Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The death of a Saudi woman

In Saudi Arabia common sense often takes a holiday.

Last month an incident occurred at the Teachers’ Education College in Qassim. As usual, press reports are sketchy, but the facts as we know them are all too familiar.
It seems a young female student reportedly fell ill at the college and faculty staff made the appropriate response by calling the Red Crescent Society emergency medical technicians. So far, so good. That is except when the EMTs arrived at the front gate they were allegedly refused entry because they were men.

An argument ensued between the college security team and the EMTs. During all the shouting and finger-pointing the young woman died.

This kind of thing happens often enough. Since a vast majority of medical emergencies involve families and more than half involve women, we have seen urgent medical services fall the wayside because we believe that men attending to a woman is inappropriate.

In effect, we are all too happy to sacrifice a woman’s health, even her life, to protect the reputation of our loved ones. My impatience, however, is the entirely inappropriate reaction to such incidents that make me wonder if we have taken leave of our senses.

The fallout from the death of this young college student did not focus on the reason why she died. Instead, the reaction was that if the EMTs were women none of this would have happened. The answer, therefore, is that Saudi Arabia must recruit female emergency responders to provide adequate care for patients.

I’m all for women working as EMTs. Except for one thing: Saudi society frowns on women taking such jobs. It’s not honorable, remember? Even Saudi men don’t want the icky job of dressing injures, carrying people to the ambulance or seeing people in undignified circumstances. The Red Crescent Society in Qassim reported that only 100 men applied for 1,000 available jobs. One-thousand vacancies!

But that’s not my main concern. College staff had the presence of mind to call emergency responders when the woman became ill. But they lost their cool, and their courage, when the EMTs showed up. Two things happened as far as can be determined. The college staff allegedly refused the EMTs entry because they would be touching the woman. If it turns out the woman was not seriously ill or had recovered, college
officials may be exposing themselves to questions from authorities as to why they allowed strange men to touch one of their female students.

Self-preservation overrode common sense. Staff members wanted to protect the girl’s reputation and their own by refusing treatment.

The other reason is the creeping erosion of the true meaning of guardianship. In Saudi Arabia every single male, from the taxi driver I flag down on the street corner for a ride to the security guard at the airport who reads my father’s written permission allowing me to travel is my mahram. I have millions of mahrams who have an opinion about the way I conduct my life and think they know better than my father and brothers.

I can imagine the conversation between the male security guards and EMTs at the college entrance: “There’s a reputation at stake here and we can’t allow you in.” The victim died knowing her reputation remained intact because of a decision made by non-family members who have their own ideas about guardianship.

Recruiting female EMTs, and of course we are talking about hiring them from foreign countries, is not the answer. It will just bring up more questions. Will female EMTs be able to drive ambulances? Well, no. Will a female EMT be permitted to work with male colleagues and be alone with them in an ambulance? Probably not. Will a female EMT be permitted to treat a male patient alone in the rear of the ambulance while her male colleague drives the ambulance to the hospital? Not likely.

Saudi female emergency responders should be hired to possess the full authority to do whatever it takes to save lives and get the job done. But it doesn’t’ solve our fears of having to answer to law authorities about our decision to allow a man to treat a woman. It’s not khalwa, but in today’s society just about anything passes for khalwa. Our inability to define what is true khalwa has affected our rational thinking. In this case our inability to allow a life to be saved.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My driver's tears

Most expatriate workers come to Saudi Arabia for the good salaries. University educated Westerners work for some of the largest Saudi employers in technology, education and medicine. Not only are their salaries far better in the Kingdom than in their native countries, they are allowed to bring their families and live residential compounds that provide most of the comforts at home.

The same can’t be said for non-university educated South Asians, Africans and other workers from developing countries. These expats earn a wage that is far better than home, but they are not permitted to bring their families to Saudi Arabia and they live in dormitories or cheap housing, often with a group of other workers.

The policies of the Saudi government in which unskilled workers are not permitted to bring their families to the Kingdom make sense for the most part. If a worker is earning less than SR 1,500 per month – which is still a better wage than at home – the Saudi government isconcerned that the worker’s family will dependent on free government services. As it is, the Ministries of Social Affairs and Interior are
burdened with dealing with illegal immigrants who often come to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa and then stay.

To think for a moment, though, that these unskilled workers are content with their jobs, pleased with their earnings and happy living thousands of miles away from their families is na├»ve. These workers – the taxi driver or the housemaid – live away from their families for years, sometimes decades. Depending on the employer, the unskilled worker gets a plane ticket home once every other year for a 30-day visit with the families. I know of Bangladeshi tea boys who earn so little that collections by the better paid employees are taken at the end of each month to supplement the tea boys’ income. An extra collection is taken to finance their annual trip home. That is if the employer permitted the trip in the first place.

An estimated 51 percent of the workers in Saudi Arabia are foreign. This is not unusual in Gulf countries where the number of foreign workers in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and other countries far exceed the native workers.

While there are many benefits for the unskilled laborer to work in Saudi Arabia, there is an inherent unfairness of how some workers are treated. A worker’s salary usually determine whether family dependents are permitted to live in Saudi Arabia with the worker. This is a non-issue with skilled professionals, such as physicians, teachers, technicians, journalists and others. These people are paid high salaries and there is no threat of their families becoming dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial aid.

The inequity occurs when an unskilled worker also earns a high salary but is not permitted to bring his family to Saudi Arabia. My driver is an honorable man working in Saudi Arabia under a Saudi sponsorship.

His primary employer is a company and his days are filled driving the company’s employees to and from work and to run errands. His sponsor permits him to take on extra clients. One of these extra clients is me.

My driver, a Pakistani with a wife and two young sons at home in Pakistan, earns an excellent wage between SR 4,000 and SR 10,000 a month. That’s a wage more than many Saudis earn. In a good month, he earns about $3,500 in U.S. dollars. That’s better than what many Americans earn in their own country. Yet my driver is not allowed to
have his family in Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t tell you the exact reasons for this, but at the end of the day to the Saudi government he is simply an unskilled Pakistani worker.

What is troubling to me, however, is that there are simple solutions to his plight. He can afford to place funds in government-approved account that guarantees his family has return airline tickets for home. A specific amount can be added as a bond to guarantee that his family does not become a burden to the Saudi government. Most
unskilled workers can’t afford to have a bond or provide guarantees for a return airline ticket. But if they earn their money legally, as my driver does, why shouldn’t they be permitted to have their families live with them?

Recently my driver brought his wife and two boys to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa. He found living quarters for them and I could see that these were the two happiest little boys in the world. My driver often works seven days a week, but with his family in town, he worked only six. Thursdays was family day. The boys knew that their dad reserved that day for them. Each Thursday morning, they were dressed and ready for the big day long before their dad arrived to pick them up for a trip to the Corniche, an amusement park, the mall or a fine family restaurant.

From a practical standpoint this visit is good for Saudi Arabia. The money that my driver earns is being spent in Jeddah. It’s not being sent to Pakistan. He is contributing to Saudi Arabia’s economy.

At the end of the holiday, the family returned to Pakistan and my driver will probably not see them for another year. It’s not often that I see a grown man cry, but I can’t fault his tears for the unfairness of being forced to find work in a foreign country to provide for his family. And even when that wage is exceptional, the labor laws in Saudi Arabia keep that family separated. Further, millions of Saudi Riyals leave the Kingdom each day. Saudi banks and Western Union offices are jammed each day with expatriates sending money home with little being spent in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia would benefit better if it changes its policies to allow unskilled expatriates earning a good income to have their families live with them.