It’s the Government, Stupid: Appraising Ethiopia’s Saudi Arabia Policy

AFRICA, 23 Dec 2013

Alemayehu F. Weldemariam and Hassen Mohammed - TRANSCEND Media Service

Ethiopia stood as one of the biggest exporters of labor to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No other events have revealed the extent and depth of the problem than the recent labor crackdown on migrant workers of Ethiopian origin in Saudi Arabia and the consequent mass deportation. And no other event has transfixed the attention of all the major media of the western world as this since November [2013]. The media has been reporting the ongoing mass deportation of migrant workers of Ethiopian origin from Saudi Arabia. On average, some 3000 migrants are being airlifted from Riyadh to Addis Ababa. But the regime in Addis Ababa has preferred to keep quiet so far without making any official statement of substance on the matter. This is worrisome given that most have arrived after having 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 only make a digression to talk about the suffering of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia and to take it to social media. Is social media substitute for mainstream media? Can a tweet or a facebook post be a replacement for a note verbale?

Since November 13, 2013, Saudi Arabia has been deporting Ethiopian migrant workers after committing unspeakable atrocities by security forces and vigilantes. The total number of deportees so far  has reached a staggering 130,000 and is expected rise up to 150,600 within a few days.  Ambassador Dina Mufti told Addis Admas only Suadi Airlines is engaged in the airlift, inasmuch as Suadi is the deporting nation and hence covers all the costs involved.

Since November 9, dozens of YouTube videos and graphic images, displaying the naked violence that Saudi vigilantes and security forces were committing against Ethiopian migrant workers in Riyadh, have been in circulation online and 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 to be committed to sheer image-building, going beyond mere face-saving.

The atrocity and massacre facing Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia is clearly known all around the world. According to Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopian migrant workers have been the victims of physical assaults, 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? What was wrong about it? What should be done? First, Ethiopian officials said they are following the situation closely as it unfolds. Then, they seemed concerned. Finally, they summoned the Saudi ambassador for explanation. That is how far they went officially. Apart from that, no official condemnation came out of Addis Ababa. Of course, Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom made an impassioned speech regarding the unfolding tragedy in Saudi Arabia at the closing session of the 3rd International Conference on Family Planning that took place in Addis Ababa on November 15, 2013. On the one hand they want us to believe that they stood against the Saudis as it is 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.

In the final analysis, the only way Addis Ababa deemed fit to respond to the Saudi-caused catastrophe  is just to summon the ambassador for an ‘explanation’. And the question is was the explanation found to be satisfactory? Can anyone explain away such a horrific act? If not, why is the regime so quiet in the face of such a dis-quieting evil and pretends to be helpless afterwards? We were told that the explanation was found to be unsatisfactory and the conduct unacceptable. This leaves us now with the question of what should have been the next step. But instead of following up on the diplomatic course, the regime got obsessed with 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 . The local media went a certain distance in that direction, but the international media couldn’t follow suit. Because 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. Let’s try to sift fiction from fact. 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 no one else but by Ambassador Dina Mufti, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman. Whatever else the regime might be doing to help them reintegrate into society is commendable, albeit it’s merely discharging its obligations.

Nevertheless, the alleged good measures taken on behalf of the returnees is not remotely related to holding the Kingdom accountable for its conduct. Then again, holding the Kingdom accountable means committing oneself to justice for our brothers and sisters that were rapped, killed, tortured, and robbed of their possessions or those that are still under serious danger. What could this entail? One is for top government officials such as the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and others to hold a series of pressers and use the international media on a regular basis, to give local and international journalists unrestricted and full access to returnees so that they can tell stories of abuse, issue strongly worded statements and that Ethiopia is forced to reconsider its bilateral ties with the Kingdom. Another is for the regime to 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 its citizens, demand investigations, and secure condemnations. A further step can be to lobby Saudi investors in Ethiopia to stand in solidarity with the plights of the returnees and those living under precarious situation in the Kingdom. And finally, the regime should threaten to severe, not actually and necessarily, all diplomatic ties and withdraw guarantee to security of Saudi investment in Ethiopia.

