Oil and impunity

OVER the years, stories about the mistreatment of domestic and construction workers in Arab states have become so common that they no longer shock by their callousness.

Women, recruited as nannies and housekeepers, are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by predatory employers. Foreign workers are tied to their bosses through the kafala system whereby employers keep their foreign staff’s passports to prevent them from walking out. Many stay on despite the terrible treatment they receive.

Other laws make things even worse. Recently, the Guardian reported that many foreign women workers in the UAE have been raped by their employers, and when they become pregnant, are arrested and sentenced for the ‘crime’ of having sex outside marriage. Of course, the local courts do not punish the Arab men responsible for their pregnancies.

Many rich Gulf Arabs abroad have acquired a nasty image as a result of their huge gambling losses and the fortunes spent on commercial sex workers from Las Vegas to London. Along the way, they often break the law with their violent and depraved behaviour.

A Daily Mail report on a recent Beverley Hills scandal surrounding Prince Majed, one of the scores of sons of the late King Abdullah, detailed allegations of such a lurid nature that I can’t quote them in this family newspaper. His lawyer managed to get the criminal charges reduced to misdemeanour, but Majed’s female staff members have levelled a number of serious charges in the civil claim they have filed in court.

When he was asked to stop his abusive actions by a member of the staff, he is alleged to have yelled: “I am a prince and I do what I want. You are nobody!” Clearly, his country’s oil reserves have gone to his head. A few months ago, two Nepalese domestic workers in New Delhi accused their Saudi diplomat employer of rape. Before the police could question him, the Saudi embassy whisked him away to Riyadh, claiming diplomatic immunity.

It is this arrogance and sense of entitlement that has made these princes and their henchmen hated and mocked in equal measure across the world. And yet, because millions flock to the Gulf to seek work, many rich Arabs consider these people to be their slaves and treat them accordingly.

Most of the ruling elites in the Gulf states have never done a stroke of work, and yet are millionaires. No wonder the power and the privileges they are born into turn so many of them into monsters. Asian and African governments, needing the foreign exchange their nationals send home, offer their people little protection.

Richer and more powerful Western states are also often helpless when their citizens are subjected to barbaric punishments imposed by an opaque and terrifying legal system. There has been a recent media uproar over the sentence of 350 lashes awarded to Karl Andree, a 74-year-old British citizen, for making some wine at home. But thanks to an intervention at the highest level, Mr Andree will not undergo the flogging.

David Cameron has been criticised in the media and by the opposition for not taking the Saudis to task for their abysmal human rights record. The sentence of crucifixion for a teenager for taking part in a demonstration has appalled millions across the world, even though a confession of subversion was allegedly extracted under torture.

This sense of impunity permeates the system to the extent that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies can bomb the impoverished state of Yemen to rubble to further their political agenda without interference from the rest of the world. When Saudi jets destroyed a hospital run by the Doctors Without Bor¬ders (MSF) organisation, the event was barely covered by the media, although according to the UN, this was the 39th medical facility in Yemen attacked since the Saudi bombing campaign began in March.

The Americans were rightly criticised when they hit the MSF hospital in Kunduz. But they accepted responsibility, President Obama apologised publicly, and there are three ongoing investigations. The Saudis have simply denied their role in the destruction of the hospital in Yemen, and have gone on bombing.

If its ideology had remained confined to the country’s borders, the world would not have cared. But given the clout Saudi Arabia has due to its oil wealth, and its moral authority among Muslims due to the presence of the two holy cities on its soil, it is able to influence events far out of proportion to its size.

Since 1973, when the sharp rise in oil prices filled the kingdom’s coffers, it has pushed its intolerant interpretation of Islam that has given legitimacy to a wide range of jihadi groups from Afghanistan to Algeria. From the Taliban to the self-styled Islamic State, we are now reaping what the House of Saud has sown. 

Author can be reached at: [email protected]

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