Iran’s pack of lies

This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.

In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.

Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.

Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.

Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.

After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.

Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.

It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.

The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/985506/saudiarabia

Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?

Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.

Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.

This column was printed in Arab News on July 24, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The 10 Brazilian supporters of the terror group Daesh, who were arrested on Thursday across Brazil, didn’t seem to be prepared to launch attacks in the country. According to intercepted WhatsApp and Telegram messages sent to each other, the members were planning to take martial arts and shooting classes. One of them inquired online about buying an AK-47 rifle from a shop in Paraguay.

All those arrested appear to be Muslim converts, ranging in age from 20 to 50 years. A few of them knew each other personally, but most of them knew each other only through the Internet. A few of them ran their own blogs online where they praised Daesh and the various terrorist attacks the group claimed responsibility for such as the Orlando and Nice massacres. One of them, Ahmed Andrade Santos Junior, 34, from Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba, learned about Islam online and radicalized himself by regularly visiting extremist forums online.

O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper characterized him as a former Christian who was not at all religious and who used to box. His expounding of extremists ideas got him banned from a local mussala by the imam. He visited Egypt and was photographed there posing next to the flag of Daesh. When he returned to Brazil he openly defended Daesh and its dastardly acts.

Another suspect that was arrested was Vitor Barbosa Magalhaes, 23, of Guarulhos in greater Sao Paulo. He taught himself Arabic online and then got a scholarship to learn Arabic in Cairo for six months in 2009. It is there that he learned more about Islam and converted. His wife said in an interview that she believes him to be innocent and that he is non-violent.

Brazilian authorities are on full security alert ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, which open on Aug. 5. Already 6,000 National Force military troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to ensure the safety of the expected 500,000 athletes and visitors. But many Brazilian commentators have noted that visitors to Rio have more to fear from being robbed or killed by local criminals, rather than be caught in a terror attack.

Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes gave several interviews to the press on Thursday stressing the amateurism of the 10 suspects that were arrested, noting that two more suspects were still at large. He added that the deportation last week of the Franco-Algerian physicist Adlene Hicheur, who had been teaching at a university in Rio, but had been previously been sentenced to three years in prison in France in 2009 for allegedly planning terror attacks in France with Al-Qaeda operatives, was part of Brazil’s actions against possible terror threats before the Rio Olympics. The Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann also downplayed the threat of the arrested suspects, saying that they were “bat-crazy.”

President Michel Temer was reportedly unhappy with the comments of his two ministers. It is clear that Brazil, which has never endured terror attacks before, is being pressured by the United States and France to beef up its security for the Olympics, and to show it is doing something by rounding up Muslim suspects that support Daesh.

“Brazil is being pressured greatly by countries that are really targets and are demanding security guarantees. Brazil does not have expertise, but it’s making an effort. It has done an important monitoring of online chatter on social media,” said Paulo Velasco, a professor and researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in an interview with Estado de Sao Paulo.

But some in the Muslim community here feel that the government is overreacting to please foreign governments and adding fuel to the fire of Islamophobia in Brazil, a largely Catholic nation. “The Muslim community supports the actions of the federal police as long as they are done with transparency and proof,” said Jihad Hammadeh, the president of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Sao Paulo.

“There is a growing Islamophobia, principally on the part of entities that should bring security to society,” warned Hammadeh, who is also an imam. “The National Union of Islamic Entities manifests its profound preoccupation with the recent events and reports that Brazilian citizens are associated with terrorism in Brazil. At the same time, we vehemently support the actions of the federal police for the investigation of these facts, but with concrete evidence and much transparency so that no injustice and persecution occurs against any citizen or group,” he stressed in a statement.

Hammadeh warned that the sensational fashion in which the arrests of the 10 suspects was being reported by some media outlets in Brazil is bringing terror to the population at large and discrimination to Muslims. Unfortunately this is true. Even the big media here treats the whole issue in a sensational way.

The 10 suspects are being held initially for a 30-day period. If authorities are unable to prove any of the more serious terror charges against them, they will be released and could be made to wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements and banned from approaching certain public sites such as sensitive government buildings, military installations and stadiums.

I understand the worry of the Brazilian government to nip any potential terror threat in the bud before any attacks take place. Despite the comments of the two ministers stressing how amateurish the 10 suspects had been, one can never be too safe, as we have seen from the Orlando and Nice attacks that were undertaken by lone wolves that had slid below the radar.

