By Ulf Laessing
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - In a cramped government office in Khartoum, engineer Ahmed Taha and dozens of other Sudanese, lured by local newspaper adverts for jobs in the Gulf, sit waiting to get a permit to leave the country and work abroad.
“I’ve had enough of Sudan and will go to Saudi Arabia,” said Taha. “I am so tired of this country, the (economic) crisis, the corruption.”
Taha, who has been working in an office accounts department for two years because he could not find a professional post, has just been hired as an engineer by a construction firm in Saudi Arabia - a move that will increase his salary sevenfold to 2,500 Saudi riyals ($670) a month.
“I also want to find my wife a job as a teacher in Saudi Arabia because she makes only 600 (Sudanese) pounds ($95) a month here. We cannot live on our salaries.”
Like thousands of other Sudanese, Taha is escaping a country gripped by economic crisis since losing 75 percent of its oil production, its lifeline, when South Sudan seceded in July 2011.
Analysts estimate unemployment is running at between 20 and 30 percent, although there is no official data.
Annual inflation topped 41 percent in April and the Sudanese pound has more than halved in value against the dollar since South Sudan’s independence, making life unbearable for many.
Nearly 95,000 Sudanese, from laborers to teachers, nurses and engineers, left the country last year compared to only 10,032 in 2008, according to official data. Some analysts say the number is even higher because travel movements are hard to monitor.
Net migration contrasts with some other African countries, including South Sudan, that are seeing skilled professionals return home as the continent’s economic development and increasing foreign investment create career opportunities.
For Sudan, struggling with a high budget deficit and a shortage of foreign currency needed to pay for imports, migration has economic benefits.
The World Bank estimates migrant workers remitted $1.13 billion to Sudan last year, up from $442 million in 2011. That helped to offset the country’s goods and services trade deficit, estimated at $6.7 billion by the International Monetary Fund.
The exodus of workers should also help reduce unemployment. A prolonged “brain drain” of professionals, however, would put further pressure on the country’s deteriorating public services, adding to the country’s economic problems.
“We are suffering under the economic hardship,” said Omar El Fadli, who left Sudan in 1974 to study in Britain and then worked in France and the United States before coming back in 2005 to buy a restaurant in central Khartoum.
“To be honest with you we have been trying to sell (the restaurant) for over two years … It’s not profitable anymore.”
At the visa office in Khartoum, women in dark blue robes, representatives from government-approved employment agencies, are on hand to help applicants fill in the required paperwork.
“We sort out the paperwork for doctors going to the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia which is requesting a large number of Sudanese doctors to work there,” says Hamda Kassem, one of the employment agency staff.
While the Sudanese government allows labor agencies to arrange work contracts for doctors heading to the Gulf, a government-commissioned study published in January also expressed concern about the exodus of healthcare professionals.
More than 6,000 Sudanese doctors left for Saudi Arabia alone between 2009 and 2012, according to the government study, commissioned to assess the reasons for migration. Around another 1,000 doctors have gone to Libya since the ousting of ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it says.
That is leaving health services in Sudan vulnerable as countries in the Gulf and elsewhere snap up the country’s leading specialists. Newspaper reports of patients dying in Sudan hospitals after being misdiagnosed by ill-qualified doctors are not uncommon.
“There is a very bad effect on medical services,” the government study says. “The emigration to Saudi Arabia will result in the loss of specialists which will be felt directly … in the provinces.”
Sudanese medical colleges pump out up to 4,000 doctors annually but some colleges use textbooks that are more than 10 years old and have no surgical equipment.
The study forecasts that emigration from Sudan will continue to increase in the next few years due to economic, social, security and political reasons.
Sudan has for been plagued by insurgencies. Long confined to remote regions such as Darfur, rebels struck a central region last month, triggering fears they might attack Khartoum again like in 2008.
Few Western engineering firms operate in Sudan due to a U.S. embargo in place since 1997, making the country reliant on mostly Chinese companies to build infrastructure and they tend to import their own workers.
Sudanese government efforts to combat unemployment by hiring more young people for public sector jobs and starting infrastructure projects have been hampered by the budget crisis.
Young people complain that corruption also makes it hard to find work - jobs in the public sector, the biggest employer, often go to people with the right connections, known as wasta, they say.
“You cannot find a job without wasta,” said Hisham Hassan, who graduated in civil engineering from the Sudanese university of Atbara in 2008 but has yet to find work.
“I can’t afford to get married or anything,” he said after receiving his exit permit at the visa office.
He has landed a job at a Saudi builder paying him a monthly salary of 3,000 riyals - in Qassim, one of the most conservative regions of Saudi Arabia. “It will be fine. I have no choice anyway,” he said.
Concerns about personal freedom in Sudan are also encouraging emigration. Security agents have cracked down hard on small street protests organized mainly by students dreaming of an “Arab spring”. Divisions in the weak opposition and the army’s support for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir mean Sudan has avoided the uprisings seen in Egypt or Tunisia.
Sudanese professionals have a tradition of going overseas to gain experience and make money. In the 1960s and 70s, they flocked to the Gulf as those economies took off.
Opportunities dried up after the 1991 Gulf war when President Bashir failed to back the U.N.-led military operation to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. In retaliation, Gulf countries deported thousands of Sudanese once Kuwait was liberated.
With governments in the Gulf spending billions of dollars on roads, schools and universities again, Sudanese are back in demand although prospects in Saudi are dampened by a crackdown on illegal workers and policies to replace foreigners with locals.
Sudanese are also looking further afield. At the Goethe Institute in Khartoum, run by the German government, there’s a waiting list of up to three months to enrol in German classes.
Ahmed Shamun is making a living from the rise in migration. Having worked in Abu Dhabi as an English translator for 13 years, he returned in 1993 and now runs an employment agency in Khartoum, fixing up Sudanese with jobs in the Gulf. Yet, he still laments the trend.
“It’s not just doctors or engineers leaving, most of them are workers,” he said, sitting in his small office next to a travel agent selling air tickets to Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t like it but what else can young people do? There are no jobs here.”
($1 = 3.7502 Saudi riyals)
(Editing by Susan Fenton)