The immigrant proletariat, the Muslim ban, and the capitalist class

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written on February 1, 2017 so it is outdated in some respects, but broadly still valid. This is reposted from Dissident Voice.

The Trump administration has dug in its heels, declaring that the 90-day (for now) Muslim ban on refugees, from seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia), enshrined in a January 27th executive order, is just “extreme vetting” and that the media is engaging in “false reporting.” In contrast, hundreds of diplomats have criticized the travel ban, top Democrats have criticized the ban while Republicans like Paul Ryan have said it necessary to protect the “homeland.” Also Jewish groups, over six thousand academics, varying UN agencies, and pro-refugee groups have criticized Trump’s action, along with protests in airports across the country, while immigrants have suffered with more crackdowns to come.

Numerous companies and CEOs have put out critical statements about Trump’s order. This included the top executives of Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, Airbnb, Box, GE, Lyft, Uber (later on), Koch Industries, TripAdvisor, SpaceX/Tesla Motors, JPMorganCase, and Goldman Sachs, most of whom pledged to help their own employees directly affected. [1] Others that spoke out on the ban included the head of the Internet Association, an industry trade group for the Internet industry, with some investors, like Chris Sacca, sending thousands of dollars to the ACLU, just like Lyft, Tim Cook of Apple declaring that “Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do” and Twitter mirroring this by saying “Twitter is built by immigrants of all religions. We stand for and with them, always.” [2] Some exploited the misery of the order by trying to help their bottom line: Airbnb said that it would “provide free housing to detainees and travelers” affected and Starbucks is planning to hire 10,000 refugees “over five years in the 75 countries where it does business,” starting with those people who “have served with U.S. troops as interpreters and support personnel.” [3] What seems clear is that the actions of Trump may have crossed a “red line” as Hunter Walk, a partner at the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Homebrew VC, told the Washington Post, indicating possible anti-Trump action by Silicon Valley in the future, as more companies realize it is a “bigger risk to their investors and bottom line to stay quiet than it is to protest Trump’s ban on refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, betting vocal opposition to the executive order scores them a moral and fiscal victory.” [4]

Such statements mean that the one group that remains constant in opposition to the racist executive order is a sect of the capitalist class. While the recent lawsuits filed in Darweesh v. Trump, Aziz v. Trump, Doe v. Trump, Sarsour v. Trump, San Francisco v. Trump, Louhghalam et al v. Trump, have mainly made constitutional arguments against the racist immigration ban, one suit revealed more about the interests of the capitalist class, especially those in the tech industry. This lawsuit, filed by the Attorney General of the State of Washington, Bob Ferguson, and joined by Expedia and Amazon, among other companies, declared the following, showing how this industry depends on immigrants:

Immigration is an important economic driver in Washington. Many workers in Washington’s technology industry are immigrants, and many of those immigrant workers are from Muslim-majority countries. Immigrant and refugee-owned businesses employ 140,000 people in Washington. Many companies in Washington are dependent on foreign workers to operate and grow their businesses. The technology industry relies heavily on the H-1B visa program through which highly skilled workers like software engineers are permitted to work in the United States. Washington ranks ninth in the U.S. by number of applications for high-tech visas. Microsoft, a corporation headquartered in Redmond, Washington, is the State’s top employer of high-tech—or H-1B visa holders and employs nearly 5,000 people through the program. Other Washington-based companies, including Amazon, Expedia, and Starbucks, employ thousands of H-1B visa holders. The market for highly skilled workers and leaders in the technology industry is extremely competitive. Changes to U.S. immigration policy that restrict the flow of people may inhibit these companies’ ability to adequately staff their research and development efforts and recruit talent from overseas. If recruiting efforts are less successful, these companies’ abilities to develop and deliver successful products and services may be adversely affected Microsoft’s U.S. workforce is heavily dependent on immigrants and guest workers. At least 76 employees at Microsoft are citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen and hold U.S. temporary work visas. There may be other employees with permanent-resident status or green cards. These employees may be banned from re-entering the U.S. if they travel overseas or to the company’s offices in Vancouver, British Columbia. Seattle-based company Amazon also employs workers from every corner of the world. Amazon’s employees, dependents of employees, and candidates for employment with Amazon have been impacted by the Executive Order that is the subject of this Complaint. Amazon has advised such employees currently in the United States to refrain from travel outside the United States. Bellevue-based company Expedia operates a domestic and foreign travel business. At the time of this filing, Expedia has approximately 1,000 customers with existing flight reservations in or out of the United. States who hold passports from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen. The Executive Order will restrict business, increase business costs, and impact current employees and customers.