The problem is that the Brazilian population at large still does not know enough about the real Islam, and therefore ends up believing that all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists. This is some of the real damage that Daesh is doing to the image and reputation of Muslims worldwide — damage that will take a long time to repair.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/958671/columns

Why we need a deal with Iran

An official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran on April 20, 2009. (Reuters photo)

An official from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran on April 20, 2009. (Reuters photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

As the deadline looms for the announcement of some sort of nuclear deal between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other, there has been much agonizing in the Middle East and in the US of how this may be a bad deal for the Gulf countries, Israel and the US. Bad because US President Barack Obama is allegedly being too soft in the negotiations with the Iranians, in the hope of reaching a landmark agreement that will be a lasting legacy of his presidency, even if it is detrimental to American interests.

First we had the shameless appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the US Congress on March 3, lecturing American politicians on the dangers of a bad deal with Iran. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House of Representatives, visibly displeased by his remarks said his speech was “condescending” and “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

Then we had the letter written by 47 Republican senators on March 9 addressed to the leaders of Iran warning them that any nuclear deal reached between Obama and Iran, that was not approved by the US Congress, could be revoked by the president who is elected to office in 2017, and that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement.

For sure the growth of the Iranian nuclear program, and the discovery of a secret, military component of it in 2002, has led many critics to be wary of Iran’s true intentions. No one really doubts that the country needs nuclear energy to produce electricity, just as Gulf countries are investing in nuclear energy for the same reasons. By doing so, both Iran and the Gulf countries will be able to divert much less crude oil to produce electricity, and be able to export that oil where they can get much more money for it.

In 2006, Iran had only 164 centrifuges that it uses to produce uranium. Today it has more than 15,000. Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the US, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine recently that the reluctance of American hawks to reach a nuclear deal with Iran over the past ten years is what has allowed, in part, the Iranian nuclear program to expand so aggressively. “One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another – but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a ‘better’ deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us,” writes Lewis.

If the deal is agreed to, Iran would freeze its nuclear program at current levels for the next ten years, allow more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the US and the UN would lift many of the economic sanctions that have made life so difficult for all Iranians. Some critics are worried that the Iranians are only bluffing in the current negotiations, claiming that their only goal is to get the sanctions lifted, and that as soon as they are the Iranians will ramp up their nuclear program once again. In order to avoid this happening, the US could lift some of their sanctions temporarily for six months, subject to inspections of Iranian nuclear installations. If they passed, then the sanctions would remain lifted for a further six months. That way the threat of the sanctions returning, and the use of regular inspections, could be a good way to keep the Iranians on their toes and make them stick to the agreement. It would also allow the US to retain the stick of sanctions, which are notably easier to lift than to impose.

For sure, Iran’s continued expansion of influence in the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is extremely worrying to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and is unacceptable. Already in Iraq, a vast network of Shia militias from Iran have been deployed to ostensibly fight the menace of the Islamic State forces, but many see it as a strategic move to effectively make Iraq a satellite-state of Iran.

In the end, a nuclear deal with Iran, even one that is not liked very much by all parties, will be better than no deal. A deal allows the continued presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran and keeps Iran engaged with the rest of the world and the expectations that come with it of acting reasonably responsibly. We all know that a nuclear deal will not necessarily mean renewed diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, as the Supreme Leader of Iran still believes that America is the Great Satan. So all of us in the Gulf can breathe easy again and not worry that a nuclear deal with Iran will suddenly eclipse the relationship that the US has had with Gulf countries for decades.

A tough task ahead in Yemen

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on January 25, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

After days of bloody clashes this week between the militias of the Houthi rebels and government forces in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital — which included bombing the presidential palace and laying siege to it, leaving President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi stuck inside for days — Hadi was forced to accede to the demands of Houthis. He granted greater participation to the rebel movement in all military and civilian agencies, and in return the group promised to withdraw from strategic areas of the capital and to release the presidential chief of staff who they had kidnapped on Saturday.

The president also promised to review a draft Constitution that would divide the country into six new administrative regions. The Houthis claimed that they felt aggrieved and disadvantaged in the new plan. Then on Thursday night, with no withdrawal of Houthi forces from key installations in the capital as had been promised, Hadi and his entire Cabinet resigned, saying they were too frustrated to continue.

