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Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to the tents

Life for non Arabic speaking expatriates in the Holy Kingdom is harder because of the communication drawback.
The Bangladesh Today

It was long after dusk when I came out of prophet's Mosque after offering fifth, last of the day, prayer. It was then that I realized that I could eat a horse. A Pakistani guided me to Al- Baik, the popular fast food chain in Saudi Arabia which has eclipsed its American counter parts. The place was thriving and there was hardly any table available. I was impressed by the queue in front of the counter which was taking money and issuing vouchers containing numbers allotted to the customers. But the delivery counter was quick to make me realize that my gladness was premature. It was a complete chaos here. Customers were thronging, without any symptom of queue, around a narrow counter. Anybody who could elbow out others and reach the counter and was successful in "handing over" his voucher was lucky to get a tray of food. Elders like me and too frail to venture the struggle were standing far behind. After a long time, one of the countermen, a pleasant looking Far Eastern, perhaps taking pity on my grey hair, handed over to me my burger and coke.

The turmoil put me in my place otherwise I would have boasted in this column that Muslims too have learnt to run their day to day affairs in an organized manner!There was no vacant table available in the vast dining hall. I sought permission from three young men to share their table as one of the four chairs was un-occupied. They were large hearted enough to accommodate me and also invite me to join their feast of nuggets, roasted chicken, French fries and what not. One of these mid twenties was from Sudan and two from Yemen. My curiosity was quick to find out that none of them was at home in English Language and internet was Greek to them. One who was "interpreting" others, told in his floundering English that they, all three of them, were born and brought up in the kingdom but were not privileged enough to be bestowed with citizenship.

Life for non Arabic speaking expatriates in the Holy Kingdom is harder because of the communication drawback. Many foreigners have picked up colloquial language but their imperfect accent ushers them into unwelcome chambers. For higher education, these expatriates have to send their children back home or onward to eastern or western banks of Atlantic.

But the most interesting institution in Middle East in general and in Saudi Kingdom and Qatar in particular, vis-à-vis- non locals is to have a "guarantor "who must be a local. Every foreigner has to have a guarantor (kafeel in Arabic) who actually owns the business and all the documents pertaining to the business are held in his custody. The kafeel, or sponsor, acts as a sort of guardian as well as guarantor and must undertake all administrative and paper work on behalf of the foreigner including applying for a work and residence visa, opening a bank account and signing a rental accommodation contract. So far so good. But the actual practice deviates and deviates substantially. Barring a small group of foreigners who are highly qualified technocrats and are sponsored by major companies, mostly American, Europeans and Japanese, rest of non locals are, virtually, hostages to these kafeels (guarantors). In one of these kingdoms, there have been instances where expatriates who have been contributing towards the local development for forty years, were deprived of their business and sent to prison. Nothing belongs to you except your passport which you have to keep attached with your body whether you are making tawaaf around Kaaba, or jogging or taking a bath. You purchase a taxi to earn a living; its ownership papers contain name of the guarantor (kafeel), not yours, and you have to pay in tribute (protection money?) a considerable portion of your hard earned income. You rent a shop, the tenant, in the papers, is the person who does not pay a penny as rent. His only qualification is that he is 'local' and his guarantee is indispensable for a non local to rent a shop. Generally the view held by the foreigners working in these kingdoms is that the guarantor (kafeel) system is a euphemism for the slavery existing in this part of the world at the time of advent of Islam. The slave would work and was bound to give portion of his earning to his master. Then came Islam and, though not drastically and explicitly, introduced a number of measures which improved the lot of slaves and concubines. These were in addition to a lot of acts in which, as atonement, slaves were set free.

But there is a relentlessness in the neo-slavery system currently prevailing in the Middle East. You may have worked hard for half a century and contributed substantially for the betterment of the state but it does not mean that the guarantor, finding the slightest opportunity, will not pounce upon you and will not strip you off whatever you own. Worst hit are the un-educated ones. They are abused by their guarantors for the errands which are not part of their laid down description of duties and do not bring any compensation or remuneration.Paradoxically, the non Islamic "enemy" countries like USA, Britain, Canada and Australia not only protect rights of non-locals, including Muslim, but offer sanctuaries of asylum and citizenship also. Look at the comfort and confidence provided to millions of Muslim immigrants by these "un-Islamic" countries. Jobless and incapacitated are enjoying privileges of social security also. It is interesting that the hard core "Islamic" countries do not allow citizenship even to third or fourth generations living there. I can not forget the impression of being second rate subjects writ large on the faces of the two Yemeni and one Sudanese young men, born and brought up there, who offered me a seat in jam packed Al-baik dining hall.

As already stated, their English was not at all enviable. Saudi Arabia has her own system of education, which, whatever it might be, does not make one capable or qualified enough to go elsewhere for advanced education. No foreign language is taught. But why to exert when educated people can be leased? An aero plane full of white-skinned corporate technocrats used to land in UAE every two hours before the current recession which has pricked a thorn in the inflated belly of the gulf state known for prestigious mega projects. Staging a come back to the tent, along with the camel, is always an open option.

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