In Saudi Arabia, oil will always be thicker than blood

Published: January 24, 2015
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To survive in Saudi Arabia as an expatriate required following a simple unwritten rule: Keep your interaction with the locals at a minimal level, and don’t complain, especially in public settings. PHOTO: AFP

It was the year 2000 and I was a young man studying in Canada. Having spent a majority of my life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for a change, I was enjoying the atmosphere of a country where people weren’t treated with disdain simply because of their nationality. Alas, even in Canada, it was difficult to escape Saudi mentality.

I was socialising with a group of Middle Eastern students at a food court where we were all getting to know each other. When asked, I told them I was a Pakistani who had grown up in Saudi Arabia. While the other students nodded, a student from Saudi Arabia who wore an Armani sports jacket which was two sizes too small wrinkled his nose and snorted loudly. His eyes narrowed at me as if he were examining an insect that had once eaten from his picnic basket. What followed was a racist joke in Arabic which I understood but am unable to repeat for it can’t be published. I still remember clearly that one of his buddies laughed so hard a bit of chicken he had been gobbling flew out of his mouth and landed on his chest as if he was part of some strange fetish film. On the other hand, students from Egypt, UAE, and Yemen could only glare at them.

All of my life I have experienced varying levels of racism in Saudi Arabia. It would begin from the moment one would enter the airport and wait for two hours for five incompetent men to struggle over a single Pakistani passport, and it would continue in daily life. While I did not have issues with every Saudi I met – many were kind-hearted people – some undoubtedly looked at South Asians as inferior beings who deserved little better than animals.

To survive in Saudi Arabia as an expatriate required following a simple unwritten rule: Keep your interaction with the locals at a minimal level, and don’t complain, especially in public settings. Following these rules resulted in a reasonable life in the country. Unshackled by this rule in Canada, I let the Saudi student have a piece of my mind, though his sneer revealed that he was absorbing little.

Recently, a video of a Burmese woman named Layla bint Abdul Mutaleb Bassim being beheaded in Saudi Arabia took the internet by storm. The woman was sentenced for reportedly sodomising her seven-year-old stepdaughter with a ‘broomstick’ and ultimately beating her to death. In the chilling video, the woman can be heard screaming her innocence to the very end, and shouting that she will never forgive her executors for slaughtering her. Her protests are finally cut off mid-sentence in a frightening gasp for breath as her throat is slashed. Because the cut wasn’t clean, her executioner paused before hacking at her neck again.

And then moments later… again.

To make matters worse, she wasn’t provided painkillers. The authorities wanted her to taste a more painful death.

The details of this case are murky, but certain issues stand out even if one ignores the dodgy nature of speedy Saudi justice. For one, it is rare for a woman to commit a sexual crime of this nature, and it is more likely that the poor girl died from rape because was she too young to handle intercourse from her actual assailant. Another point to consider is that guilty people on the final road to their maker typically confess their crimes in hope for leniency in the afterlife.

Of course, none of these factors are a guarantee of her innocence, but my opinion is shaped by own experiences of Saudi Arabia. In the Kingdom, whispers of Saudi sexual deviancy were a constant norm where targets in the repressed society typically were young boys from South Asia as well as workers from the Philippines. Perhaps this is because these nationals were considered inferior races and hence justifiable prey.

As a youngster, the general idea was to only travel with friends, especially at night. Sadly, that was never a guarantee against harassment.

While cycling with my friend in my neighbourhood as a boy, we were approached by a large Saudi man in his car. He tried to charm us into going to his home with him. At first he bribed us with chocolate. Later it was money. When we refused, he followed us until we reached my parents’ home. This wasn’t a deterrent for him either, and only my angry mother drove him away. We saw him target other boys as well, and he only left the hunting ground after complaints finally reached the patrolling policemen.

In other incidents, while returning home from cricket matches on foot, groups of friends were sometimes stalked by Saudi men in SUVs. While life was significantly safer than in Pakistan, warding off unwanted aggressive romantic advances from male suitors is an element quite native to Saudi Arabia.

I carry enough grim tales to fill a book, but one of the most harrowing ones is of a Pakistani boy who was nabbed by several Saudi men while playing outside. He was our family friend. Here, they beat him in their car as they drove him far away from his home. Soon, he was on the dessert highway in the black of the night. After another punch, he finally lost consciousness.

When he regained consciousness, the car was taking a turn from the road and on to the dessert. Frightened, he pretended he was still knocked out, keeping one eye half-open. The car drove into the dessert and towards a small cabin, no doubt used by the men for reasons I can only speculate. As fortune would have it, all of his kidnappers stepped out of the car and walked towards their hut, leaving what they thought was an unconscious prey alone in the vehicle. Perhaps they had let their guard down because they were in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps a higher power was with the boy.

