COLOMBO: Nihal Gamage was working in Riyadh when his country, Sri Lanka, plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis last year.
As millions of Sri Lankans faced skyrocketing inflation and shortages of essential goods, Gamage’s bread and butter as a businessman in the Kingdom became a lifeline for his family back in Sri Lanka’s coastal town of Balapitiya.
“We were really blessed to be in Saudi Arabia, where our salaries were uninterrupted during the time of crisis,” Gamage, who has worked in the Saudi capital for more than three decades, told Arab News.
“Those working in the Gulf were fortunate ones. We increased our remittances to Sri Lanka so that our dependents would not have any difficulties in buying their consumer items.”
In 2022, Sri Lankans struggled through the country’s worst financial crisis in history. Many queued for days in snaking fuel lines and endured lengthy power cuts at the peak of the crisis, which ultimately saw the island nation defaulting on its foreign debt, the ouster of the president and his cabinet, and the inflation rate reaching a record high of around 70 percent in September.
“We were really shocked to know that our motherland had gone bankrupt,” Gamage said. “We did a lot of charities during this period. We as migrant workers distributed dry rations and other consumer needs to those who were affected in Lanka.”
Gamage is among 1.2 million Sri Lankans currently working abroad, a group that has historically been a key source of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves. Most of them, about 850,000, live and work in Gulf countries.
“The economic crisis was a big blow to all Sri Lankans living in the country as well as abroad,” L.K. Ruhunage, labor migration researcher and former deputy general manager at the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, told Arab News.
“Those working in the Gulf were blessed since they were receiving good salaries and those funds are good enough to look after their families back home.”
Many sent more money to help families, friends, and neighbors stay afloat.
In the Gulf, they enjoyed the support of their employers, Ruhunage said.
This was the case for M.H.M. Manasique, who works in the administration of the Kuwait-based Al Mulla Group.
“Kuwait has been a good friend of Sri Lanka from time immemorial,” Manasique told Arab News.
“I am happy to say that most of the employers in Kuwait treated their Lankan employees with compassion and even financially looked after them well with a view to help those who are suffering in Sri Lanka.”
For the family of Ali Packeer, who has been working in Saudi Arabia for the past 30 years, his income was the only source of livelihood for the whole family.
“It helped in many ways to support the family against the sudden increase of prices for food items, milk, medicine, and fuel,” he said.
“We were blessed to be in Saudi when the crisis hit our country because we were able to support our next of kin, relatives, and friends in our small way.”
In July, Sri Lanka’s inflation rate dropped to single digits for the first time in months. Figures released on Monday showed its key inflation rate nearly halved to 6.3 percent from 12 percent in June, following a $2.9 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.
Packeer was hopeful that the crisis would soon be over for good.
“The common man on the island could not take it,” he added. “We are on the road to recovery.”