The colour of slavery

Modern day slavery in the Arab world is not based on skin complexion, but rather on legal subordination.

Manfuhah, a suburb of Riyadh, was the site of the worst anti-migrant violence [Reuters]

The Islamic call to prayer emanated loudly from the nearby mosques. As Saudis filed toward the Manfuhah Mosque on November 4, government buses rolled in to carry 23,000 foreign workers to deportation centres, and then out of the kingdom.

Manfuhah, a working class section of Riyadh, was the scene of violent clashes between foreign workers and vigilante citizens for several days leading up to November 4. The unemployment rate is particularly high in Manfuhah, making it the eye of the national storm against foreign workers, who are increasingly perceived as taking Saudi jobs.    

The riots followed a controversial reform in Saudi labour laws covering foreign workers, brought about by rising Saudi unemployment, which has reached 12 percent. Saudi legislators calculated that by deporting foreign workers, job opportunities would open up for unemployed Saudis – particularly in the foreign-worker dominated spheres of service, clerical, and manual labour.  

The once lax laws that facilitated the expansion of Saudi Arabia’s foreign worker population to 9 million – the largest in the Arab world – and enabled their economic exploitation and dehumanisation, now mandate Saudi citizen sponsorship, or kafala, for legal stay.

Deploying “Arab” and “black” as monolithic indicators of modern-day master and slave misses the point, and overlooks the millions of non-African foreign workers that endure slave-like conditions within the Kingdom.

Yet, for the 4 million workers that could not procure sponsorship, the law mandated repatriation back to their homelands. Juxtaposed to the call for prayer, the Saudi legal call is fomenting xenophobic violence and compelling many foreign workers – who are perceived as and generally treated like slaves – to leave the kingdom. 

Xenophobic rage 

In the days leading up to November 4, Saudi Arabia became the site of an unholy violence toward foreign workers, and particularly in Manfuhah, a distinct where persecution was unleashed on unwanted “slaves” by public and private actors. The majority of the rioting workers were Ethiopians and other East Africans, but framing modern slavery in Saudi Arabia as “Arabs” subjugating “blacks”, misrepresents the contours and colour of the inhumanity taking place within the kingdom. 

The scene of the beaten and bloodied foreign workers in Riyadh, the vast majority of them Africans, recalls the graphic public beating of Alem Dechessa on the streets of Beirut in March 2012. Dechessa committed suicide shortly after, and her death brought to life – for the first time – mainstream attention to the enslavement of Ethiopian domestic workers not just in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab world.   

The violence towards foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, however, is far broader in scale and more comprehensive in scope. 

The number of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia is greater than half of its labour force, and is also bigger than the populations of Lebanon, Kuwait and Qatar combined, where foreign workers also face slave-like conditions. In Manfuhah alone, three workers were killed, hundreds were injured, and thousands were detained

Beyond ‘Arab’ vs ‘black’ binary

Saudi-centrism – fuelled by a nefarious cocktail of rigid sectarianism, classism, clannism, and state-sponsored xenophobia – distinguishes Saudi slavery from its regional analogs. Racism is undeniably salient, but its shape is drastically different in Saudi Arabia. Deploying “Arab” and “black” as monolithic indicators of modern-day master and slave misses the point and overlooks the millions of non-African foreign workers that endure slave-like conditions within the kingdom. 

“Black” in Saudi Arabia stands not simply for an African identity, but for a marginalised legal status. It is not a universally uniform identity, but a legal status that shifts according to national context. In Saudi Arabia, “black” includes the diverse population of foreign workers that hold no legal rights and that are vulnerable to the unchecked authority of their Saudi overseers.

For the Saudi onlooker, skin complexion, ethnicity and nationality are proxies for foreign-worker status. Indeed, the intersection of black or brown skin, non-Sunni faith, gender, and other variables exacerbates the subjugation endured by a foreign worker, creating great stratification, but the formal designation of foreign worker is the definitive marker of “slave” status.    

Among the foreign-worker population are Filipinos, Indians, Indonesians, Nepalese, Pakistanis, and Yemenis, who endure an existence similar to that of the Ethiopian workers. Almost a million foreign workers from these nations left Saudi Arabia during the course of the last three months. The majority fled anticipating the nativist backlash that climaxed with the Riyadh riots.  

If we accept the “Arab” versus “black” slave binary, how do we reconcile the subjugation and enslavement of Yemeni Arabs? Yemenis, who are Arabs, occupy a subordinate status within the kingdom. In fact, since November 1, over 30,000 Yemeni workers migrated back to their homeland amid the rising violence toward foreign workers. 

Regardless of whether domestic workers are Yemenis, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Indian or Pakistani, they are “black” in Saudi Arabia – occupying a slave-like existence where their Saudi handlers bond them by debt, seize their legal documents, imprison them within the kingdom, and as enshrined by the new law, expel them immediately when they see fit.     

Slavery and its incidents are far more complex than “Arab” versus “black”. Rather, slavery in the kingdom pits Saudi citizen against a spectrum of foreign workers branded “job thieves” by state legislators. These foreign workers range in nationality, phenotype, and religion, but share a common legal status that makes them collectively “black” in Saudi Arabia. Subscribing to simplistic racial binaries impairs the ability to see the milieu of victims, and indeed, the precise character of the villains. 

The new labour law passed in the land of Mecca, Medina, and thousands upon thousands of mosques, cannot mask the slavery it has practised for years, and the calls for its abolition outside the kingdom are becoming as resounding as the calls for prayer within it.   

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.