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World

Mecca Journal: Among guest workers

DW reporter Ali Almakhlafi is waiting for his return flight. He contemplates on how the pilgrimage to Mecca has changed his picture of Saudi Arabia - and talks about his conversations with foreign workers in the country.

A man in a car

Faisal, a Pakistani guest worker in Saudi Arabia

I'm sitting among hundreds of thousands of exhausted pilgrims at Jeddah airport and I know: It's all over now. Goodbye to Mecca! Thanks for having me. And I also want to thank all the DW users who cast a critical eye on my journey and posted numerous questions. Your feedback has been a real incitement to my work - and it's been a lot of fun. I'm proud that I was able to reach Muslims as well as non-Muslims with my diary entries.

By the way, not all of the pilgrims are going home now. Some go on to spend a vacation here, if they can afford it. Many of them stroll along the beaches of the Red Sea with dark sunglasses. The hotels are still booked-out. However, I'm sitting here at the airport among the many other "flying pilgrims." In fact, the rush of people is so heavy that we were asked to be here six hours before departure time.

Ex-pilgrims with sunglasses

A group of pilgrims

Pilgrims at a hotel in Jeddah

Prior to my journey to Mecca, I hadn't personally met a Saudi in my whole life. I was only familiar with the common prejudices that other Arabs like to tell each other about Saudis - particularly in Yemen, the extremely poor country I come from. From a Yemeni perspective, they easily seem like spoiled "brothers" from a rich neighboring country. And while Saudi Arabia has close ties with Western countries, it also applies a particularly conservative Islamic rule - including whippings and death penalties for violations of the Sharia.

My visit was too short to question or change this picture fundamentally. However, I made some diverging observations that might help to better differentiate between the country's people and the existing system of government. All of the Saudis that I met in the past days were very friendly - and they were open-minded as well.

Let's take the young men working for the Hajj's organizing committee: All of them had been to college, many of them in foreign countries. And they all spoke at least three foreign languages. They love to have fun a lot and spice up their working days with jokes. At the same time, they're proud Muslims who are very sensitive about utterances associating Islam directly or indirectly with extremism or terrorism. "We utterly reject that," they say. "We're tolerant and open-minded toward non-Muslims as well."

people having dinner

Eating with multilingual Saudi employees of the pilgrim's office

I personally had the feeling that they really meant what they said, and that they weren't just saying it to me because I'm a journalist from a foreign media company. However, what about the government's policies? There are a number of facts that can hardly be conveyed to a foreign audience, such as the ban of Christian symbols or the exclusion of women from the general public. What is more, foreigners coming into the country need a Saudi resident acting as a guarantor for them.

Muhammad is fluent in Korean

Muhammad works for the pilgrimage's information office as well. He studied in South Korea for five years, where he lived only among locals - he's fluent in the language. He still raves about the time in the Far East: "Koreans are very kind and caring people. They virtually love foreigners." I get the feeling that Muhammad was really well-integrated over there.

Jeddah

The streets of Jiddah

These are the moments when you're sitting in Mecca and you're suddenly reminded of the integration debate going on in Germany. I ask myself: Is language really that important when it comes to integration? I wonder about that ever since I met Bikhiit, a plumber who was hired by a Saudi prince only for the days of the Hajj. Bikhiit worked on the prince's luxurious pilgrim's tent in Mecca.

The prince and the plumber

Bikhiit is from Egypt. Aside from his different accent, he's probably as good in Arabic as the Saudi prince. Every year, he makes sure that the prince's pilgrim's tent is provided with constant warm water. The sanitary engineer has been working in Saudi Arabia for 16 years now - but he doesn't have a single Saudi friend. "I only consort with Saudis during work," he says. "I spend the little time off that I have in the evening with my Egyptian friends in coffeehouses or watching soccer." When I ask him why he's got no private contacts to locals, he replies: "For example, we Egyptians have our own eating habits." That's all I get from him.

a man working on plumbing

Bikhiit, the plumber of the prince

However, he's very proud of the plumbing job for the Saudi prince. And he's very grateful to his "normal" Saudi employer who allows him to work here during the Hajj. Bikhiit likes to live in Saudi Arabia because he earns more money than in Egypt. But there's a price to pay for that: He had to give his passport to his employer - as law dictates. Human Rights activists argue that this practice establishes a situation of complete dependency. Bikhiit says: "Well, at least the passport won't get lost." His family lives in Egypt. He visits them once a year.

A Nepalese in a five star hotel

Bahadur is a guest worker as well. He's from Nepal. The 23-year-old prepares the rooms of a five star hotel and cleans the sanitary installations used by rich pilgrims during the Hajj. "I'm very happy with the money I make here," he says. However, he's not about to integrate into Saudi society. And nobody has ever asked him to do so, either. Even though the percentage of foreigners living in the kingdom is higher than in Germany.

A hotel worker

Bahadur from Nepal works in a five star hotel in Jeddah

I ask a Saudi: "Is it a problem that few guest workers here speak Arabic?" "No," he says - and he obviously doesn't quite understand why I would ask him about the language skills of inexpensive foreign workers. "As long as guest workers don't consort with people here, that's not a problem. Besides, many Saudis don't speak English!"

Integration not wanted

One of the last people I meet in Saudi Arabia is Faisal, a cab driver from Pakistan who takes me to the airport. I compliment him on his good Arabic - but that doesn't help him to become socially integrated or to receive a permanent right of residence. "In the United States and in Australia you can become a citizen after five years," he raves - maybe oversimplifying it a bit. "But you need to legally live and work in Saudi Arabia for 20 years in order to get a Saudi passport." That's also part of Saudi reality: Once a guest worker, always a guest worker.

When we part, Faisal asks me: "Do you have a German passport?" "No," I tell him. "It's not that easy to get one. You first have to legally work and live in Germany for 8 years. There are naturalization tests and you need to have sufficient German language skills.

Faisal smiles and I smile back: "At any rate, it's a lot easier than in Saudi Arabia."

Author: Ali Almakhafi (ds)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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