North Africa, West Asia

Appraising Ethiopia’s Saudi policy

We are full well aware that we should not kid ourselves about the likely short- and long- term costs of severing all bilateral ties. What we are proposing of course is limited in scope and time. 

Alemayehu F Weldemariam Hassen Mohammed
20 December 2013

Ethiopia is one of the biggest exporters of labour to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The extent and depth of the dependency has been revealed by the recent labour crackdown on migrant workers of Ethiopian origin in Saudi Arabia and the consequent mass deportation. On average, some 3000 migrants daily are being airlifted from Riyadh to Addis Ababa, but the regime in Addis Ababa has preferred to keep quiet so far. This is worrisome given that most of the returnees have gone through unspeakable physical and psychological abuse. All that the nation’s top diplomat, Tedros Adhanom, has done so far is to appear at an international family planning meeting to talk about the suffering of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia and to court  social media on the subject. Ambassador Dina Mufti assured Addis Admas that only Saudi Airlines were engaged in the airlift: Saudi is the deporting nation and hence covers all the costs.

Saudi Arabia has been deporting Ethiopian migrant workers since November 2013, after unspeakable atrocities have been committed by security forces and vigilantes, visible for all to see on many dozens of YouTube videos and in graphic images in circulation online. The hashtag #SomeoneTellSaudiArabia has been trending on twitter.

No spin-doctor can turn around the ludicrous and humiliating dereliction of duty the Ethiopian government owes to its citizens in Saudi Arabia. And what is worrisome is that the government seems only committed to an image-building that goes beyond mere face-saving.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopian migrant workers have been the victims of physical assault, some of them fatal, in Saudi Arabia following a government crackdown on foreign workers. Many workers seeking to return home are being held in makeshift detention centers without adequate food or shelter.”

But why did it happen? How did the government react? First, Ethiopian officials said they were following the situation closely as it unfolded; then, they seemed concerned; finally, they summoned the Saudi ambassador for explanation. That is as far as they went. Apart from that, no official condemnation has come out of Addis Ababa. On the one hand they want us to believe that they stood up against the Saudis as reported on local media, and on the other hand, they don't want it to make the headlines of the international media, lest it should disappoint the Kingdom.

We were told that the explanation given by the ambassador was found to be unsatisfactory and the conduct unacceptable. So what should have been the next step? Instead of following it up on the diplomatic route, the regime allowed itself to be distracted by a publicity stunt on how it is doing its best to repatriate its citizens and reintegrate them into society and expected the local and international media to jump on the bandwagon.

But the fact is, there was no repatriation taking place. Let’s call a spade a spade. What’s actually taking place is forced deportation of Ethiopian citizens by the Kingdom at its own expense with its own airlines. The rest is fiction.

Of course, the regime announced that it has earmarked 50 million Birr (a mere 2.2  m USD) for the repatriation and put Ethiopian airlines on stand-by. However, this was just a myth that was debunked by Ambassador Dina Mufti, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman. Moreover, whatever the alleged good measures that have been taken on behalf of the returnees, this is not remotely related to holding the Kingdom accountable for its conduct and committing oneself to justice for our brothers and sisters that were raped, killed, tortured, robbed of their possessions or those that are still in serious danger.

What could this entail? Firstly, top government officials such as the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and others should hold a series of press conferences and give local and international journalists unrestricted and full access to returnees so that they can tell their stories of abuse, issue strongly worded statements and state clearly that Ethiopia is forced to reconsider its bilateral ties with the Kingdom.

Secondly, the regime should take advantage of its leadership and membership positions within regional, continental, and international organizations such as IGAD, AU, and the UN to expose the culpability of the Kingdom in the atrocities committed against Ethiopian citizens, demand investigations, and secure condemnations. A further step could include lobbying Saudi investors in Ethiopia to stand in solidarity with the plights of the returnees and those living under precarious conditions in the Kingdom. Finally, the regime should threaten under certain conditions to all diplomatic ties and withdraw guarantees to the security of Saudi investments in Ethiopia.

These could have been done step by step, but there is no sign of commencing on any. There’s no a quick fix and it is understandable that a resolution to an international dispute of this magnitude does not come by easily.  Even so, the regime has to act as a matter of principle. Exhaust all remedies as we like to say in legalese. The first reason for this is that it is our constitutional duty. When a regime assumes power, it swears an oath to defend and protect the country and its people. The second reason is moral. Foreign policy is not an amoral or a morally obtuse business. In foreign relations the government must always give precedence to national interest.

 Even a conservative realist would not rule out the proposed course of actions on grounds of national interest. As Hans Morgenthau, the high-priest of realism in international relations theory, in a seminal work, In Defense of the National Interest, writes, “remember always that it is not only a political necessity but also a moral duty for a nation to follow in its dealings with other nations but one guiding star, one standard for thought, one rule for action: THE NATIONAL INTEREST”.

So what is Ethiopia’s national interest in its dealings with Saudi Arabia? According to Ethiopia’s white paper, Ethiopia’s national interest consists in trade and investment.  The official website of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, states, “Trade relations have been on the rise. At present the total volume of trade stands at just over 12 billion birr but this is expected to increase significantly in both quantity and quality. ...  Ethiopians live and work in Saudi Arabia, and many more travel to Saudi Arabia for the Haj every year. This will, of course, continue and help to further enhance relations.”   

