Love and separation among Filipino families in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia
Tabuk City, the northernmost city in Saudi Arabia’s western region, is home to an estimated 15,000 Filipinos, mostly construction workers, medical personnel and household service workers. It is also the site of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s latest, and decidedly most ambitious, economic project in recent years. Launched in October 2015, the project aims to create a smart and tourist cross-border city. Many Filipinos who are currently working in Tabuk are hopeful that the project will draw most of its manpower needs from the Philippines, possibly including some of their relatives.
On Jan. 18-19, a team from the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah traveled to Tabuk to render consular services to Filipinos there. The atmosphere was unusually animated as the consular team went about the drab routine of processing passport applications and other consular documents, one after another. The reason for the lively mood was the presence of about 50 cuddly babies, some as young as one month old, who were brought to the venue by their mothers to get their nurslings a Philippine passport.
Judging from their ages, the majority of the babies appear to have been conceived during the months of November through December and January of the immediately preceding year. These are the months when the average temperature in Tabuk plummets to single digits (in centigrade). Is the cold weather driving Filipino couples in Tabuk to produce more babies than their peers in the warmer regions of Western Saudi Arabia? Could there be a direct correlation between the temperate weather and the big number of Filipino babies in Tabuk?
It seems there is, for it is only in Tabuk where we have noticed this big number of Filipino babies in one place in the western region of the country. In other places with equally large concentrations of Filipinos and where the weather is warmer all year round, we would be lucky to find five Filipino babies in one venue at any given time.
Adonis (not his real name), a Filipino pipe-fitter who has lived in Tabuk with his wife and their eight children for the past 20 years, said with a grin: “Love seems to overflow among Filipino couples in the colder climes of Tabuk.” According to him, in Tabuk, especially during the “ber” months when nights are longer than day till February of the following year, there is really nothing else for Filipino couples to do after dinner except go under the sheets and sleep or do something cute. Watching television is not an option, because all local channels are in Arabic, and there are still no cinemas in Tabuk, either. Pinoy TV is a luxury to many Filipino families, because the subscription fee is not that cheap.
While it is an amusing finding, the healthy reproductive rate is no longer as welcome a phenomenon as it used to be among Filipino couples in Tabuk, or in the entire Saudi Arabia for that matter. Recent changes in Saudi Arabia’s immigration policy have made it very costly to live with one’s dependents as an expatriate in this country. On July 1, 2017, the Saudi government introduced an expatriate levy system whereby all foreign nationals with dependents would have to pay a monthly fee of SAR100 (approximately P1,400) per dependent. The fee increases every year until 2020. The kingdom introduced the levy ostensibly as part of a series of financial reforms to wean away the nation from dependency on oil, Saudi’s top export dollar earner.
Filipino expats with families, especially those belonging to the lower-income groups and gradually some in the middle-income group, have felt the economic bite of the levy system. Many of them have decided to send their dependents (spouse and children) back to the Philippines, while continuing to work in Saudi alone. Fruity-ann, a single mom with two minor children, admits having a hard time paying the levy on her two kids. Her meager income as a hairstylist at a beauty salon in Tabuk is barely enough to meet their daily needs as a family.
With the Saudi government showing no signs of removing the levy system or reducing the rates soon despite howls of protest from the expatriate community, the prospects of Filipino families in Tabuk being able to continue living together under one roof have become increasingly bleak. There are only two choices left, said Adonis: “Family separation by sending all our dependents back to the Philippines to offset the levy, or total abstention from ‘activities’ that produce children.”
For a community that has long enjoyed the “benefits” of Tabuk’s temperate climate, either option is painful for many Filipino expatriate families.
Edgar B. Badajos is a Filipino diplomat. He currently heads one of the Philippine foreign service posts in the Middle East.
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