After the boy was sure he was alone, he quiet slipped out of the car and ran into the night. At first he went quietly, and in a zigzag pattern, but eventually he ran as fast as he could. Finally, he made it to another portion of the highway and desperately waved at the first vehicle he saw. Luck was still with him, as the driver of this truck was a Pakistani national who was carrying goods to another city. Hearing his story, the driver said he could hitch a ride with him in the same direction, but the crying boy pleaded to be taken back home to his mother. Heartbroken, the truck driver agreed, even though he knew he’d be in trouble with his superiors who held his passport. When the boy was safely returned to his crying mother, the driver made sure he was okay before scrambling away not to be seen again.

If this story is disturbing consider that this boy was relatively lucky as compared to those who have suffered more greatly. A Pilipino hairdresser told me of her sister who suffered sexual abuse from her Saudi employers while working in the Kingdom. Her sexually depraved employers were men in their 70s. She also told me that workers are regularly made scapegoats for crimes such as robberies and rape. A quick Google Search reveals documented reports of maids and nurses from Philippines, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, suffering from rape and sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia. What’s more they work like slaves and are often deprived of their incomes.

The Guardian reports that of the 1.5 million foreign maids working in Saudi Arabia, many face mistreatment,

“Some domestic workers find kind employers who treat them well, but others face intense exploitation and abuse, ranging from months of hard work without pay to physical violence to slavery-like conditions.”

The Guardian also confirms that many are on death row each year for crimes of rape and murder after having themselves sustained abuse.

Meanwhile, a report from The Independent claims that survivors only have their embassies to turn to,

“Beaten, burnt and sexually assaulted, they turn up in their dozens each year at their embassies in Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi to plead for sanctuary from their tormentors and a free passage home. One Arab Gulf state had to charter airliners to take home Indian and Filipina maids after they complained of rape and beatings by their employers.”

But while other Gulf States provide some protection, the minorities are quite powerless in the Kingdom.  Some of the heart-breaking cases are shared by The Guardian,

“Four other women – Tuti Tursilawati binti Warjuki, Darmawati binti Taryani, Siti Aminah and Siti Zaenab – are also on death row. Tursilawati, 27, claims she killed her employer when he tried to rape her in 2010 after months of sexual abuse. Zaenab was also convicted of killing her employer, while Aminah and Taryani were sentenced to death for the murder of another migrant worker.”

I suppose we can now add Layla bint Abdul Mutaleb Bassim to the long list of foreigners silenced by the Saudi sword. Alarmingly, a disproportionate number of people beheaded in Saudi each year are migrant workers. Amnesty claims that there were 79 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2013, and between 1985 and 2013, over 2000. Of this number, nearly half were foreigners.

Let’s let that sink in.

Foreigners make a small percentage of Saudi Arabia, yet those facing the sword account at nearly 50%. Why are such a high number of those facing brutal capital punishment in the Kingdom expatriates? Do foreigners travel to the Middle East to steal, rape, and murder? Or are they easier to pin for violent crimes? To make this more tragic, Amnesty says that their trials are held in a language they don’t understand under flimsy evidence,

“Foreign nationals with little or no knowledge of Arabic – the language of pre-trial interrogation and trial hearings are often denied adequate interpretation facilities.”

Just try to imagine the living nightmare some of these workers are caught up in.

Only a few, such as Indonesian Ati Abeh Inan are lucky. She had been on death row for ten years and finally returned to Indonesia after being pardoned by the generosity of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Her crime was that she had cast a dark magic spell on her employer and his family. Clearly she wasn’t a very experienced sorceress as she had apparently confessed to witchcraft.

These reports are barely murmured in Saudi Arabia. Because the press is ruled with a whip, the national newspapers portray their nation as a kingdom of unicorns, rainbows, and cotton candy. The case of a Saudi blogger sentenced to a 1000 lashes, rings out loudly as a warning for those who dare to speak against the draconian regime.

One could argue that these sexual crimes are the results of a repressed society, but the strict interpretation of religious laws only seem to apply to the common man. Underneath, the Saudi monarchy bathes in hypocrisy. According to WikiLeaks Cables, diplomats describe the reality of Saudi Arabian royalty as men who party with drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes behind closed doors.

Certainly the philosophy here seems to be to live, but don’t let live.

The Saudis wield a double edged sword. For the outsiders it is sharp and unforgiving, but for their own, it is blunt. While it was heartening to hear Pakistani Federal Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada speak against Saudi politics, it wasn’t surprising to learn that he later retracted his statement. Meanwhile, IMF’s Christine Lagarde showered praise on the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz for being a ‘strong advocate for women’, which makes for incredible reading. With the King’s brother Salman now having taken over, it doesn’t seem like Saudi Arabia will improve any time soon.

Strangely, Western powers rightly criticise China for its human rights violations, but are mute on Saudi Arabia. I suppose that as far as Saudi Arabia’s political partners are concerned, oil is thicker than blood.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.