The Foreign Ministry claims that “a growing number of Saudi investors are engaged in different sectors in Ethiopia with a total of 369 million dollars currently involved. The largest investor is Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi, the owner of Midroc, which has interests in hotels and tourism, construction, mining, agriculture, manufacturing and education. In all there are some 69 companies, in addition to those of Sheikh Al-Amoudi. Investment is growing but taking into account the long-standing relations and strong cultural ties between the two countries, considerably more investment should be expected.”  We don’t have anything against the good Sheik: he is as much Ethiopian as he is a Saudi citizen.

The Foreign Ministry credits the Kingdom for “assistance in getting development support from various multi-lateral organizations including the Kuwait Fund, OPEC and BADEA” and for sharing common interests, “in the security of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, which links rather than divides Africa and the Middle East…” albeit that the Kingdom’s popularity as the agency bankrolling Salafist terrorist networks around the world is one fact no one can miss. What Ethiopia should rather investigate further is whether the decision to single out Ethiopians for deportation, among all Africans, has to do with Ethiopia’s latest volt-face towards its own Sunni Muslims and the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam as a proxy for Egypt.  

Is Ethiopia really as helpless as the regime likes to portray? Absolutely not. If Saudi-Ethiopian bilateral relations are based on trade and investment, then Ethiopia should not further for a reason to respond to these tragic events. Saud agro-investment itself offers Ethiopia a powerful leverage, depending on how it's used by the regime. Recently, Al Monitor reported, “there are more than 400 Saudi businessmen in Ethiopia investing in the cultivation of a variety of crops, namely wheat, rice and barley. He added that the association was established to introduce investors … and show them the best places for agriculture, where water is abundant. The association also provides translation services, investment management and communicates with the competent authorities in Ethiopia. When it was first established, the association had 10 members, whose number increased to reach 60 agricultural investors. ...The size of Saudi investments in the agricultural sector in Ethiopia is currently estimated at 13 billion riyals [$3.47 billion].”

The upshot of this is that Ethiopia’s interest in trade and investment with the Kingdom can never override the life and security of its own citizens. There’s one moral truth that Saudis need to learn and only a poor, but morally upright nation like Ethiopia can teach, namely that there are things that money can’t buy: human dignity. In view of this, Addis Ababa’s acquiescence is morally questionable at best and slavish at worst. If that is the case, the officials are not worthy of their position and must resign. Otherwise, they should fulfill their constitutional, moral, and civic duties and hold the Kingdom accountable while keeping up the good humanitarian work. Even here, Addis Admas reported that some deportees complain that their assets are being confiscated by the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority upon arrival at Bole International Airport.

In an ironic twist of international affairs, while the airlift is still pending and public indignation is at its peak, strange enough, Arab News reports that Ethiopia has approved more than 361 investment projects to Saudi Arabia mainly in the agricultural sector, quoting Ethiopian ambassador Mohammad Kabeera.  He went on to claim that the regime in Addis has issued licenses for 361 Saudi investment projects, 125 of which have begun operations. These projects have created job opportunities for around 35,000 Ethiopians. Is this all an Ethiopian diplomat can offer in a time of colossal humanitarian crisis? Is the 35, 000 jobs Saudi’s bargaining chip? Isn’t that even much less than a quarter of the total number of the returnees?

Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s latest tweet is this if it makes any Ethiopian feel any good, “Last night arrivals from Saudi reached 100,620. All citizens that were detained in Riyadh deportation camps are back. We are now focusing on Jeddah and Jizan area. We expect 40,000 to 50,000 more to return home.”

The regime, if it cares, could have taken a lesson from South East Asia states in respect of what diplomatic measures to take against Saudi Arabia in the event that Saudi abuses the human rights of their citizens. For instance, after the beheading of an Indonesian woman some years ago, Jakarta responded strongly by threatening to sever all bilateral ties that forced Saudi to release hundreds of Indonesians from detention. During the recent attack on migrants, Indonesians are reportedly the least affected.

We are full well aware again that we should not kid ourselves about the likely short- and long- term costs of severing all bilateral ties. What we are proposing of course is limited in scope and time.

If the government was smart, it would realize that it, more than anyone else, benefits from a robust and balanced bilateral ties based on mutuality and reciprocity. It cannot be overemphasised to say that trade and investment are not charity.

With respect to activism regarding Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, the deportation of around 150,000 should not be considered the end of the story. Dina Muftu, in an interview with Gezategaru, said about three times that number live in Saudi Arabia lawfully. This means that there is still much more work for activists to engage Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and the rest of the international community for the rights of migrant workers and such activism should centre around the International Covenant on the Rights of Migrant Workers, according to which, host countries are obliged to: observe the right to join trade unions for any migrant and the right to form associations and trade unions for legal migrants; provide minimum social welfare (such as medical care); ensure equality of treatment in respect of remuneration and conditions of work and employment; allow documented migrants to be temporarily absent without affecting the authorization to stay or work; allow liberty of movement, of choosing the residence and access to alternative employment for legal migrants; give the right to seek alternative employment in case of termination of the remunerated activity for migrant workers not authorized to freely choose their remunerated activity; and work towards providing family reunification and extend to children of migrants the right to education.

Whatever actions have already been taken to rescue these helpless migrants, the credit goes to social media activism that has succeeded not only in naming and shaming the Kingdom, but also in drawing attention to their plights. This is what led to the rapid airlift operations. What the last few days has taught Ethiopians after the events of the Arab Spring is that the world has changed since the advent of social media and it has changed for the good. Social media has introduced an element of social hope into the struggle against abuse, injustice, and tyranny. What would have happened to those helpless Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, had activists not taken their plight to the social media?

In closing, we should reiterate that not to take any legitimate measure in retaliation when justified by international law and the victims’ sense of justice as well as the demands of public indignation, is dastardly, contemptible, and cowardly.

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