RIYADH: Employees at the Saudi Binladin Group, a construction giant, have set fire to more than seven company buses in the latest protest by disgruntled staff over not being paid salaries for months and a large round of reported layoffs. Maj Nayef Al-Sharif, the spokesman for the Civil Defense in the city of Makkah, said late Saturday that firefighters put out the blaze without any injuries reported.
The Binladin Group has not issued any statements about the reported layoffs or the unrest. Calls and an email request for comment to the company were not immediately returned. For several weeks, thousands of the firm’s employees have been staging rare protests in Makkah and the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, with some saying they have not been paid for six months.
The attack on the company’s buses comes a day after the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying the company has terminated employment for 50,000 foreign workers and issued them exit visas. Many of those workers are apparently refusing to leave without being paid their late wages, the newspaper reported. Also Friday, local newspapers reported that five construction workers were injured when an official from the Saudi Binladin Group hit them with his car after employees protesting salary delays rushed toward the vehicle. Police are investigating the incident.
Gulf-based construction firms have been among the hardest-hit due to lower oil prices that have curbed and sometimes delayed government spending on major infrastructure projects. In February, the president of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Abdulrahman Al-Zamil, wrote an open letter to King Salman saying that construction firms were struggling under the weight of delayed payments for their work on government projects.
The Saudi Binladin Group is one of the world’s largest construction firms. Founded in 1931 and headquartered in Jeddah, the firm has been behind some of Saudi Arabia’s most important projects, including roads, tunnels, airports, universities and hotels. It has carried out expansion work throughout the holy city of Makkah to accommodate more Muslim pilgrims, including construction of a massive clock tower with luxury hotels.
The multinational firm is also a main contractor for the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which will be the world’s tallest skyscraper at a kilometer, or roughly 3,300 feet, high. The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for decades. Al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son of the construction firm’s founder, Mohammed bin Laden, and was disowned by the family in the 1990s.
Despite the close family ties, the Saudi government barred the firm from acquiring new contracts after an initial government probe found the company was partly responsible for a crane collapse in Makkah’s Grand Mosque last year that killed 111 people days before the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage in September. The crane boom pierced the roof of the mosque housing Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, bringing down slabs of reinforced concrete and leaving bodies of worshippers lying amid pools of blood on the mosque floors.
Saudi daily Arab News reported that the layoffs included engineers, foremen, steel fixers, carpenters and welders at the firm. The paper said employees were offered severance pay. The newspaper cited various possible reasons for the terminations, including government restrictions on the firm and changes to Saudi labor law that have made it more difficult for firms to hire expatriates over local Saudis.
Other sectors have seen hundreds of layoffs as governments across the Gulf look to hire more of their own citizens and reduce public spending in the face of plunging revenues from lower oil prices. There have been layoffs in the United Arab Emirates’ banking sector and at Qatar Petroleum and the Qatar-based news broadcaster Al-Jazeera, among others. In Kuwait, oil unions held a three-day strike against government cutbacks to their benefits and pay.
Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department for the International Monetary Fund, told AP recently that one of the consequences of cutting back spending in the Gulf is that fewer people will be needed to work on government-backed projects. “This is part of a sensible strategy to try and balance their budgets over time to improve and further their fiscal resilience and to reflect the new reality in terms of oil revenues,” he said. – AP