Red Card: Saudization in Professional Soccer
In Saudi Arabia, soccer teams are trying to avoid the “red zone” as new labor policies take hold.
December 15, 2014In soccer, players try to avoid getting a red card. In Saudi Arabia, soccer teams are trying to avoid the “red zone.”
In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has been implementing a labor policy meant to encourage companies to hire Saudi nationals. Known as “nitaqat,” or “zones,” the policy divides private sector companies into different-colored categories depending on how well they meet predetermined targets for “Saudiizing” their workforce. Green companies are doing well, yellow companies get warnings, and red companies face sanctions for missing their targets—including a ban on hiring new foreign employees.
Saudi soccer clubs, like many soccer teams around the world, have a number of foreign players and coaches. They argue that fielding an international squad and hiring foreign coaches is part of what it means to play competitive soccer. Some also argue that they should not be subject to the law at all, as they are public sector entities (although plans are underway to privatize them in an effort to boost the quality of play and facilities).
To respond to the sanctions, clubs have resorted to the sorts of actions that many private sector companies have pursued in the Kingdom: creating extraneous jobs for Saudis in order to decrease the percentage of foreign workers, and having players enter the Kingdom on tourist visas rather than work visas.
Some say “soccer is life,” and judging by employment law in Saudi Arabia, that description is not too far from the mark.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.