on the other end. Abdessamad had died of his injuries, she said.
Asmahan quickly called her husband's older brother, Nabeel al-Muhammadi, a lawyer in Yemen. Nabeel, who hadn't seen his brother for some 15 years, soon traveled from Sana'a to Saudi Arabia to bring his brother's body home. An initial report from the hospital in Sabya, where it turned out he had been treated, blamed pulmonary embolism for his death—the result of the broken ribs, Nabeel said in a phone interview. He said that his brother suffered severe physical torture, with contusions all over his body. Nabeel spent three weeks in Sabya, where he got no answers about his brother's death from Saudi officials. Nabeel said that when he asked the local authorities who had raided his restaurant and detained Abdessamad, Saudi prosecutors told him it was soldiers and officers from the anti-drug police in Sabya—although that claim could not be independently confirmed.
Nabeel did manage to get his brother's body out of the country and back to their hometown of al-Hujariyah, in Yemen's Taiz governorate, for burial, but he remained in Saudi Arabia seeking answers and accountability. Nabeel said that Abdessamad was subjected to the kind of torture that is prohibited by international treaties, including the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Saudi Arabia has acceded. "Saudi Arabia is responsible before the international community to abide by the contents of those agreements to hold the perpetrators accountable," Nabeel said. A lawyer for 27 years, Nabeel has mainly defended the freedom of the press and represented journalists and activists who have been prosecuted for what they have published. The abrupt raid on Abdessamad's house left his children and wife in a state of terror and panic. "I don't think that time can help them overcome its psychological impact," Nabeel said, on top of all the unanswered questions about his death.
The Saudi government has been accused of collectively punishing Yemenis by forcing them out of their jobs and deporting them back to Yemen, where Saudi forces continue to wage a brutal war against the Houthis and impose a crippling blockade.
- Ahmad Algohbary
While Abdessamad's case may appear to be an isolated incident, it reflects the wider, often-underreported persecution of Yemeni migrants in Saudi Arabia. There were an estimated 2 million Yemeni migrants in the kingdom as of last year, according to the Yemeni government. The Saudi government has been accused of collectively punishing Yemenis by increasingly forcing them out of their jobs and deporting them back to Yemen, where Saudi Arabia continues to wage a brutal war against the Houthis and impose a crippling blockade of oil and humanitarian aid.
Accounts by Nabeel and Yemeni migrants I interviewed suggest that this Saudi abuse is indeed on the rise, as Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen has dragged on. Yemenis appear to be singled out among migrants of other nationalities who have long sought work in Saudi Arabia.
A Yemeni migrant who had legal work status in Riyadh but returned home a year ago described the punitive conditions Yemenis increasingly face in the kingdom. "There's been a deliberate targeting of Yemeni migrants," he said. He asked not to be named for fear of reprisal against close relatives still in Saudi Arabia. He said that if a migrant's resident permit was found to be expired, Saudi authorities would typically just ask them to renew it. But Yemeni migrants wouldn't be given the chance. Instead, they would be jailed in preparation for deportation, permanently preventing them from entering Saudi Arabia again. Before Saudi Arabia launched its war in Yemen in 2015, authorities in the kingdom would often overlook the work status and permits of irregular Yemeni migrants.
"Should the mass expulsion of expatriate workers currently underway in Saudi Arabia continue at pace," a report by the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies warned in 2019, "it will have catastrophic economic and humanitarian consequences for Yemenis."
The former migrant noted the higher frequency of inspections of businesses for irregular Yemeni workers, which hadn't been the case prior to 2015, when the Saudi government often described Yemen as a "brotherly" nation. Riyadh has still maintained that its military intervention in Yemen—which has killed thousands of civilians and led to famine and starvation—was aimed in part as easing the economic hardships Yemenis were facing amid a growing civil war, after the Houthis took the capital, Sana'a, in 2014. "How brotherly?," said the Yemeni migrant mockingly. "The true face of Saudi Arabia has come out."
After destroying so much of Yemen's economy since 2015, by blockading its ports and bombing its infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is now pushing Yemen further into the abyss.
- Ahmad Algohbary
Yemeni officials have continually raised the status of Yemeni migrants with their Saudi counterparts, leading to empty Saudi promises of exempting Yemeni workers from deportation due to the war and the country's economic collapse. Like other foreign nationalities, Yemenis must pay a hefty amount of their earnings annually in order to remain in their jobs in Saudi Arabia. Almost half their income, and sometimes more, goes to the renewal of their residence and work permits, which can cost about $3,000 a year for an average worker earning $800 a month. The worker's sponsor under the kafalah system also requires an average payment of $1,000 a year, an informal yet key payment. The sponsor can at any time end the contract and send the worker back home without any justification.
After destroying so much of Yemen's economy since 2015, by blockading its ports and bombings its infrastructure, Saudi Arabia is now pushing Yemen further into the abyss. Starting in July, the Saudi government directed institutions in the kingdom's southern regions to terminate the contracts of hundreds of Yemeni workers, mostly medical staff, academics and other professionals, ostensibly to free up jobs for Saudi citizens. The authorities gave these Yemenis very short notice to find jobs in other parts of Saudi Arabia, or to return to Yemen. A Yemeni government source told Reuters that the directives could affect "tens of thousands" of Yemenis, including laborers.
Observers fear these measures could expand into other areas in the kingdom, with dire economic and humanitarian consequences. "Saudi authorities are effectively laying off and threatening to forcibly return hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yemeni professionals to an ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen," warned Afrah Nasser, the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Expelling Yemeni migrants won't only impact all these workers, but also millions of their relatives back in Yemen who depend on remittances that have been on the decline. As of 2017, some $2.3 billion worth of remittances were still sent annually from workers in Saudi Arabia to Yemen, where monthly salaries of public servants have been drastically cut during the war. Pro-government voices in Saudi Arabia claim, without any evidence, that many of these remittances are going to benefit the Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, where a majority of Yemen's 30 million people live.
Nabeel is back in Sabya still waiting for the coroner's report on his brother's death. He then plans to get a lawyer to start legal proceedings against the perpetrators who killed him. He said that no official charges have been brought against his brother, months after the raid on his restaurant and home.
Abdessamad's relatives are trying to recover from the shock of his death. Like many Yemeni migrants, he was supporting more than a dozen of his relatives back home, including a 95-year-old mother and seven sisters. The burden of supporting them has now fallen to his brother.