But we have seen all of this before in September 2014 when the Houthis brutally swept into the capital, killing 300 people and demanding that the Hadi government share power with them. Cornered and scared, and after weeks of clashes, the president agreed and signed an agreement with the Houthis. The rebels took control of various ministries and financial institutions, but continued to remain excluded from other centers of power. In his reluctance in sharing power, Hadi has the support of other Sunni political parties in the country, which do not want to share their power with the Houthis, which as Shiites make up only 30 percent of the population.

The Houthis insist that there was no coup, but when you use heavy weapons against the president’s palace; attack the president’s guards; keep him prisoner in his palace for days, and take control of state TV and radio stations, what should one call it then?
The only person I heard in Yemen have the courage to say it was a coup was the now ex-Minister of Information Nadia Al-Sakkaf in an interview by phone with a CNN correspondent in Sanaa on Tuesday night.

US naval forces intercepted ships with Iranian weapons off of the Yemeni coast in 2012, proving that Iranian military support was being given to the Houthis.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) accused the Houthis of a coup against the legitimate authority in Yemen, and warned that the Gulf countries would “take all necessary measures to protect their security and stability, and their vital interests in Yemen.” They even offered to send a mediator to Sanaa to help in negotiations between Hadi and the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has been the main source of foreign aid to Yemen for the last few decades, providing generous amounts of oil and other aid. This financial assistance has been almost completely stopped since September 2014 when the Houthis took control of Sanaa.
Hadi has also been a major ally of Washington, an enthusiast of the US drone program that kills targets of the Al-Qaeda. With $1.4 billion in American aid already spent in Yemen since 2009 in economic and military aid, and an additional $232 million scheduled to be disbursed this year, the administration of President Barack Obama is very reluctant to call what is happening in Yemen now a coup because under US law any aid from Washington has to be suspended if there is a military coup in a country. So get ready for verbal acrobatics from American officials in the coming weeks in order to not call a coup “a coup.”

Beyond the threat of Houthis, Yemen also faces a secessionist movement in the south, and the brutality of Al-Qaeda. The audacity of the Houthis and their use of force show that there is not much room to negotiate with them. They want more power, period. Certainly Iran is behind this sudden show of action and courage and it is buying an ugly fight with the Gulf countries and the US.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/694431

When a hero falls

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama hug each other after their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014. (EPA photo)

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama hug each other after their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014. (EPA photo)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Nov. 16, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The scene of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrapping her arms around US President Barack Obama following their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon on Friday was sickening on several levels.

First, it smacked of desperation. Barred by the generals, who still run Burma from behind the façade of a civilian government, from running in the 2015 general election, Suu Kyi must be worried that the decades of isolation she endured locked up under house arrest may have been in vain. But more importantly, it is her revolting silence in not criticizing the state-sponsored genocide unleashed against the Muslim Rohingya people of her country by the Buddhist majority that has seriously damaged her alleged commitment to democracy and freedom for all the Burmese.

The Rohingya have long suffered severe discrimination in Burma and denial of citizenship by the government. Many may have thought that with the handover of the government to a nominally civilian leadership two years ago that loosened media censorship and released many political prisoners; things would improve for Burmese Muslims. But instead they have gotten much, much worse.

In 2012, horrific anti-Muslim riots broke out in Rakhine state in which whole Muslim villages were burned to the ground by angry Buddhist mobs and Muslim women, children and the elderly were beaten, speared and shot to death. It is estimated that 650 Rohingyas were killed, 1,200 went missing and up to 140,000 displaced. In response to the riots, the central government declared martial law in Rakhine and intervened with military troops, setting up internment camps in which Muslims were forced to move to. Today, more than 100,000 Rohingyas remain stuck in these camps, from which they are forbidden to leave.

Buddhist monks, who were once so celebrated for their role in resisting the dictatorial rule of the military from the 1960s through the 1990s, have played a key role in stirring up sectarian strife in Burma. I watched an excellent documentary a few months ago about this that featured the radical monk named Wirathu, who is the head of an extremist Buddhist group called “969.” It showed him traveling around Burma in a private jet to give lectures to groups of Burmese, warning them of the dangers of Muslims and telling them not to not allow their women to marry Muslim men, as there was an alleged Muslim plot to take over the country. In the film, Suu Kyi is asked about this and she refuses to explicitly condemn such fear mongering, only keeping to her usual mantra that it is the duty of the government to protect all Burmese.

