Dawit Giorgis, a former senior Ethiopian government official, is a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
This past week, three Ethiopians were killedin the Saudi capital of Riyadh, as well as one foreign worker from Sudan. They died amidvigilante violence and reports of police brutality after illegal immigrants in the slum of Manfouha protested against a massive campaign of deportations that the government launched this month. A similar demonstration was broken up in the city of Jeddah, and its organizers arrested.
Meanwhile, large groups of Ethiopians have been gathering for protests this week at Saudi diplomatic institutions across the United States, including in front of the Saudi Embassy inWashington, as well as the Kingdom’s consulates in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
What is this big controversy about?
Saudi officials claim that the Ethiopians instigated this episode by throwing stones at cars without any provocation, but a reporter for the Wall Street Journal talked to locals who had a different view. They said “Saudi security forces had come to the neighborhood the night before to declare that all illegal African migrants had to leave… immediately. Pakistani laborers began trying to help police by catching African workers, and clashes began”.
This harsh crackdown comes as part of a longstanding Saudi effort aimed at increasing the proportion of citizens employed in productive sectors of the economy. However, it is also the result of a pervasive legacy of racism and religious discrimination experienced by African Christians in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia only abolished slavery in 1962, under heavy pressure by Washington and the UN. The best estimates suggest that the Kingdom held approximately thirty thousand slaves at the time.
But the Wahhabi religious establishment was reluctant to see the institution go. Just a decade ago, a member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body was caught on tape preaching that “slavery is a part of Islam”. He elaborated that “slavery is a part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam”.
In this insidious mindset—which, of course, is rejected by many Muslims—a hierarchy of races could be seen as a religious obligation. Due to what Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed calls a “culture of slavery” that “pervades the country,” even dark-skinned men and women who are Saudi citizens have been blocked from positions in a range of prestigious professions.
There are an estimated nine million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, mostly doing jobs that Saudis themselves do not want to take. And so far, the sudden crackdown is mainly just causing disruptions to Saudi Arabia’s national economy. According to a story in the Saudi Gazette, twenty thousand schools in the country are now short of janitors, and 40 percent of small construction firms have stopped operations. One observer even counted thirteen facilities for the religious ritual of washing dead bodies that had been shuttered in Jeddah because the workers responsible for this thankless task had been forced to flee.
Many illegal immigrants have wanted to go home but were unable to do so. Hundreds of Filipinos have been camping out in front of their country’s consulate in Jeddah because they needed official support to get exit visas and purchase expensive airplane tickets home.
Saudi Arabia’s kefala labor system facilitates human rights abuses, “sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions.” The system gives companies enormous power over their foreign employees, including the ability to block employees from flying home if they are unhappy with their work conditions. That is why such rights groups and theEconomisthave called on Riyadh to abolish the kefala system.
Overlaid with this system of discrimination and exploitation is Saudi Arabia’s chauvinistic repression of Christian residents. Many African workers in the country are Christians, but absolutely no churches are officially allowed. As recently as this April, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula must be destroyed.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s religious police raided a private religious gathering of fifty-three Ethiopian Christians, shutting down their prayer group and making mass arrests. Just half a year earlier, authorities deported thirty-five others for participating in a similar Ethiopian prayer group. And in 1997 two foreign workers were beheaded for conducting Bible study meetings and prayer groups in prison.
But no aspect of these abuses is more chilling than the examples of bodily harm experienced by some foreign workers in the Kingdom. Many of the individuals returning to Ethiopia have scars or fresh wounds from beatings by employers or police, and one man claims the officer who beat him even stole the shoes from off of his feet. According to the UAE paper Emirates 24/7, “scores of Asian and African domestic workers have been reported to have committed a suicide in Saudi Arabia over the past years because of mistreatment and other factors”.Chilling images keep surfacing on the web of Ethiopian maids who were so desperate with their circumstances in Saudi Arabia that they hanged themselves.
Over the years, numerous videos have surfaced showing angry, entitled Saudis beating and verbally abusing foreign workers—although to their credit, many Saudi citizens called out for a criminal investigation in one recent case. A study by the Committee on Filipinos Overseas found that 70 percent of Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia reported instances of physical or psychological abuse.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to Riyadh, who obviously wishes to maintain good relations with his Saudi hosts, actually claimed that twenty-three thousand of his countrymen “handed themselves in” after Manfouha. They are being deported in large numbers at this very moment.
How bad must it become for economic migrants when suddenly tens of thousands of them are allegedly begging for a way out? And at what point does the international community have a responsibility to say loudly and emphatically enough is enough?
Dawit Giorgis is a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior official in the Government of Ethiopia. David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mschel. CC BY-SA 3.0.