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Saudi Sponsorship System – Modern Day Slavery

August 28, 2011 90 comments

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.

Image courtesy of The Crazy Jogger @ Flickr

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.

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Joy Riding – Death Penalty

February 21, 2007 29 comments

To all you joy riders out there in KSA, what say you…to this.

And for those that don’t know how much of a great pastime drifting is for many young Saudis, check some of these.

After 35 Years

February 21, 2007 4 comments

“I’m done paying the bills and I’m just leaving the bank,” I told my dad. He asked me to wait while he stopped the car to talk; he has a thing about driving in Dammam while talking on the cell; and he’s right about that.

While I waited, I watched another customer leave the bank and proceed toward his Caprice SS. He came to a halt just outside the driver window and whatever he saw on the reflection must have not appealed to him and decided this was a good time to adust his ghutra. While in the process, his cellphone rang and once done adjusting his head piece, he decided to put that 50 Cent ringtone out of its misery and answer the phone. I hope he wasn’t thinking of driving off while talking on the phone.

 The bank is located in the downtown area and it was noon; so this wouldn’t exactly be the best time to drive around unless you can handle bumper-to-bumper traffic and weavers trying to knock you off the road. You can forget about trying to cross those streets. If major video game makers decided to make one based on that city with the goal simply to cross the street safely at noon, no one would ever finish the game…even with cheat codes. Even worse, the bank is just beside the street, with the sidewalk serving as a makeshift parking lot; so anyone leaving the bank would have to wait for ages before they can safely back out.

With the press of a button and flash of the indicators, his door was unlocked and he went in, fired up the engine, switched on the A/C, and from the way the car’s rear just raised a couple of centimeters, I knew he’d just shifted into ‘R’; all the while busy talking on his Motorolla.

Then he backed up. He never looked. There was a Yukon headed for him. It swerved in time, albeit nearly flipping over. Sadly though, the much heavier Ford truck behind it wasn’t as agile…

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The Saudization effect…

August 23, 2006 46 comments

I’ll give you the characteristics of two men and tell you what happened. You tell me what’s askew.

1. He’s very skilled in his profession. He has numerous years of know-how in his field. He always comes on time and doesn’t leave without finishing the job. He doesn’t complain about his salary and manages it well to feed his wife and 3 kids. Other than those expenses, he also has extended stay permits (iqamas) to pay for each year. Since he doesn’t get medical benefits from the company, that too digs into his shallow pockets. He’s just a clerk (assistant). But he’s not Saudi.

2. He’s not skilled in this line of work or anything relating to electronics. He possesses no experience in this field. He slacks around and habitually leaves work for the next day. He complains that he’s Saudi and deserves a better wage than offered even though he isn’t married and has a car his mother purchased for him. He pays no taxes and doesn’t have to pay for anything other than the usual take-out. He’s looking for a job, anything he can get with a high school degree. He’s Saudi.

Next thing I know, the expatriate (from Asia) is laid off and has no chance of getting another job because the government passed strict rules that companies should hire Saudi nationals only. Five years ago maybe his CV and recommendations could have landed him another job around these dunes but time has changed. He can’t get his iqama renewed since his sponsor has fired him…heck he can’t even stay since he has no sponsor. He’s been given his dues and tickets to go back home with his family. He used to support relatives back in his country with his meager paycheck and now they’ll have to find another way to make a living…probably spend whatever he earned to try and get back into the kingdom under another sponsor and work for even less…ultimately knowing that he’ll be replaced by another Saudi.

I don’t get it. Present this case to any court around the world and they’ll certainly hold the sponsor accountable for firing the expatriate wrongly due to discrimination. Here, you can’t even present it since this bigotry actually runs in the new regulations passed by the government.

Pity not the poor man, nor the Saudi populace, but the regime which blindly practices prejudice against foreigners and only sees prejudice when it is practiced against them.

This Saudiazation has been going on for quite some time, but I didn’t know it went down like this…