Thankfully, Obama raised the plight of the Rohingyas several times both in private and public in his talks with Burmese President Thein Sein and in his speech at Suu Kyi’s residence. “Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be,” said Obama.
American officials remain baffled by Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out more forcefully against the anti-Rohingya violence, according to the New York Times, which notes that this persecution of Muslims is the biggest blot on Burma’s reputation and if not dealt with could jeopardize western aid to the country.

Perhaps Suu Kyi being a devout Buddhist has much to do with her reluctance to openly criticize the radical monk groups that keep attacking Muslims in Burma. She is known to wake up early every day and spend several hours in Buddhist meditations before starting the rest of her day. Yet for a woman who has sacrificed so much, most notably her not being able to see her British husband when he was dying of cancer because the military regime would not give him a visa to enter Burma to see her and she could not leave Burma as the military said they would not allow her back in, to hardly say anything now when hundreds of thousands of her own countrymen are being killed and run out of their own homes is unforgiveable.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/660591

 

Do more before Ebola reaches tipping point

US Marines get their temperatures taken after landing in Liberia on October 9, 2014, to help set-up more blood screening centers in the fight against the Ebola virus. (Getty Images)

US Marines get their temperatures taken after landing in Liberia on October 9, 2014, to help set-up more blood screening centers in the fight against the Ebola virus. (Getty Images)

This is my Arab News column published on October 12, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Watching a BBC report this week on a desperate family in Liberia that had a male member ill with the Ebola virus, driving from one emergency medical center to another, only to be turned away from them all, was heart-wrenching.

They were confused and in the tropical heat looked dazed and angry, a woman frantically fanning the sick man who looked too weak and feverish to walk, let alone stand up, as he sat slumped in the front passenger seat. The reporter bravely gave the family rubber gloves to use, the most she could do in such extreme conditions, where in a tiny and impoverished nation such as Liberia, this deadly virus has completely overwhelmed the public health system. The sick man died shortly thereafter.

With more than 4,000 deaths now from the Ebola virus, and more than 8,000 people in West Africa infected with it, according to the World Health Organization, we have an epidemic on our hands. And if more is not done quickly, such as more experimental drugs to treat Ebola victims, and vaccines invented to prevent infection, then we will soon have a global pandemic. For sure the Ebola virus is not that easily transmitted, but it is also not that difficult to become contaminated with it if you come into contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients, as we have seen with the various nurses and aid workers, who have come down with the disease. And the mortality rates are extremely high: 70 percent of Ebola patients in West Africa are dying from it, Robert Murphy, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, told USA Today.

Which brings us to how the disease is being fought, how patients are being treated or not, and why finding a cure still doesn’t seem to be a high priority for major pharmaceutical companies. The first three Americans exposed to the virus in West Africa were all flown home to the United States where they received the best medical treatment in the world, including the experimental drugs ZMapp and TKM-Ebola. They also received blood transfusions from Ebola survivors, in the hope that their antibodies would strengthen their immune system against the virus. All three survived and have recovered well.

Compare their treatment to that of the 42-year-old Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan who just died this week of the Ebola virus in a Dallas hospital. He was not offered ZMapp or TKM-Ebola. According to the Atlanta Blackstar news site, contradictory reasons were given for why Duncan did not get the drugs. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that doctors treating Duncan feared the drug might worsen his condition. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health claimed that supplies of ZMapp were exhausted, and that it would take six to eight weeks before new supplies would be ready. Duncan was given brincidofovir, an experimental antiviral drug, more than one week after he was admitted to hospital, according to USA Today. Obviously, that was not enough to save his life. He was not offered blood transfusions or any other experimental drugs according to the paper.

The good news, if you can even call it that, is that the WHO has fast-tracked the development of experimental vaccines against Ebola, agreeing to skip the usual randomized controlled tests in which some participants get the vaccine and others a placebo. The WHO said that it was ethical to give Ebola patients untested vaccines, although the risks and benefits should be strictly evaluated and the results shared. Several experimental vaccines are being tested in Africa, and hopefully will be able to save lives once they are produced and used on larger scales.

The US government has already sent 400 US military personnel to Liberia to set-up blood screening centers that process blood samples from Ebola patients. The US House of Representatives has now approved a further $700 million in funding to deploy a further 4,000 American troops to West Africa to help in the fight against Ebola. Cuba too has sent 165 doctors to Sierra Leone and will send a further 296 doctors to Liberia and Guinea.

