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The Kingdom's Slaves

Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a heated debate about whether or not foreign workers should be allowed to keep hold of their personal documents. Some argue they'd be tempted to run away, prompting others to think this is modern day slavery.

At CairoScene, we like to think that, here in the Middle East, we form part of a modern global society, which, for the most part, can be trusted to behave in a civilised and humane fashion. Imagine our shock when we found this – our usually, 'moderate and considerate' Saudi neighbours are having a debate over whether they should allow foreign 'workers' to hang on to their personal documents.

An article in a Saudi national newspaper explained how many employers/slave-owners have “fears that their employees may 'run away and disappear' if allowed to hang on to their basic human rights such as a passport or identification papers.” The issue has sparked a huge national debate with the newspaper claiming there is 'no final solution in sight'.

The piece then goes on to claim that there is a common perception among Saudi sponsors that if you allow your worker to keep their identity papers with them, you are encouraging them to flee and worse still, make a break for it, complete with all of your worldly goods.

Now as an expat worker here in Egypt, I am allowed to come and go as I please, using my own documents yet, thus far – despite numerous moments of temptation – I haven't run out of the office carrying pocketfuls of stationary, shouting “I'm free at last!” The main reason for this probably comes down to the fact that my employer doesn't treat me like shit, imprison me in the office (that often) or beat me to a bloody pulp for little or no reason.

Last month, a video surfaced online showing a Saudi man brutally torturing a south Asian worker and filming the disgusting episode, presumably as a lesson to anyone else who failed to meet his standards (you can watch the video here, but some might find it disturbing). The stunt followed a similar move last year when a Saudi man attempted to sell a “castrated African slave” online. Needless to say, the authorities in the Kingdom did nothing about either sickening event.

Worryingly, the article includes a comment from so-called human rights activist Dr. Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen who shocking defends the practice of holding workers captive with no rights. She said: “Whenever the expat worker has his papers with him, he may not hesitate to escape whenever he has the chance. Many of the house helps come to our country with the sole purpose of stealing and running away. Giving the foreign worker his passport is like giving him an open ticket to escape whenever he desires.”

Well, isn't that just heart-warming...

However, none of the talking heads currently clogging up the Saudi media on the issue have mentioned what seems like the obvious point in the world to the rest of us...stop treating workers like shit and start treating them like human beings.

Slavery has long been outlawed across the civilised world yet certain dinosaurs in Saudi don't seem to have got the memo. Now is the time for a debate – but not about whether the maid will steal the Porsche but rather about how to go about treating not just her, but all employees in a proper fashion. Only then will a 'final solution' become clear and hopefully put an end to Saudi's not-so-secret slavery shame.