Such a section comprises six paragraphs of Washington State’s argument against the immigration order, a section that the lawsuit depends on to be successful. Immigrants are clearly vital to the tech industry. Of the 250,000 Muslims living in the San Francisco Bay Area, who are mostly of Arab or South Asian descent, many of them work at “companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft.” [5] These immigrants are seen as “essential” to the growth of Silicon Valley, with 37 percent of workers in the area being foreign-born, with immigrants creating “some of America’s biggest tech companies,” like Yahoo, Apple, or Google, and allowing them to survive (and “boom”), since they rely on “talent from abroad to fill positions and to meet their global ambitions.” [6] After all, the “superstars of the high-tech industry are all immigrants” as one article points out.

Since immigrants account for a “significant part of the workforce in the tech industry,” the industry has advocated for looser laws to “increase the flow of skilled immigrants into the U.S.” and is heavily reliant on the H-1B visa program. The program, which started in 2000 with bipartisan support, “allows software engineers and other skilled workers to work in the U.S.,” resulting in their active role in the political arena to push for looser immigration restrictions. [7] Hence, Silicon Valley is afraid of the upcoming immigration restrictions during the Trump administration. This is especially the case since Trump has reportedly drafted an executive order to overhaul the H-1B visa program, which companies depend on so they can “hire tens of thousands of employees each year,” the “talent” they need to thrive, with their support of Trump basically non-existent in the recent presidential campaign. [8]

By the mid-1990s, those who live in the Valley divided “along racial and economic lines” with older and wealthier whites “concentrated in the west Valley,” Latinos have fanned across the floor of the valley, with many of the immigrants poor, bringing with them “crowding and new welfare burdens,” a division that angers many Latinos. [9] In recent years, the immigrant community which undergirds Silicon Valley has been in trouble. [10] With immigrant youth comprising a major portion of “both the population and the workforce in the Silicon Valley,” the Valley had “deep disparities when it comes to the lives of undocumented immigrants,” with such youth facing barriers in accessing education, concentrated in low-wage jobs, and serving as a diverse and “core part of the Silicon Valley community.” Immigrants from the Asian continent, whether Chinese, Filipino, or otherwise, form, as of April 2015, the “largest racial block in Santa Clara County, exceeding the proportion of non-Hispanic white residents for the first time.”

Despite such dependence on immigrants, the tech industry does not treat these employees fairly or justly. One academic report in 2012 says that the stated reasons of the tech industry (lack of study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), rapid technological change, and needing to hire best and brightest workers for “innovations” to occur) cannot be confirmed upon close inspection, leaving cheap labor as “the remaining explanatory factor.” The report goes on to say that legal loopholes allow for foreign workers to be unpaid drastically compared to American-born workers, with many of the workers coming from India, China, and the Philippines, along with other Asian immigrants, comprising from 50-80% of the workforce of top technology companies, with the tech industry claiming a “labor shortage” and lack of talent, although this cannot be supported by existing data. Interestingly, even the conservative media scoffs at the claims of the tech industry, with arch-conservative National Review declaring that work permits “are basically de facto green cards and give the foreign national complete flexibility in the job market” and that the visa program will hurt the middle class (not sure if that’s true) while the similarly aligned FrontPage Magazine questioned the shortage of “high-skilled American labor,” saying that the visa program provides “a supply of lower-wage guest workers.” [11] Of course, they oppose the claims for anti-immigrant reasons and don’t really care about the well-being of immigrant workers in the United States.

Mistreatment of immigrants in Silicon Valley is nothing new. There is no doubt that high-skilled immigrant workers “are being exploited by employers,” with the H1-B visa program benefiting the corporate bottom line, especially providing protection against unions and labor strikes, but hurting the workers. The program itself gives employers great power over workers, allowing them to “hire and fire workers…grant legal immigration status…[or] deport the worker” if they don’t do what they like. In 2014 Wired magazine reported on a study showing that major tech companies (ex: Cisco, Apple, Verizon, Microsoft, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and Google) have pocketed wages and benefits from workers, especially among new Indian immigrants to the Valley, leading to an “ecosystem of fear” in the area among the workforce. The tech companies collectively withheld at least $29.7 million from such workers, forcing them to pay fees they shouldn’t have to pay, creating a form of indentured servitude, as some called it, where there exists an “underground system of financial bondage by stealing wages and benefits, even suing workers who quit,” making “business and profit by having cheap labor” as one worker put it. [12] This shows that the tech companies are, in their own way, engaging in a form of organized crime against the immigrant proletariat. Such crimes are only part of their business model which includes top Silicon Valley CEOs conspiring in wage-fixing to drive down the wages of 100,000 engineers, ultimately involving one million employees in all.

With the exploitation of the immigrant proletariat, mainly those that are “high-skilled,” by the tech industry, this explains the harsh opposition from Silicon Valley to Trump’s executive order. Without the visa program, the industry would likely collapse or at least be weakened. As for other industries, immigrants are employed in jobs across the US economy, even as they face similar constraints to the native-born poor along with restrictions related to their citizenship status, especially in cities like New York. As a result, it can be said that immigrants ultimately benefit the US economy, even those that are undocumented, and are not a drag on the “native-born” section of the working class, making the country a better place for all, as even free-marketeers and libertarians would admit. [13] This is important to point out with nativists getting a new lease on life under the Trump administration.

