Reevaluating Ethopian-Saudi Ties Amid Migrant Worker Crackdown

by Alemayehu Weldemariam

International interest in Saudi Arabia has taken various forms over the years. The West, to borrow an expression from Thomas Friedman, “looked on Saudi Arabia as a big gas station to be pumped and defended but never to be taken seriously as a society.” Meanwhile, many developing countries saw Saudi Arabia as a major destination for labor migration and source of remittances. However, in light of the recent mistreatment of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, which includes mental, physical and sexual abuse, this view is likely to change. The government of Ethiopia must now reexamine how it views the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In April 2013, Saudi authorities announced that undocumented immigrants would have a seven-month window of opportunity to change their legal status. At the conclusion of this period, the Saudi government, attempting to address growing unemployment among Saudi citizens, launched an intense campaign against all remaining undocumented persons. In what may be the largest airlift in recent history, Saudi Arabia deported approximately 150,000 Ethiopians in one month. In December 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that Ethiopian migrant workers had been “the victims of physical assault, some of them fatal, following a government crackdown on foreign workers.” The most severe incident occurred on November 9 in Riyadh, where security forces killed three Ethiopians. Instigated by government action, Saudi vigilante groups have also begun raping, robbing and torturing undocumented migrants.

In response to the attacks on Ethiopian nationals, the government in Addis Ababa summoned the Saudi ambassador for explanation, but issued no official condemnation. Instead of pursuing further diplomatic negotiations to end the deportations, the government declared, amid ongoing public outcry, that Saudi-Ethiopian relations would remain unchanged. Opting for what was essentially a publicity stunt, the Ethiopian government sought to advertise its efforts to repatriate its citizens and reintegrate them into society. But no amount of propaganda could overturn the government’s nonsensical and mortifying dereliction of responsibility in relation to the protection of its citizenry. Fortunately, the local and international media realized the inauthentic nature of this repatriation policy and did not jump on the bandwagon.

There is no quick fix to resolve an international dispute of this magnitude. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government must act. It has the legal duty to defend and protect the country and its people. Furthermore, foreign policy is not an amoral business. The Ethiopian government’s failure to take any legitimate measure, despite justification in international law, public indignation, and the victims’ sense of justice, is contemptible, and cowardly. Ethiopian migrants deserve compensation for their suffering and better treatment while abroad. In light of recent events, Ethiopia should take several steps to redefine its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

First, the Ethiopian government should issue strongly worded statements that both condemn acts of violence against its citizens and indicate its intention to reconsider its bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. Second, the government should capitalize on its membership in various international organizations, such as the African Union and the United Nations, to bring attention to the atrocities occurring in Saudi Arabia. Lastly, the government should revisit its guarantees regarding the security of Saudi investments in Ethiopia. But due to the extensive financial ties between the two countries, remaking investment policy will require careful nuance.

Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in Ethiopia. With the total volume of bilateral trade standing at approximately $667 million, Saudi Arabia is Ethiopia’s fourth largest trading partner. In addition, sixty-nine Saudi companies have more than $360 million invested in Ethiopia, though that total is expected to increase significantly following reports by Al Monitor, which state that more than 400 Saudi businessmen in Ethiopia intend to invest approximately $3.5 billion in the cultivation of a variety of grain crops. Despite Saudi Arabia’s deportation of Ethiopian migrant workers, Arab News reported that the Ethiopian government had recently approved 361 additional Saudi investment projects, mainly in the agricultural sector.

The Saudi-Ethiopian trade and investment relationship provides the Ethiopian government with powerful leverage. If the government in Addis Ababa were smart, it would realize that balanced bilateral ties should be based on mutual respect. Saudi agricultural investment would be more aptly referred to as a land grab, since the trade terms were unfair from the outset, benefitting wealthy Saudis to the detriment of poor Ethiopian farmers. And by using trade and investment opportunity as a bargaining chip, Ethiopia could not only claim compensation on behalf of migrant victims, but also improve conditions for domestic farmers.

Ethiopia must act to convince Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of migrant workers. After such grievous acts of violence, the most difficult challenge facing the two countries will be to normalize people-to-people relations. In the end, both countries must come together to end the mistreatment of migrants and restore a mutually beneficial relationship.

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

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