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The Rediff Special/George Iype
July 07, 2004
Twenty years ago, Thomas Thampy, a mechanical engineering graduate from Kerala, flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to take up his first job in Abacus Constructions, a company with American investment.
In the last two decades, Thampy changed jobs four times, working with leading multinational firms across Saudi Arabia. But last month he bid goodbye to what he calls the 'Mecca of prosperity.'
Thampy, now 43, with wife Alina and two children has returned to settle down in a sprawling rubber plantation he bought in Kerala last year.
"I earned lots of money in Saudi Arabia," he says. "I drove a Toyota Camry there. I had all the luxuries of life. But now I fear for my life there. That is why I decided to quit the Gulf once for all."
Thampy is one of a growing numbers of 'frightened' Indians who are returning home from Saudi Arabia these days. "Saudi Arabia was a paradise for an engineer like me 20 years ago," he says. "But I felt I had lost my peace of mind there of late. I do not want my children to suffer because of all these conflicts in the region."
Sudha Chandran, a housewife in Kochi whose husband, Ramesh Chandran, works as a restaurant manager in Jeddah, agrees.
Sudha says her husband wants to resign and come back. "There was a bomb explosion near his hotel last month. We are very frightened what will happen next," says the woman who also worked for a while as a nurse in a Jeddah hospital.
She returned with her three children after working abroad for 10 years. "My husband is still there because we want to earn some more money," she adds.
Sudha says she never liked working in Saudi Arabia. "There is no freedom there," she recalls. "We had to go out wearing a purdah [veil] always. There is no life there. Only money."
The killing of eight Indians in the hostage crisis in Saudi Arabia last month and daily reports of bomb blasts and killings across the Gulf have heightened anxiety, fear and uncertainty in many families across Kerala.
Fourteen years after the first Gulf War brought misery and displacement to thousands of Indians working in West Asia, the conflict in Iraq and its spillover in countries like Saudi Arabia has once again instilled fears of social insecurity and economic deprivation in many families.
The Gulf is home to some 3.6 million Indians, of whom the largest number, 1.5 million, live in Saudi Arabia. There are one million in the United Arab Emirates, almost half a million each in Kuwait and Oman, and around 100,000 each in Bahrain and Qatar.
More than half the Indians working across various Gulf countries hail from Kerala. They are credited with having boosted the state's economy over the past three decades by sending remittances worth millions of rupees every year.
A number of Indians work as middle-level employees in banks, software companies and various multinational firms. But most Indians in the Gulf are skilled and semi-killed workers who work in oil companies, airports, ports, and construction companies. Many women from India, especially from Kerala, work as nurses and maids.
Two of the eight Indians killed in last month's hostage drama in Saudi Arabia hailed from Kerala.
"We can not believe he has been killed," says K Kannan, a nephew of Pradeep Kumar who died in the crisis.
Kumar, who worked for an oil company, phoned his wife on May 26 to tell her he would be coming home on leave in June. "He was to have come here for a vacation in April. But he could not come down as he did not get leave. It is his dead body that we got from Saudi Arabia," laments Kannan.
Samuel Abraham, a civil engineer, says he is "saddened by what is going on in Saudi Arabia."
"Countries like Saudi Arabia used to be our destination for jobs and survival. But these days it is becoming a terrorist paradise," he says.
Abraham worked in Saudi Arabia for 25 years before settling down in Kerala. His son, a doctor, works in Riyadh.
"I have told my son to look for a job in India or in Europe. The Gulf is not a safe place anymore to work and live," says Abraham.
He fears that Indians will be the targets of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.
"I was reading the other day that Al Qaeda will target Indians because Muslims had been killed in Jammu and Kashmir," he says.
Frightened over the killings of Indians in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, a number of welfare organisations for Gulf-based Indians are these days asking the federal government to take urgent measures to protect their lives abroad.
A group of such organisations based in Kerala shot off a memorandum to the newly minted Union ministry of non-resident affairs last month requesting India to talk to various governments in the Gulf to ensure the safety of Indians living there.
'Millions of Indians working in the Gulf region are a frightened lot these days. We want the government to ensure that our countrymen are not targets of the terrorist attacks,' Kerala Pravasi League Convener C P A Bava Haji said in the memorandum.
Haji says the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating 'a fear psychosis' in many Indians working there.
'Indians are beginning to feel that they are not safe there. Fear is creeping into our lives there,' says Haji.
Satish Namboodiripad, chief executive officer, Kerala Non-Resident Affairs Initiative -- an effort by the state government to attracgt NRI investment -- admits that fear and insecurity in the Gulf are forcing many Indians to return to the country, leaving their jobs, especially after the war in Iraq.
"We do not have figures about how many Indians have come back. But the Gulf is no longer a dreamland for many Indians these days," Namboodiripad points out.
The increasing number of expatriates coming back to Kerala from the Gulf has alarmed the state government.
In the last decade, nearly 800,000 people from various Gulf countries returned to settle down in cash-strapped Kerala, according to a survey by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies.
'If a large number of Indian expatriates from the Gulf come back to Kerala, it will nearly destroy the funds-starved state. The biggest problem is that unemployment in Kerala is a huge problem these days,' the survey said.
Image: Uday Kuckian