Sunday, July 24, 2005

Expatriate Workers and Us!

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“You don’t know how it feels to be a foreigner in this country, unless you live like one. It is unbearable!” said my Arab scuba diving trainer. I was shocked and since then, I have become more sensitive and observant. Sad to say, he was right. I tell you why.

Before the oil boom of the late ’70s, we lived more like a normal society. We had our rich, middle class and poor, Saudis and non-Saudis, educated and less educated. Mostly, we lived in harmony.

I remember those days with fondness because of all my schoolmates who came from all over the world, Arabs and non-Arabs. It didn’t matter then who came from where. In fact, we were fascinated by the stories students from India, Africa and other Arab countries told us about their homelands.

I remember how my Egyptian friends were proud of the land of the Nile and great pyramids, and the wonderful picture they made of Cairo, the heart of the Arab world. I remember my Eritrean friend when he insisted with an edge of anger and pride that we pronounce his homeland’s name correctly. And I remember all the stories I heard from my Iraqi teacher and my father’s Jordanian and Yemeni, Lebanese and Pakistani friends about their countries and heritages.

In the society I lived in before the oil boom, we were more in tune with all the others. My American and English neighbors, boys and girls, played with me and my Arab friends in the streets and visited me at home.

I still remember, with fondness, an old American friend I used to sit with for hours every afternoon discussing politics and religion. I was a child then with limited English vocabulary, but he was kind enough to discuss such serious issues with much patience and respect. I enjoyed and learned a lot from my dialogue with him and my Christian Lebanese neighbor who rented with her husband and kids half our house.

Those golden days are by and large gone now. The boom showered us with lots of money, prestige and pride. Within few years our society changed a lot. The “rich-middle-class-poor” divides were now gone. The ladder to the roof became an elevator. One day you hardly survive. The next morning your old, crumbling home is sold for millions and you can employ the same people who employed you.

Foreigners came in their millions. Most worked in labor jobs Saudis no longer desired. Lazy generation, accustomed to maids and servants, ruled. Newly enriched and empowered parents and society taught them that: We should act like kings. We are the chosen ones and the rest of the world is here to serve us. We owe them nothing but salaries and they owe us gratitude, loyalty and respect. With our cash we could buy the world, and no one could ever be good enough to buy us.

Capitalism, consumerism, materialism, and other ills of modern times are now our ills too. What you wear, ride and use in your daily life became a measure of your worth.

This also applies to the others. Foreigners from poorer parts of the world do not enjoy the same respect and admiration we give citizens from richer and more advanced countries. Westerners, for example, enjoy much more privileges than Easterners and Africans, including most Arabs, except from the richer Gulf region.

I believe the mentality that governs our complex relations, official and private, with our guest workers and outsiders is in a great part a product of this set of materialistic measurement of people’s worth. A European is given much more respect and work compensation than Easterners with similar or better qualifications. An Irish nurse, for example, is treated like a queen, while a more qualified Arab, Indian or Filipino is not.

Other influential factors are ideological, cultural, educational and racial. In sharp contradiction to Islamic teachings, some extremists managed to ideologically justify their sense of “unjustified” superiority. I read a book of a senior Islamic scholar who glorified the super pure Arab race of the Arabian Peninsula. He concludes that we should not marry from other races lest our noble blood mixes with the less worthy. I wrote in response that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married a non-Arab, a Christian and a Jew. Does that mean his children are less pure than yours? The Sheikh never answered in public, but tried to meet in private. I refused.

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