A Critical View of Saudis' Treatment of Foreign Help

Images from the
Images from the "mercy campaign" show an Indian driver with a bit in his mouth and an Ethiopian maid kneeling inside a doghouse. (Courtesy Of Full-stop Advertising)
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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
{vbar} Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 7, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- In each ad, the servants are depicted as animals.

In one, a woman in the back seat of a car tugs on a harness attached to a bit in her Indian driver's mouth. In another, an Ethiopian maid kneels inside a doghouse in front of a bowl full of bones as her employer holds a leash around her neck.

The public service campaign recently launched in Saudi Arabia highlights the abuse of foreign domestic workers and urges their employers to treat them more humanely.

The man behind the television announcements and newspaper inserts says that it is time for Saudis to stop ignoring the issue and that their faith should compel them to act.

"We sometimes deal with our servants as if they were not human and have no feelings," said advertising executive Kaswara al-Khatib, who came up with the idea for the campaign after noticing how badly some Saudis treat domestic workers and foreign laborers in general. "There is rampant abuse in the kingdom. Enough denial."

Khatib said the slogan, "Have mercy so that you shall be shown mercy," is meant to remind Saudis that "good manners are an integral part of being a good Muslim."

"What I'm trying to point out is that there's an inherent contradiction in being a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and mistreating your servants," he said.

Khatib has been hailed as a hero as well as accused of anti-Saudi bias and of tarnishing the country's image.

A Facebook group supporting the campaign has attracted nearly 3,000 members, and several newspapers and television channels have asked to use it since the ads first appeared on the popular Saudi-owned MBC satellite channels and in al-Hayat newspaper last month.

But writer Trad al-Asmari slammed the "mercy campaign" as inaccurate. Problems of mistreatment exist in many countries, Asmari wrote in al-Jazeera newspaper, but the campaign singles out "all Saudis as ugly and merciless."

In an editorial in al-Watan newspaper, Hassan al-Assiri wrote that "the campaign poses a very important question."

"Is it true that Saudis actually have no mercy? Have studies and polls . . . proven that the only way to treat the problem is by performing surgery on our consciences?" he asked.

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