Construction professionals welcome possible easing of Saudi visa restrictions

Participants in the construction industry have given a cautious welcome to proposals for easing visa restrictions in the industry but added that more details are needed.

Speaking to The National ahead of Monday’s announcement of the Saudi transformation plan, the global chief finance officer of engineering consultancy Parsons said that any easing of restrictions in getting staff into the kingdom, “would be most welcome”.

“We think we’re probably as good as anybody with our recruiting and mobilising of people, but it’s a lot harder than anywhere else. Even if it got levelled with the UAE, I think it would be a great shot in the arm for the Saudi economy,” said Mr Ball.

Philippe Dessoy, general manager of the building contractor Besix, said that labour issues were “one of the main problems we have in Saudi”.

“First, it’s difficult to get visas. And then once you get approval, for example, for 500 people, they have decided already which nationalities [you will use] for which functions. So, for example, in the visa it is written that you have to take 20 masons from Tunisia. That’s not what we want. We want to use people we already have in the Gulf – people with experience.”

However, David Clifton, regional development director for the project management firm Faithful + Gould, said that it is not yet clear whether the new system will work that way, or whether it will merely be geared towards encouraging investment by expats into the kingdom.

He thinks that green cards could still be linked to the Nitaqat system, which tracks levels of Saudi employment in companies, and only those within the “green zone” – ie those with the required number of Saudi employees – would be allowed to apply for green cards.

“It is challenging to get people in, and I don’t forecast that changing overnight, especially in the construction industry because what we have seen already this year is a low amount of awards.”

Faithful + Gould has predicted a decline in the number of contracts being awarded in the kingdom by 12 to 15 per cent this year. This means that as existing schemes complete, there is unlikely to be a shortage of capacity, so there is no urgency for the government to address the issue.

“The statement looks like it is aimed at investment from non-Saudis rather than helping the construction industry,” Mr Clifton said.

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