Saturday, April 27, 2013

CNN World: Modern Day Slavery in the Gulf

Photo Credit:  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

While this article specifies working conditions for cheap foreign labor in Qatar and the UAE, sadly these policies and unfair systems in place also apply to Saudi Arabia.  This article is reprinted from CNN World and was published on April 24, 2013...  


By Dimitri Gkiokas, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dimitri Gkiokas is a banker who now lives in Germany. The views expressed are his own.

“Can you believe these things happened just 150 years ago?!” exclaimed a young voice behind me. Lincoln had just finished in a Parisian cinema. I was not surprised by the audience's exuberant applause at the end credits: Well-deserved for the tired, yet persistent president, who had finally made it through the painful vote for the abolition of slavery. But that “just 150 years ago” reminded me of the modern-day slavery that continues today.

I recently left the Middle East after a decade in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Both are places of invariable desert yellow monotony and mind-blowing heat, with a fine touch of 90 percent humidity during the summer months – unbearable for most, but apparently not the tens of thousands of Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi construction workers melting in the heat of the Arabian Peninsula.

The prize for their back-breaking work: $5 a day for working in appalling conditions 12 hours a day 7 days-a-week; for frequently being deceived and blackmailed by rogue employment agencies back home; for signing contracts they cannot read and effectively being held hostage by an all-mighty employer in their new destination country; for being fully marginalized by the host societies; for living with hundreds of other workers, and as the BBC notes, sometimes six or seven crowded into a 3-by-3-meter room in dreadful desert camps without proper sanitation; for abandoning all hope of ever enjoying the love of family life.
Like all expats in the Gulf, I could see the daily convoys of beat-up buses in jolly colors (but no A/C), packed with exhausted workers, some looking out the window at the Bentleys, the Ferraris, the Cayennes stopped next to them at the traffic light. From the comforting distance of my bank office, $5 morning cafe-latte in hand, I often wondered how we expatriates tolerate their mistreatment.
In the Arab Gulf, employment law is elementary and rarely enforced, while trade unions are forbidden. The UAE and Qatar have both ratified the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, but migrant workers are still treated like cattle, their salaries kept at the World Bank’s poverty-line.

Employers confiscate workers’ passports and exploit the kafala sponsorship law, leaving immigrants at the mercy of their employer with virtually no chance of escape. A complex network of commercial interests permeates the region’s social and economic fabric, with ruling family members and friends holding – as mandated by law – large shares in foreign companies’ subsidiaries and joint ventures. Western powers have been courting their protégés for decades in exchange for black-gold and construction projects’ baksheesh, with “return on investment” overriding any need to provide decent working conditions.

There has been a constant flow of published research about the exploitation of migrant workers. The ILO, Human Rights Watch and various other groups have worked to raise awareness on the abuse of workers’ basic rights, flying in the face of the Gulf’s happy-face press. Expats in the Gulf see these abuses every day. We sometimes even discussed these abuses at our pool parties. But we ultimately went about our own business, indifferent, culpable. To keep enjoying luxuries we never had back home, we seemed to have gradually given up any formative role in the societies we were living in and to have accepted a racist notion of equality: these people as “not like us.”

Some would protest:  “They made this choice on their own. In their countries, they have no job, no prospects.” George Fitzhugh, the spokesman for Southern plantation slave-owners in the United States abided by the same humanist values: “…with slavery, both the master and the slave are always provided for; the slave always has a home and food, while the master always has his lands worked upon.” These are pathetic arguments, which we can’t take seriously if none of us would be prepared to accept a similar fate for ourselves or our children.

Yet despite all this, there is no hope for institutional change anytime soon. The closest real democracy is more than three hours away by plane and law is a thin line in the sand defined by local rulers, who have declared open season on dissidents. Most local citizens of these countries, a mere 10 to 20 percent of the entire population, instinctively resist labor reforms, captive to their society’s norms, their convenient way of life and the complicity of the expatriates.

The only visible road to change requires the involvement of the educated and influential community – local and ex-pat – to break the silence and collusion with this modern-day slave trade. It has happened before: the abolition of slavery, the labor rights movements, female emancipation – daring people succeeded in shattering archaic traditions by raising their voices.

In the Gulf today, many people have the power to make a small change individually: journalists, bloggers, university professors, ambassadors, imams, and priests can spread the word to their communities and demand government reforms. Contract and procurement managers can impose “human-friendly” terms on bidding contractors. CEOs and human resources managers can establish corporate policies based on international employment law. To embrace that in a world of victims and executioners, the idea espoused by Albert Camus that it is the “job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners,” is more essential in the Middle East today than ever before.

The Lincoln of Arabia will not step forward anytime soon (and will most probably meet with a bullet as soon as he does). In the meanwhile, the emancipation of migrant workers is in the hands of the rest of us.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Real American Bedouin

Erga Rehns was born in Palestine in 1935.  She was raised in New York, lived in Portugal, and lived among the Bedouins in the desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan.  This post contains two videos from 2007 that were posted by Al Jazeera about her life in the desert.

Feeling the need to return to her roots and a simpler life, Erga had lived for seven years in the Wadi Rum desert when this record of her bedouin lifestyle was first presented.   She outlived two husbands prior to her move to Jordan and in the video shares a story about receiving a marriage offer from a Bedouin man when she was 70 years old. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Suck it up and Deal With it!

After more than five years here in Saudi Arabia, transportation continues to be a major frustration for me.  As you all should know by now, women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.  Many women here have drivers but I have not been so fortunate.  I must rely on my husband to take me places – shopping, the doctor, to visit friends, classes, etc.  

