Saudi Sponsorship System – Modern Day Slavery
The night was young and the cool spring breeze sent a chill down my spine as I wrapped my arms around myself and exited the warmth of the mosque. Isha prayer had just finished and I thought of my evening plans as I tried to locate my sandals among the heap of shoes and slippers at the main door. “Dude, use the damn shoe rack next time” I thought to myself, as I found my sandals and proceeded to walk home, a mere 50 meters away.
The neighborhood street was eerily quiet, but started showing signs of life as people slowly exited the mosque and went back to what they were doing before prayer. There were no birds flying around, no cars moving in sight, save for the few worshippers who came to the mosque with cars. Another sudden breeze blew leaves off the nearby trees and carried with it that unmistakable tangy smell of the nearby Arabian Sea. A little kid blew past me on his BMX bike, looking back and waving at me for approval, to which I responded with a big smile and two thumbs up.
As I walked past the houses, mothers and sisters were busy preparing dinner and the different smells emanating from the kitchen windows tingled my nose and I had a sudden craving for shawarma. I decided to call Ali and ask if he was down for some shawarma followed by some diet-killing Krispy Kreme donuts and that’s when I met Mohammed, my neighbor. He was walking back home from prayer and had just come back to Saudi Arabia from Malaysia a couple of days back. He told me that he has a long semester break and would be in Saudi Arabia for a couple of months and will renew his iqama before heading back to Malaysia. We talked for some time and had to cut our chat short as Ali rolled into my street. A couple of weeks later I went back to Malaysia.
Little did Mohammed know that he might never make it to Malaysia. What was supposed to be a couple of months turned into 4 months and he’s still stuck in Saudi Arabia as I type this.
But first, for those of you that don’t know, Saudi Arabia does not have your usual residence permit system for expatriates. Expatriates have to obtain an iqama (pronounced iqaama), a residency permit that allows them to work and live in the country, through a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia who becomes their kafeel, or sponsor. This kafala system, or sponsorship system, binds the expatriate worker to that kafeel and he has the power to alter the employment contract and/or transfer the sponsorship to someone else. The expatriate worker has no power or say and is under the mercy of his kafeel. Kafeels are normal people like you and me, so majority of them have a healthy relationship with the people they sponsor, but there are always the ones that go out of their way to wreak havoc on people’s lives.
Some kafeels, in seeing that the person/people they sponsor are totally under their mercy, exploit them by blackmailing them and forcing them to pay them money. Some of them simply decide to get them deported after the pettiest of misunderstandings. An expatriate can file a legal suit against their employer or sponsor, but often times they are deported before their cases are even reviewed by judges. Other kafeels simply ignore their duty towards the people they sponsor by refusing to get their papers signed for renewing or any other legal processes. Something similar happened to my neighbor Mohammed and his family.
Mohammed’s father is a retired engineer who used to work for the oil giant Saudi Aramco and a respected member of the community who has lived in the same house in Saudi Arabia since the early 70s. Mohammed was born in Saudi Arabia and has lived his whole life there. He has nowhere else to call home. All of his friends are Saudi.
When the time came for the family to renew the iqamas, they found out their kafeel was on vacation in USA. They didn’t worry, thinking he’d be back in time for them to start the renewal process. When a week passed and he was nowhere to be found, they tried reaching him through his numbers, but to no avail. They tried his family. No luck. They tried reaching him through his company and siblings. Still no luck. As each day passed, and with the threat of deportation looming over them, the family decided to take matters into their own hands and try to obtain a new sponsor. As of this moment they are still working on that solution, and I pray it works out for them.
This kafala system is nothing short of modern-day slavery. How is it different from historic slavery where people were tied to a ‘master’? It is a primitive idea that hinders human potential and breeds hatred toward Saudi Arabia in the hearts of the millions of expatriates living inside and outside Saudi Arabia. Sadly, sometimes even children even exposed to this ideology and understand from a young age that they are not equal with their Saudi peers.
Other Gulf nations have seen the error of their ways and have either done away with the system or ensured migrant workers get justice. Abolishing it will instantly improve Saudi Arabia’s battered image in the eyes of the world and provide it greater influence and flexibility in the global arena. Getting rid of this archaic system which is open to all sorts of abuses will not only win the hearts of the millions of expatriates who suffer the indignity of being under a Saudi sponsor’s power, but make them fall in love with the country and its people.
There’s an Arab proverb that goes along the lines of:
Write bad things that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble.
Too often have the winds of time blown away the proverbial writing in the sand; the cries for equal treatment from the expatriate community. Saudi Arabia should change for the better and become a home for all, instead of a home for a few and a prison for many. Saudi Arabia, being The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and a leader in the Islamic world, should be beacon of hope and a model for human rights and equality.
Islam teaches us the great reward for releasing a slave. King Abdullah has the opportunity to release millions.