The dramatic fall in the price of oil has had some unusual effects on the petro-economies of the Persian Gulf. Countries like Saudi Arabia have grown dependent on importing cheap foreign workers to do the jobs its citizens won’t. Now, traditional sources of domestic labor like South Asia have become uneconomical in straightened times. Saudis have had to look for cheaper alternatives, and no one can be bought more cheaply than the government of Somalia.
Despite notoriously appalling working conditions and examples of horrific abuse awaiting domestic staff, Saudi recruiters are believed to be seeking as many as 15,000 housemaids, a move that is thought to be welcomed with open arms by Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. His enthusiasm is in stark contrast to many other African leaders. Only last month the Ugandan government banned its citizens from taking up domestic work in Saudi Arabia after evidence of the torture of a Ugandan maid went viral.
When criminals seek to supply cheap labor across borders for abusive and exploitative employers, it is called human trafficking. When governments do the same it is apparently called creating jobs.
Some nine million foreigners work in Saudi Arabia, but the region is not only importing workers to build its cities, clean its homes and drive its enterprises. The war currently being prosecuted by the Saudis and their allies in Yemen has shone a light on the fact that for some time now, the influx of foreign labour has included soldiers recruited to fight and die in local wars. Indeed, so many mercenaries from Latin America have been recruited in the region that the Colombian government reportedly tried to reach an agreement to limit numbers.
The deployment of foreign fighters in Yemen has been a closely guarded secret. Likely this is not simply because the policy may prove controversial politically, but that its extent may actually break international law. The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea recently found 400 soldiers recruited in the Horn of Africa embedded with coalition forces in Yemen, which would be in violation of Security Council resolutions. They join troops recruited from Sudan and other African nations fighting under the Saudi flag.
Though not officially part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the Somali government has provided logistical support in the conflict. Somalia is providing Saudi forces with access to its territorial waters and land. Even Somalia’s airspace has been given up to Saudi warplanes that have been accused by the UN of conducting “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian areas.
The Saudis are thought to have paid president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government for its cooperation, but what does it say about the man that his complicity in the murder of innocent men, women and children can be bought at any price?
A foreign policy based on buying support and influence is not sustainable, it can last only as long as the cash reserves exist to fund it. It is not based on mutual interest, shared ideals or any positive notion–just short-term greed. It is one that demonstrates not only the poverty of a country where influence can be bought and sold, but the poverty of ambition of the leaders who, in exchange for cash, carry out policies that are not in the interest of their people.
In the Somalia of my childhood, respect for the dignity of women was a keystone of our culture. It was as near as sacred; the respect for Somali women was wrapped up deeply with our sense of national pride. We were proud of our entrepreneurial spirit that saw us trade in camels and sheep to Saudi Arabia. We were proud of our ability to build a thriving economy, while also building a societal and cultural legacy based on dignity and respect.
We have progressed from selling cattle to treating our people no better than property. Whether it is inviting foreign armies to recruit our sons to die in their wars, or seeing our women sent to work in conditions so appalling that Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines have all banned such recruitment of their citizens, we have seen Somalia exploit its people for any profit. The dignity of our brothers and sisters has gone from being sacrosanct to being packaged and priced to undercut those of other nations.
To this fire sale of dignity we can also add the very humanity of our government, which is prepared to accept cash as it watches alleged war crimes conducted on its neighbors prosecuted from its own land.
The government in Mogadishu, shame on you; history will never forgive you.
A global political strategist, Hibaaq Osman leads three regional non-governmental organizations working to end violence against women in the Arab region: Karama, the Global Dignity Fund and the Think Tank for Arab Women, and has launched civil society organizations in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. She is a member of various boards and committees including the UN Women’s Global Civil Society Advisory Group and and the board of Donor Direct Action.