These could have been done step by step, but there is no sign of trying even the first. It doesn’t matter whether acting in the proposed manner bears fruit. 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 not only as a matter of praxis, but also as a matter of principle. It must do everything in its power and use everything at its disposal in spite of success. Exhaust all remedies as we like to say in legalese. First reason is 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”. Then, what’s 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.  In the official website of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, it is stated, “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, insofar as he is as much Ethiopian as much 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 interests “in the security of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, which links rather than divides Africa and the Middle East.,” albeit the Kingdom’s popularity as bankrolling Salafist terrorist networks around the world is the fact no one can hardly 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-Ethiopia bilateral relations are based on trade and investment, then Ethiopia should not look beyond in looking for entry points in response to the tragic event. Saud agro-investment itself offers Ethiopia a powerful leverage, but depends 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 life and security of its own citizens. In the first place, there is no relationship to consider after they killed your people and if you do then you must be a Saudi puppet. Secondly, you can never trade the life and security of your citizens for money. There’s one moral truth that Saudis need to learn and only a poor, but morally upright nation like Ethiopia can teach, namely there are things that money can’t buy: human dignity. In view of this, Addis Ababa’s acquiescence is morally questionable at best and sheepish 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.

This, however, is not to gainsay Saudi Arabia’s legitimate interest in securing its borders and exercising it sovereign rights, but to interrogate the limits of such powers and its exercise  in the face of international human rights law. Even if Saudi Arabia is not a member in good-standing of the civilized world system, given that it is a member of the UN and the UNHRC, its concerns over undocumented migrants and unemployment cannot be allowed to trump its obligations to respect international law, which guarantees all persons—even “migrants in an irregular situation—the necessary rights to enjoy a “life of dignity and security.” This has to be said for the record, albeit the crusade is unlikely to provoke ridicule, if not condemnation, from the UN Human Rights Council whose members are no one but such notorious abusers of human rights known to the international community as Saudi Arabia itself, China, and Russia.

A glaring case in point where Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn failed to capitalize on his position is his visit to Kuwait. Hailemariam who participated in his two additional capacities as Chair of the African Union and Co-chair of the Summit, missed out on an opportunity to speak about the crisis in Saudi Arabia at the third Africa-Arab Summit that was held on November 19-20, in Kuwait City, under the theme “Partners in Development and Investment”, albeit a significant plank of the agenda was migration.

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? Aren’t the Saudis interested in agro-investment in Ethiopia to produce rice and other cereals for export?

Some believe that Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s active presence on twitter is a form of diplomacy. It’s admirable that the FM actively engages the public through social media. Twitter isn’t, and can’t be a replacement for, diplomacy none the less. If it were, it could have stopped all the senseless atrocities. And that’s exactly where the problem lies. The country’s diplomatic apparatus is tasked with the responsibility to prevent international crises from taking place and once they do from not escalating. Once we agree on this, then the question now is why did Addis Ababa fail to resolve the issue diplomatically? What is this talk of repatriation about? What purpose does it serve to be busy tweeting except publicity stunt? Diplomacy is out there for you to use it as a tool to remove or put off deadlines, not to sheepishly concede to whoever dares to lay down deadlines or else to rape and kill your people. These people were forced out of their land for so many reasons, chiefly economic which in turn is chiefly caused by the politics, esp. lack of good governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Let alone for the country’s top diplomat, doing the daily countdown is not fit for journalists.  In William Davison’s words,  “it’s hardly exciting breaking news [for journalists] to be doing a daily countdown of numbers of people flying home from Riyadh to Addis,” after all the Foreign Minister seems to be busy doing that for them on twitter if at all journalists had to.  Addis’s claim to achievement in the matter is little more than linguistic, namely replacing the word deportation by repatriation, and not legal, political, and operational. Nothing no sane regime is to be proud of, because Addis doesn’t even cover the costs of the air-lift and recall these people were put in the situation because their government failed them and failed them miserably in the first instance. If Addis can issue travel documents now, it could issue them then. If it can repatriate them now, it could before the diplomatic fiasco ended up in a complete crisis. Addis had a responsibility to protect its nationals which requires acting in a timely and transparent manner.

