Saudi Arabia Doubles Down on Abuse

The bad treatment of African workers is nothing new.

This past week, three Ethiopians were killed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, as well as one foreign worker from Sudan. They died amid vigilante 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 in Washington, 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.

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