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You might laugh at the headlines, but it’s no joke

September 28, 2011

I have a piece up on right now about the U.S./Saudi relationship and the ideals vs. interests equation that informs it. (I promise to stop picking on Saudi for a while after this. I love my Saudi friends, and find their country fascinating. I criticize because I care).

American foreign policy is often torn between shared values and strategic interests. Nowhere is the divide more pronounced than in U.S. dealings with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Although Saudi Arabia has an egregious record on human rights, a major arms deal is being finalized between the country and the U.S.  Indeed, Saudi Arabia appears positioned to remain a stable center of U.S. policy in the region, now more than ever.

You can read the rest of the piece here

Since I wrote that piece, a new story about Saudi Arabia has been making the rounds
A few weeks after uniting against a long-standing ban on female car driving, Saudi women are again joining hands in another common cause—this time against the recruitment of housemaids from Morocco. Their excuse is that Moroccan women are beautiful and could snatch their husbands off them…“We are considering turning to countries which allow their domestic workers to move to other countries without preconditions…these include Morocco, east Asia, and some south African countries,” said Saad Al Baddah, director of the labour recruitment committee at the Saudi Chambers Federation.
It’s an attention-getter. Underlying this story, however, are several quite serious issues. KSA needs so many foreign domestic workers because Saudi citizens generally will not work these jobs, despite high unemployment rates. KSA needs this influx of maids in particular because Indonesia and the Philippines – two countries from which a large percentage of Saudi Arabia’s domestic work force historically hails – are no longer sending their citizens to work there. 

Unemployment in Saudi Arabia is over 10% and rising, complicated by cultural restrictions on what jobs are available to which demographic groups, including distinctions according to gender and citizenship. As the Saudi government, desperate to head off the potential threat posed by a large and rapidly expanding population of over-educated, under-employed youth, overhauls labor and visa laws to require employers to meet certain quotas for citizens on their employment rolls, there are still whole sectors of employment most citizens won’t touch. This includes most domestic positions. Instead, those positions are filled by Indonesians, Filipinos, and other foreign workers – soon to include a larger contingent of Moroccan women if the government has its way. 

The issues with Indonesia and the Philippines go back a few years, but reached critical mass this past year. The last straw for Indonesia was an incident in June when an Indonesian woman was beheaded after receiving a conviction for murdering her employer. This sadly was not a unique case. A number of Indonesian workers have been executed in the Kingdom in recent years, many of whom claimed to have acted only in self-defense. The Saudi government responded to this and to Filipino demands for better wages and more guarantees of workers’ treatment by issuing a statement that it would no longer be issuing visas to workers from these countries. 

With Saudi citizens unwilling to work domestic jobs and damaged relationships with two of the nations whose citizens have traditionally filled those roles, the Saudi government has had to look elsewhere for domestic workers. As is so often the case with Saudi Arabia, this relatively minor – almost absurd – story has much more serious issues at its heart.

One Comment
  1. Skenya permalink
    September 28, 2011 6:12 pm

    “…came to a head” — followed by “Indonesian woman was beheaded”? C’mon…there are so many expressions that could’ve sufficed. That said, this is an intriguing and complex issue you’ve examined. On a trip to Saudi several years ago, I observed many South Asians employed there, as well, and it pained me to see how they were treated. They could be members of my own family. Thanks for the piece.

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