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.”

On December 9, Tedros Adhanom posted on his facebook page, “Dear Fellow Citizens. Believe it or not, I consider the repatriation of our citizens from Saudi Arabia as a blessing in disguise – A Great Lesson and a Great opportunity! Nothing to be angry or sad about, but to be upbeat on our fight against poverty. Sure we will do it. I believe that Our Ethiopia is on the right trajectory to defeat poverty. Our future is bright and we will get what we deserve. Don’t forget that it’s our Ethiopia’s Renaissance and together we can do it. I see the brightest days of our Ethiopia ahead and so do you! Enough is enough!” There’s no harm in tweeting and facebooking. But there’s more to the job description of the country’s top diplomat than tweeting and facebooking. Ethiopians want him to go out front and put the public concern and indignation front and center. A speech at family planning conference, a tweet, or facebook tweet cannot be a substitute for diplomatic communication at a time when the national interest demands that badly. A tweet or a facebook post is not a note verbale.

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 severe 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. However, when it comes to Ethiopia, the regime is responding with something that borders on endorsing not only the mass deportation, but also the atrocities if silence amounts to acquiescence.

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. The reach of the proposed measure is limited in terms of its impact and time. What is intended to achieve by taking diplomatic measures of the kind proposed here is to send a strong signal that Ethiopia as a nation feels very strongly about the abuses committed against Ethiopians without putting needlessly our national interest in jeopardy. Of course, what lies right at the heart of the national interest is the security of Ethiopians wherever they are. After all trade and investment is based on the principle of mutuality, of give and take. We should remind ourselves of the fact that however poor we are we have never been at the receiving end of Saudi charity.

It should be pointed out that the overemphasis on the country’s poverty and the consequent undue overemphasis on economic diplomacy have worked to the detriment of the security of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. To illustrate Saudi impunity, I’ll quote a tweet in which a Saudi citizen affirmed that Ethiopians have no on to protect them while Saudis have a government. A tweeter with a handle @jewelm7md الجوهرة بنت محمد  tweeted “@AlemayehuFentaw I’m [a, sic] [S, sic]audi I have a country  [that, sic] will stand by me , but what about Ethipoia[sic] ?”

We would not be experiencing impunity like this had the regime been attentive to the plights of the over hundred thousand migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the gross and systematic human rights abuses we witness every day in Ethiopia.

If the government was smart, it would realize that it, more than anyone else, benefit 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 the near to 150, 000 should not be considered to be 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 center 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 succeeded in not only naming and shaming the Kingdom, but also managed to draw attention to their plights that led to the rapid airlift operations, thereby reliving them of the horrors they had to bear if they were left behind in Saudi. 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 good. Social media brought social hope in the struggle against abuse, injustice, and tyranny. What would have happened to those helpless Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, had activists not taken it to the social media?

In closing, we should reckon that the regime’s failure to take any measures whatsoever against Saudi Arabia at a time when about 150, 000 citizens are being deported after having gone through unspeakable ordeals in the Kingdom is cowardly, but it is high-time that we should remember how hard it tried to sell itself as patriotic and nationalistic by deporting 75, 000 Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. Not to take any legitimate measure in retaliation when justified by International Law and the victim’s sense of justice and public indignation demand it is dastardly, contemptible, and cowardly.


Alemayehu F Weldemariam is Visiting Professor of Government at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Hassen Mohammed is Assistant Professor of Law at Mekele University School of Law in Mekele, Ethiopia.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Dec 2013.

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