Saudi Binladin Group employees stage protests, torch buses as thousands reported laid off

Saudi Arabia’s Binladin Group is facing a backlash from its employees after reportedly deciding to sack over a quarter of its staff. The company was hit hard financially after its long-term ties with the government in Riyadh soured.

For several weeks thousands of the company’s workers have been staging protests in Mecca and Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea coast, after their salaries have gone unpaid for months. The tension escalated last week after the local newspaper Al Watan cited a source as saying that the construction giant had terminated 50,000 people, most of them foreign workers, and issued them exit visas.

The outrage of the protesting workers sparked some acts of vandalism, including at least seven company buses being set ablaze, AP reported.

In a separate incident Friday, a company official reportedly injured five construction workers with his car after they rushed to his vehicle to protest the withholding of their salaries.

An Al-Watan report Monday said the layoffs would be even higher and number at least 77,000, including 12,000 Saudi nationals working as engineers, administrators and inspectors.

The construction giant confirmed to AFP that some staff have been let go, but gave no numbers.

“The size of our workforce is always appropriate to the nature and size of projects and the timeframe they are to be carried out by the group,” said Yaseen Al-Attas, a Saudi Binladin Group spokesman.

“They have received their full dues,” he added. “We understand that the reduction of the workforce isn’t easy on everyone. But the group will continue to implement its obligations toward everyone, including the employees it has let go of.”

On Tuesday, Labor Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani said some employees would receive their salaries this month already, and others soon thereafter. He said the workers are protected by the Labor Code and would receive their overdue salaries – even if they were fired and had been issued exit visas.

READ MORE: ‘Poor foreign workers – real victims in the Saudi Binladin Group crisis’

The Saudi Binladin Group is one of the largest construction companies in the world, which was behind some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest projects. It is the main contractor for the kilometer-high Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which will be the world’s tallest skyscraper. Since its foundation in 1931 it enjoyed a steady flow of government contracts, as the Bin Laden family kept close ties with the country’s royalty.

Al Qaeda’s late leader Osama Bin Laden was the son of the Saudi Binladin Group founder, Mohammed bin Laden. The family disowned the notorious terrorist in the 1990s.

But the ongoing global oil crisis, which sent the price tumbling and depleted the cash streams coming from Saudi Arabia’s oil export, has spelled hard times for the country’s construction industry.

READ MORE: Moscow calls Saudi bluff after Riyadh threatens to boost oil output

The Saudi Binladin Group also reportedly suffered from deteriorated relations with the government after it was found partially responsible for the collapse of a construction crane in Mecca during last year’s Haj pilgrimage, which killed over a hundred people. After the embarrassing incident, which was followed days later by the worst stamped in the holy city of Islam ever, the construction giant was denied new contracts for the government and its existing projects came under scrutiny.

Other sectors in all oil-exporting countries in the Gulf were affected by budget cuts as well. There have been layoffs in the United Arab Emirates' banking sector and at Qatar’s news broadcaster Al-Jazeera, among others. In Kuwait, oil unions held a three-day strike against government cutbacks to their benefits and pay, which temporarily pushed crude prices up.