When I lived in the states before moving here in my mid-50s, I always had my own car and always drove myself wherever I needed to go.  Getting places was never the logistical nightmare for me that it is here in Saudi Arabia - and it also never really required advance planning on my part.  Here in KSA I need to arrange to go with another woman who has a driver or I need to make sure that my husband is available to take me places before I can confirm that I am going.  Plus I need to give him advance notice - because he hates spur-of-the-moment, last-minute plans.  And despite the fact that I tell him ahead of time and remind him several times, the night before I need to go somewhere he usually acts like it’s the first time he’s ever heard of it! 
Traffic congestion in Jeddah

Because getting around in Jeddah is difficult due to road construction everywhere and poor street planning, traffic in this city is usually quite congested - and the drivers are crazy, reckless, and inconsiderate.  For these reasons and many more – chief among them, that women must depend on men to drive them places - women are oftentimes delayed and late for appointments.  

My husband/my driver is a stickler when it comes to being on time and always has been.  Yesterday morning when he took me to the silk painting class, I was the first one to arrive – a good 15 minutes early.  I told him the class would be over at 11am.  One woman was late, so the class started late.  At 10:45am, I called my husband to tell him not to pick me up for at least another hour.  He wasn’t happy about it.  I hurried to finish my project but even at that, I didn’t get to the car until 12:15pm.  

More traffic congestion in Jeddah
Turns out he was extra grumpy because the car air conditioner had just stopped working, and he had some errands to run and instead he had to just sit there in the car waiting for me – plus my being so late from the class only added to his frustration.  He was fuming mad!   He told me that he just wasted a whole hour of his life sitting there waiting on me when he had so many other things he could have been doing.  It took him all afternoon before he cooled down enough to speak to me.  

Well, you know what?  Too bad.  HE’s the one who brought me to live in the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.  Transportation was NEVER a problem for me in my life until moving to Saudi Arabia.  It wasn’t MY fault he had to sit in the hot car waiting for me.  I see it as his choice.  We are living here because HE wants to, not me.  He knew what life would be like once we moved here.  My husband needs to just suck it up and deal with it.  

Rant over... 

P.S. - And if anyone wants to leave a comment saying why don't I just leave Saudi Arabia if I hate it so much here, save your breath.  I don't hate living here - but I DO hate having to depend on men to drive me around when I am perfectly capable of doing it myself.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Art of Silk Painting in Jeddah

This morning I attempted something new – the art of silk painting!   

I enrolled in a private class here in Jeddah given by a lovely lady named Q.   

Q has been doing silk painting since she was a teen.  

My first attempt at silk painting - by Susie of Arabia
I opted to draw my fish design freehand.

Silk painting by Farnaz
There were floral guides available that the other women used. 

Silk painting by Fariha
We learned a bit about the history of silk painting, tools and materials required, and then each of us made a hands on project that we took home with us, along with supplies provided by Q.  
Silk painting by Kathy
There were five students altogether and we had a great time.  The two hour class turned into three!
Silk painting by Ayesha
If you are interested in signing up for Q’s classes, check out her Facebook page.   These classes are for women only. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fakieh Aquarium

Fakieh Aquarium is Jeddah's latest family entertainment facility and the first of its kind within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  It is absolutely beautiful, kept immaculately clean, and promises to be an outing for the family that is educational as well as fun.  

The aquarium opened in January to overwhelming crowds.  Located near Sari Street on Jeddah's Corniche, which runs north and south along the Red Sea coastline, the aquarium will eventually be home to more than 7000 different types of marine life, from sharks to dolphins to seals and  jellyfish.   The first thing one sees when approaching the facility from the north is the gorgeous colorful tile mosaic depicting underwater sea life on the side of the building.   

The viewing tanks are large and spectacular, furnished with mangroves and coral reefs native to the area.  The walk through tunnel tank is particularly outstanding.  It reminded me very much of the many times I have been snorkeling in the Red Sea.  I even saw some species that I’ve never seen while snorkeling.  Sadly many Saudis, in particular females, are never taught how to swim so they have never been able to snorkel and experience the wondrous beauty of the Red Sea.  Fakieh Aquarium gives them the opportunity to see the amazing sea life firsthand that had previously been outside their realm of possibilities.

We also took in the Dolphin Show while we were there.  It is performed four times daily.   For a school day, there was a fairly good crowd at the 1pm showing.   A restaurant on site is still under construction and will hopefully open in the near future.  

Admission tickets cost 50 riyals per person, and the Dolphin Show is another 50 riyals.  Children under 2 are admitted for free.  For one person, the price isn’t bad, but for large families, a trip to the aquarium can seem rather costly.  Occasionally a discounted rate of 30 riyals is offered on Fridays through Fakieh Aquarium's Facebook page.  Hours of operation are from 11am to 11pm Saturday through Thursday.  Friday hours are 1:30pm to 11pm.

I was a little miffed at the products for sale in the aquarium’s gift shop.  Most of them were just toys that can be bought anywhere else and didn’t really pertain at all to sea life.  I was particularly surprised to see the pillows bearing the image of a scantily clad Betty Boop on sale in the aquarium gift shop.  Seriously?  

Overall Fakieh Aquarium is impressive and I must commend them for a job well done.  The sea creatures appear well cared for, the staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the facility itself is gorgeous. 

I hope you enjoy the above slideshow of my visit.  To see more photos taken by other visitors to the aquarium, please CLICK HERE.  

Enjoy this Saudi Gazette article:  Explore the wonders of the sea world at Fakieh Aquarium