Big pharmaceutical companies are not beating down anyone’s door to develop Ebola vaccines or treatment drugs because so far the majority of the victims have been poor Africans, who could never afford to buy expensive medicines that these manufacturers would want to push them to do in order to recoup their research and development costs in bringing these Ebola drugs quickly to the market. But this is a global emergency and all governments involved — African, Western, and Asian — should get together and pool their resources to fast-track the development of an Ebola vaccine. They could do so by using government laboratories or in some sort of government-private sector partnership where they offered private pharmaceutical firms tax incentives to develop these drugs quickly and cheaply.

All of our lives are in danger if not enough is done now, and Ebola is allowed to become to a global scourge. We cannot continue to be complacent, as our future depends on it.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/642816

 

US-India row: Misplaced outrage and sympathy

Devyani Khobragade

Devyani Khobragade

This column appeared in Arab News on December 22, 2013:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The outrage in India over the arrest last week of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York after her runaway maid Sangeeta Richard filed a complaint against her claiming she was overworked and paid less than half the minimum wage, while understandable, is misplaced. In the entire hullabaloo of removing the barricades around the US Embassy in New Delhi and the refusal of Indian politicians to meet a visiting US congressional delegation, the plight of the maid seems to have been forgotten.

Wounded national pride is the explanation for the Indian outrage and demand that the US government apologizes publicly for the harsh treatment that Khobragade allegedly was subjected to. According to the diplomat, she was arrested in front of her children’s school and handcuffed. Thrown into a cell with drug addicts she further claims she was strip-searched several times was also subjected to a cavity search. Preet Bharara, the US prosecutor handling the diplomat’s case, insists that she was just given the same treatment as everyone else, and that she was treated with respect. This indeed is humiliating treatment for any person, and especially more so for someone who is supposed to enjoy the diplomatic immunity provided by the 1961 Vienna Convention. The US State Department is now claiming that Khobragade enjoys only partial diplomatic immunity due to her rank, which seems like willful misinterpretation of the convention. If you are a diplomat, whether you are a third secretary or the ambassador, the diplomatic immunity you are entitled to is one and the same.

Richard claims that she had to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of the two children of the deputy consul- general. Khobragade claims that her maid was given every Sunday off to go to church and meet her friends. To me this sounds like the cases of hundreds of foreign maids in the Middle East who are overworked, shouted at and underpaid by the employers from Beirut to Riyadh and Dubai. Yet abuse of domestic servants is not something unique to the Middle East, as this happens all over the world, from Africa to Asia to Latin America.

According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released earlier this year there are 52 million domestic workers worldwide, with 83 percent of them women. Brazil is the country with the most domestic workers, 6.7 million; India is second with 4.2 million and Indonesia third with 2.4 million domestic workers. According to the study, 29.9 percent of domestic workers are not covered by national labor laws and more worryingly a full 45 percent do not get a weekly day off or paid annual leave. The Gulf countries have the highest percentage of women domestic servants as compared to their overall female populations, with Oman at 59.3 percent, Kuwait 53.3 percent, Saudi Arabia 47.1 percent and the UAE at 42.4 percent.

The problem that all maids face is that they work in the private homes of their employers, making it very difficult for government inspectors to check their work conditions. In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are still not fully covered by the labor law, which gives abusive employers a huge loophole through which they can abuse the rights of their maids. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff this year pushed through legislation that gives maids full labor law protections, including higher salaries and a limit to how many hours they can be made to work. If a maid or nanny needs to work overtime or through the night, they are now entitled to mandatory 1.5 times overtime pay.

According to simple calculations, Richard should have been paid $1,392 a month if she were paid the $7.25 per hour minimum wage and worked for 48 hours a week. Instead Richard claims she was paid only $633.60 a month, or $3.30 an hour. For comparison, Filipino maids in the Kingdom are now paid a minimum of $400 a month, and HK$4,010 in Hong Kong, or $517 (SR1,939) a month. In Brazil fulltime maids must be paid the minimum salary of R$678, which is the equivalent of $248 or SR1,066 a month. But the employer must also pay their monthly retirement and social security contributions, which can be an additional one-third on top of their salary.

Khobragade should be made by a US court to compensate her servant by paying her all of the back pay that she is owed. Handcuffing and strip-searching her went way beyond the diplomatic niceties that all diplomats are entitled to. The US should apologize for this behavior, but also make clear that anyone, be they a diplomat or not, must abide by US labor laws and pay their domestic workers decent pay that reaches the legal minimum-wage level.

— The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/496556

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