Why violence against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia?

By Lamessa Hata’u

In the recent years the news of sorrow either suicides, killings, beatings or violence and other inhumane treatments have been the everyday breaking from the Gulf States in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. Now, on the social Medias it is becoming normal to read the suicide or murder of Ethiopian maids in Gulf States. Political commentators and many social media users comment differently on this, while some blame Ethiopian government for not taking action others blame Saudi government for violation of rights of migrant workers; human traffickers are also blamed for facilitating and promoting illegal migration; still others blame the victims themselves for migrating illegally while they can create jobs in their home country to improve their livelihood. Who ever responsible is, but ‘why violence against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia’?
Up to one million migrant workers have been deported from the kingdom in recent months and more than 20,000 are currently detained awaiting repatriation. The situation is worsening as the amnesty period the Saudi government set ended on November 03, after which the violence against migrant workers from Ethiopia and other countries turned in to a full fledged chaos. Three Ethiopian nationals and a Sudanese man have reportedly died at the hands of Saudi police as riots break out in poor quarters inhabited by migrant workers. Concerning this the Ethiopian government has summoned the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Ethiopia to explain the death of the three Ethiopians and the beatings of many others. The Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs made it public that around 23 thousand Ethiopians, who are currently in detention centers in difficult situations, are registered through Ethiopian embassy there for deportation back to their country. Deportation is underway and by now (November 22) some 50,000 migrant workers have been deported.

The history of migrant workers in the Gulf States in general and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular was/is always a contentious issue as well as paradoxical. Paradoxical in a sense, from economic view point no one even the nationals can deny that the role of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia is indispensable as the country is in acute shortage of local labor force. However, from socio cultural and political perspective the influx of overseas workers who are presumed to be indispensable economic factors is questioned as they are expected to join the society not only physically as economic objects rather they bring in their culture, social life and religious beliefs which in most cases are different from the host society. The influx of overseas workers, be it good or bad, history tells us that since the discovery of oil, Saudi Arabia lacking a local workforce has been employing a large expatriate labor force. Consequently, the number of foreigners both in the total population and workforce had increased in a significant amount. According to one of United Nations Secretariat report on international migration and development in the Arab region in 2006, in Saudi Arabia more than half of the workforce is comprised of foreign nationals.

This development, as to the Saudi government and nationals has posed economic, social and cultural threats to the local population. As a result, to maintain a highly privileged position of the nationals numerous restrictions have been imposed inter alia through legislation of new labor law. The current contradiction is also one manifestation of this new labor law. For the Saudi government it is enforcing labor laws, hoping that reducing the number of illegal workers in the kingdom will create opportunities for Saudi job seekers, rearranging social composition of its society and protecting the purity of its culture. However, it seems like the labor law has something to do behind the scene. It is not only defiance from the law that forced the Saudi government and public to act in that an unimaginable cruelty against the migrants. My doubt engenders from the fact that what is now going on in the kingdom is far beyond enforcement law. What was thought simply as enforcement of labor law later turned out to be a crackdown on migrant workers which involved violation of human rights, women being raped, men beaten to death, property being confiscated and any mistreatment that can be mentioned.

There appear some explanations for the escalation of violence against migrant workers. First of all the Saudi public has come to associate their economic hardship with ‘invasion of foreigners’ as the government and their media like to frame it. The official Saudi unemployment rate is 12 percent, but excludes a large number of citizens who say they are not seeking a job. However, critics argue that source of the problem of unemployment is not migrant workers since the majority of the kingdom’s nine million foreigners (typical example being Ethiopians) work as unskilled laborers or domestic workers, jobs usually shunned by Saudis. Here any rational man can easily understand that unless local work force changed its attitude to be employed in any job available on market with out any stereotype against some jobs, there is no way that migrant workers are blamed for unemployment in the kingdom. Moreover, the critics add that the extravagant waste of resources and unproductive economic policy is what resulted in growing rate of unemployment in this big Middle East country. Whether Ethiopian migrant workers are responsible or not for the economic hardships of Saudi nationals (for me they are absolutely not!), one of the major driving forces that drag Saudis to conflict with migrant workers is this perceived invasion of migrant workers.

Moreover, in the Middle East in general and the Saudi Kingdom in particular, there is one dominant culture, which is of Arabs and most importantly intertwined and inextricable from Islam. The one culture I am talking about here is a culture that is usually called by many as Arab or Islamic culture. They managed to preserve this culture over several centuries which they believe now they can not afford to dilute it with any alien culture. It is like people there have got weakness in accommodating diversity. May be I can call it ‘diversity phobia’! Due to the inevitable evolution of social life, now there appears something that attempts to dilute this culture, shows people alternative way of living and different kinds of social relations. There is no doubt that, in this globalized world Arabs in the Kingdom are aware of this alternative way of living and other kinds of social relations which are incompatible with their customs and values. What makes the case different here is that what they were aware of from far, far away, now lives with them in their country, not only in their country rather in home of many of them which enables them to experience the difference on daily basis. For them this has an element of cultural invasion! They are even jealous of their house maids whom they believe affects their children’s beliefs and customs which helps the children to be aware of the diversified world culture; they want the next generation to be kin with its predecessor who were/are ignorant of foreign culture. As I mentioned above, there is weakness of accommodating diversity in this part of the world and due to this fact, now they can take it no more. They need their past back by getting rid of these alien migrants and among many choices they have got, they amazingly chose violence which is supported and also practiced by the government. Generally, what I called ‘diversity phobia’, a tendency of zero tolerance against difference promoted violence against migrant workers.

One last thing that I would like to mention here is what many in the Kingdom misperceived as social evil that came in to their country following footsteps of migrant. The so called social evil is crime. But one should ask, ‘is crime new to this part of the world’? Absolutely no! It is the birth place of terrorism and where human right violation is frequent more than any part of this planet. It is where raped women are punished for no fault of themselves but amazingly accused of misleading men in to sin. Once again it is where men have the full right to beat their wives. These are all the disgusting crimes of our age which remind us of the practices of may be a century back. The irony is that the kingdom presents itself as where social order was stable but now not so due to the mess by migrants. The intention of the blame is apparent, they want to externalize the problem and by that justify their contentious policies which are not compatible to the social life of this modern globalized world. Externalizing the problem and then blaming migrants did not satisfy them to the extent they wanted, as a result they used this as a means to an end-violence against migrants.

The author can be reached at lamessa2012@yahoo.com

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