Clouds hang over Indonesian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia as Covid-19 disrupts pilgrimages

Life was good for Indonesian Muhammad Kurdi who has lived in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for about 15 years.

The father of three used to work as a guide for pilgrims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, earning up to 200 million rupiah a month ($14,042) during the Islamic pilgrimage peak season.

However, life turned upside down when COVID-19 hit the globe and foreigners could not go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

“Since the pandemic, I have been jobless, and perhaps all guides in Mecca are like this, unemployed because there are no more pilgrims for Umrah and Haj.

“So, we in Mecca have not been working for over a year,” Mr Kurdi told CNA.

Nowadays, the 36-year-old does all kinds of jobs such as driving people to vaccination centres or out of town and even being a YouTuber by producing videos of life in Mecca.

He also has savings in Indonesia and has asked his family to transfer him his money whenever needed. Occasionally, Mr Kurdi receives relief from fellow Indonesians as well as staple food twice from the Indonesian consulate general. Despite all the efforts, he claimed it is not enough to make ends meet.

“Thank God we have savings in Indonesia…but it’s been difficult the past two years. It’s impossible to take from my savings forever. Of course, if you don’t work it will run out.

“If it continues like this, of course, we won’t be able to handle it,” added Mr Kurdi.

The pandemic has not only impacted guides in the holy city of Mecca but also workers in other cities such as Jeddah and Madinah. Indonesia’s Consul General in Jeddah, Eko Hartono estimates there are about 300,000 legally documented Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia.

About 168,000 of them are in Jeddah and nearby areas, and it is believed the number of undocumented workers is even three times higher, Mr Hartono told CNA. Their future in the Kingdom looks dim.

Jeddah-based Mr Basuni Hasan used to accompany ministers and other officials from Indonesia for their pilgrimage but that is now all history. Having worked in Saudi Arabia since 1993 and in particular as a pilgrimage guide for about two decades, he is now forced to switch jobs.

“During the lockdown, I had no income at all for about six months,” said Mr Basuni.

He explained that he had to ask his family in Madura, East Java to send him his money from his savings to survive.

“Because I have a family, I have nine children. Some of them are in Madura, some are in Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem.

“There is always someone who gives me food, rice, to eat. But I can’t send anything to my family. I was even helped by Arabs.”

When the restrictions to curb COVID-19 started to ease, Mr Hasan decided to try his luck as a healing practitioner.

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