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A dangerous Saudi affair

July 19, 2011

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Life in Saudi Arabia is good - oil rich, tax free incomes, multiple servants, big villas and security.  Even labourers, remark on the improved quality of life in Saudi as compared to Pakistan. For them this is an opportunity to support their families in the relative security of the Kingdom.   It seems Pakistani expat workers are satisfied with life. Even migrant labourers who I have conversed with personally say life is better in Saudi than in Pakistan, and the incomes they receive give their families back home a fighting chance. Personally, I’ve had good experiences and memories of living in the Kingdom for many years. But let’s face it – there is a conflict between personal gain and ethical integrity when it comes to Saudi Arabia.   One can witness a pervasive sort of racism,  a form of Saudi supremacy that views other types of Arabs and particularly the South Asian expats (who are mostly labourers) as inferior and mere ‘commodities’ who can be bought and sold ruthlessly. Expats are not human beings but a commodity to be bartered and acquired.   Connected to racial supremacy is an attempt to insulate the regime from criticism by using the cloak of religion. Saudi textbooks are filled with references to hate; the Islamic Studies curriculum in the country is simply barbaric. I’ve experienced first-hand being taught by an Islamic Studies teacher in one of the most prominent private schools in Riyadh, about the dangers of having non-Muslims as friends and about the evil conspiracies hatched by Christians, Jews and Shias.   In Pakistan, Saudi petro-dollars have funded factories of hate in the form of the madrassa system. ‘Petro-Islam’ is a nightmare scenario – capitalism and a dangerous ideology locked in a tight embrace. It is because of the sheer amount of money behind this austere and dangerous theology that it can easily overwhelm the moderate elements in any given society.   Little attention is given in Pakistan about the treatment of Pakistani labourers. If the Saudis will not speak about the suffering of these people then why should we remain silent? It is understandable that Pakistanis within Saudi cannot protest, but why do Pakistanis living outside who have witnessed first-hand the harsh treatment of their fellow citizens choose to remain silent? The Gulf countries practice a modern day equivalent of slavery, and our media should be more vocal about it, instead of weaving tales about Mossad and RAW.   The treatment of Pakistani labourers as sub-humans is deeply pervasive. The underlying logic of this treatment is that a non-Saudi can never be an equal; they are always meant to serve. Pakistanis like to criticise Europe’s hostility to immigrants but the anti-immigration feeling in Saudi Arabia is deeply toxic and yet it is never scrutinised.   A famous Pakistani defence of Saudi Arabia is that it is an ‘Islamic country’ and ergo a good place to raise the kids. But there is very little ‘Islamic’ about the country – in my time in Saudi, I talked to converts to Islam who travelled from as far as America and the UK to see for themselves the ‘Islamic’ Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Privately, they reveal a story of disillusionment and profuse disappointment.   Many were shocked by what they see in Saudi. They talk about a hypocrisy running deep within the society. Whilst the elite enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle of drinking and private nightclub-style parties, the religious police make life hell. I once saw a mullah in a GMC reverse on one of the main roads in Riyadh just to tell a woman to put her burqa on properly.   I find we are confused about our reaction to the prospect of a ‘Saudi Revolution’. When Mubarak was toppled and Ben Ali fled, the reaction amongst Pakistanis was positive, after all these dictators were merely pawns of the West. But talk about Saudi, and again there is that sense of unease and discomfort. After all, for all their faults the Saudis still do some great work. Many Pakistanis and indeed Muslims around the world have a sense of deep respect in regards to the provision of the Hajj. Indeed, the Saudis have continually done a fantastic job in improving facilities, crowd control and should be given credit for handling such a difficult event with efficiency.   But on the issue of faith, some Pakistanis are naive in thinking that a Muslim country can never be unjust with another Muslim country; they refuse to accept that in the reality of real politick there is no ‘Islamic Ummah’.   It is this sense of moral unease we have when we talk about Saudi Arabia that has haunted Pakistani hearts and minds. On the one hand, we receive great remittances from Pakistani workers who are employed in the Kingdom, but on the other hand everyone knows that they are discriminated against and have little or no rights. But yet again the response is that those Pakistanis living and working in Saudi Arabia should be grateful that they even have a job because of the deteriorating economic conditions back home. In this cold, utilitarian world where money talks, it is impossible that the Pakistani government will fight for its citizens rights in front of the Saudi Royal family.   The old adage, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’, comes to mind. Pakistan is trapped in an abusive marriage (or maybe a delusional affair?) when it comes to Saudi. 

Today the Kingdom is launching a great counter-revolution trying to contain the ‘Arab Spring’ by buying off Arab militaries, supporting dictators, issuing fatwas against the protestors and involving the Pakistani security forces in controlling protests in Bahrain which has become a stage for its great feud with Iran. Pakistan is very much a supporter of tyranny in the greatest political awakening of the 21st century, and this will hurt only Pakistanis in the end.

Ahmad Ali Khalid is a freelance writer and blogger based in the UK. He can be reached at ahmadalikhalid@ymail.com 

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.