Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Fri, 2006-05-12 03:00

JEDDAH, 12 May 2006 — THE state visit this week by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to Saudi Arabia, during which she met King Abdullah and other high Saudi officials, was hailed by her aides as a success especially since she was able to secure the release of a record 500 Filipinos from Saudi jails.

Her critics, namely the activist labor group Migrante, welcomed the release of the 500 Filipinos, but asked what would happen to the Filipinos left behind in Saudi jails.

“Mrs. Arroyo’s so called ‘pasalubong’ of even around 300 OFWs repatriated addresses nothing about the situation of the many more left behind,” said Maita Santiago, Migrante’s secretary-general, in a statement.

“Of course on a certain level their return is good for their families. The only problem is the Arroyo’s regime’s ongoing failure to provide livelihood for them and other migrants in the Philippines,” added Santiago begrudgingly.

One Filipino worker in Jeddah told me that he didn’t think that Arroyo had accomplished much on her Saudi visit. “What did she accomplish? She didn’t secure oil at a lower price and no major trade agreements were signed,” he said.

Both charges are true. On the current high price of oil, the Kingdom only promised Arroyo to keep the supply of oil flowing even during a major disruption in world oil supplies. This was an expected response, one that Saudi Arabia gives to all of its allies. The oil at preferential prices for the Philippines that Arroyo had perhaps hoped for, was never going to happen as the Kingdom cannot sell oil at a lower rate for some and not others. If it did so, it would be accused of unfairness, and all customers of Saudi oil would soon be clamoring for cheaper oil. Hugo Chavez we are not!

Strange Question

Which reminds me of an interview I gave two weeks ago to an American radio, the National Public Radio affiliate in Delaware. The interviewer asked me whether the Saudi government had taken the American public’s feelings into consideration when it had recently slashed the domestic price of gasoline from around 90 cents a gallon to 60 cents a gallon.

I said, “No, why should they? This was a domestic decision for the benefit of all Saudis and residents in the Kingdom. Whenever the price of oil dips down low the government finds itself with less revenue and subsequently raises the prices of gasoline and services.

Thus it is only logical that since world oil prices are at an all-time high, the government should slash the price of gasoline in the country.”

Americans, who were paying $3 a gallon a few weeks ago, forget that in the late 1990s the price of oil fell to $18 a barrel, a far cry from today’s $72 a barrel. This caused the Saudi government to go into debt and put much needed infrastructure projects on hold or on a go-slow.

Now, the Saudi government is using the extra oil revenue to send Saudi students abroad to study on scholarships, fixing roads and bridges and paying down its debt.

So while it is easy right now to paint us Saudis as being greedy SOBs, the truth is that we are hostages to the volatility of the international commodity markets, where the price of oil is often manipulated by Western speculators and oil companies. What this only underscores is the urgency of the need for the Kingdom to diversify its economy into non-oil sectors such as manufacturing and even tourism, so that we would have sources of revenue that did not fluctuate so wildly.

But back to Arroyo. Her trip here may have been marked by endless smiles and pleasantries, but for Arabs like us having a face-to-face, personal relationship with our counterparts is extremely important. So on that score, the president did very well.

A female colleague of mine who covered Arroyo’s visit to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that President Arroyo impressed her Saudi hosts with her friendliness, down-to-earth approachability and intelligence. If only she could get such accolades at home!

* * *

Tight Security Made Visit Bland

“I couldn’t help myself, I was so excited, that I had to shake her hand,” my friend and colleague Francis Salud told me, after attending President Arroyo’s meeting with the Filipino community at the Le Meridien Hotel in Jeddah on Tuesday.

As the president of the Bicol-Saro group, Francis was attending the meeting as a community leader and not as a journalist.

But security was extremely tight and President Arroyo did not hold a single press conference during her entire visit to the Kingdom, most likely an attempt by her aides to avoid her having to answer any embarrassing questions about alleged corruption in her government and rigging of the May 2004 election.

Even Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who was included in the president’s entourage for being the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch Arroyo supporter, sat on the stage with the president, not uttering a word to anyone from the public.

So for Filipinos who expected Arroyo to personally answer some of their many grievances, which range from a dying Philippine school in Jeddah to a lack of resources at Philippine missions in the Kingdom, it must have been a frustrating visit.

* * *

MIGRANTE is right in reminding us that there are many more Filipinos still in Saudi jails, and that more will end up there. With more than a million Filipinos working in the Kingdom, there is bound to be a considerable number of them in jail for crimes committed.

It is those who unjustly end up in jail, either for running away from abusive employers, or for not being able to pay diya (blood money) after an accident, that my heart goes out to.

The good news is that 500 Filipinos have been pardoned by King Abdullah, much more than the 50 originally announced. Ten of these were in jail for homicide and the payment of blood money to the families of their victims was waived.

I think this gesture by King Abdullah speaks volumes about how much Saudis like and enjoy employing Filipinos and having them as friends and spouses. His generosity and sincerity of spirit should be taken for what it is and recognized as such.

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