RIYADH // Employees at the Saudi Binladin Group set fire to more than seven company buses in the latest protest by disgruntled staff over not being paid salaries for months and a large round of reported layoffs by the construction giant.
Firefighters put out the blaze without any injuries reported, a spokesman for the civil defence in Mecca said.
The Binladin Group has not issued any statements about the reported layoffs or the unrest.
For several weeks, thousands of the firm’s employees have been staging rare protests in Mecca and Jeddah, with some saying they had not been paid for six months.
The attack on the company's buses on Saturday came a day after the Saudi Al Watan newspaper quoted a source as saying the company has terminated employment for 50,000 foreign workers and issued them exit visas. Many of those workers are apparently refusing to leave without being paid their late wages, the newspaper reported.
Also on Friday, local newspapers reported that five construction workers were injured when a company official hit them with his car after employees protesting salary delays rushed toward the vehicle. Police are investigating the incident.
Gulf-based construction firms have been among the hardest-hit due to lower oil prices that have curbed and sometimes delayed government spending on major infrastructure projects.
In February, the president of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Abdulrahman Al Zamil, wrote an open letter to King Salman saying that construction firms were struggling under the weight of delayed payments for their work on government projects.
The Saudi Binladin Group is one of the world’s largest construction firms. Founded in 1931 and headquartered in Jeddah, the firm has been behind some of Saudi Arabia’s most important projects, including roads, tunnels, airports, universities and hotels. It has carried out expansion work throughout the holy city of Mecca to accommodate more pilgrims, including construction of a massive clock tower with luxury hotels.
The multinational firm is also a main contractor for the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which will be the world’s tallest skyscraper at a kilometre high.
The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for decades. Al Qaeda’s late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son of the construction firm’s founder, Mohammed bin Laden, and was disowned by the family in the 1990s.
Despite the close family ties, the Saudi government barred the firm from acquiring new contracts after an initial government probe found the company was partly responsible for a crane collapse in Mecca’s Grand Mosque last year that killed 111 people days before the start of Haj pilgrimage in September.
The Saudi daily Arab News reported that the layoffs included engineers, foremen, steel fixers, carpenters and welders at the firm. The paper said employees were offered severance pay.
The newspaper cited various possible reasons for the terminations, including government restrictions on the firm and changes to Saudi labour law that have made it more difficult for firms to hire expatriates over local Saudis.
* Associated Press