As we stand now, the authoritarianism of the Obama administration has increased under Trump’s nightmarish state in regards to immigrants, Muslims killed by drone bombing, and violence supported by the murderous empire across the world, among much more. While we should undoubtedly be critical of bourgeois liberals and bourgeois progressives who claim to have the “answers” and solution to fighting Trump, rejecting their pleas to move the capitalist Democratic Party “more left” to fight the “bad Republicans,” there is no reason to sit idly by. We must get involved in pushing for revolutionary politics by at minimum engaging in actions that show solidarity with the immigrant proletariat, whether documented or undocumented, in the United States. In the end, perhaps we should heed what Homer Simpson declared about immigrants all those years ago:

Most of here were born in America. We take this country for granted. Not immigrants like Apu [who immigrated from India and on a green card], while the rest of are drinking ourselves stupid, they’re driving the cabs that get us home safely. They’re writing the operas that entertain us everyday. They’re training out tigers and kicking our extra points. These people are the glue that holds together the gears of our society. [14]

 

Notes

[1] Nathan Bomey, “Elon Musk to seek CEO consensus on changes to Trump immigration ban,” USA Today, Jan. 29, 2017; Fredreka Schouten, “Koch network slams Trump immigrant ban,” USA Today, Jan. 29, 2017; Jill Disis, “Starbucks pledges to hire 10,000 refugees,” CNNMoney, Jan. 29, 2017; David Pierson, “Facing Trump’s immigration ban, corporations can’t risk keeping silent,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 31, 2017. As Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors and SpaceX) tried to “seek a consensus” among fellow business CEOs who were affected with the order and trying to work with Trump, Uber changed course from crossing a picket line and profiting from the misery, to condemning Trump’s action as impacting “many innocent people” and the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, declaring “I’ve…never shied away…from fighting for what’s right,” even as they continue their horrid practices with exploitation of their workforce.

[2] Jessica Guynn and Laura Mandaro, “Microsoft, Uber, Apple, Google: How the tech world responded to Trump’s immigration ban,” USA Today, Jan. 28, 2017.

[3] Jill Disis, “Starbucks pledges to hire 10,000 refugees,” CNNMoney, Jan. 29, 2017

[4] Brian Fung and Tracy Jan, “Tech firms recall employees to U.S., denounce Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim countries,” Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2017; David Pierson, “Facing Trump’s immigration ban, corporations can’t risk keeping silent,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 31, 2017; John Ribeiro, “US tech industry says immigration order affects their operations,” CIO, Jan. 29, 2017; Anthony Cuthbertson, “How Silicon Valley Is Fighting Back Against Trump’s Immigration Ban,” Newsweek, Jan. 30, 2017;

Eric Newcomer, “Silicon Valley Finds Its Voice as Immigration Ban Fuels Outrage,” Bloomberg Technology, Jan. 30, 2017; PCMag staff, “Here’s What Silicon Valley Is Saying About Trump’s Immigration Ban,” PC magazine, Jan. 29, 2017; Matt Richtel, “Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules,” New York Times, Apr. 11, 2009. On the subject of US-Mexico migration some companies have tried to get on the game as well: an Israeli company said they will help build the “great wall” on the US-Mexico border.

[5] Brian Fung and Tracy Jan, “Tech firms recall employees to U.S., denounce Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim countries,” Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2017.

[6] John Blackstone, “Tech industry, fueled by immigrants, protesting Trump’s travel ban,” CBS News, Jan. 31, 2017; Kerry Flynn, “Immigrants have built America’s tech industry,” Mashable, Jan. 31, 2017; Carmel Lobello, “The tech industry’s case for immigration reform,” The Week, June 2, 2013; Sarah McBride, “One quarter of U.S. tech start-ups founded by an immigrant: study,” Reuters, Oct. 2, 2012. Even a Forbes contributor, David Shaywitz,” said that immigrants are an “inextricable part of the valley’s cultural fabric and a vital element of its innovative potential.”

[7] Jessica Guynn and Laura Mandaro, “Microsoft, Uber, Apple, Google: How the tech world responded to Trump’s immigration ban,” USA Today, Jan. 28, 2017; Katie Benner, “Obama, Immigration and Silicon Valley,” BloombergView, Jan. 22, 2015; Gregory Ferenstein, “No Exceptions For Tech Industry: High Skilled Visas Now Tied To Comprehensive Reform,” TechCrunch, Dec. 1, 2012; Stephen Moore, “Immigration Reform Means More High-Tech Jobs,” CATO Institute, Sept. 24, 1998; Jessica Leber, “Silicon Valley Fights for Immigrant Talent,” MIT Technology Review, July 26, 2013; Amit Paka, “How Legal Immigration Failed Silicon Valley,” TechCrunch, Sept. 7, 2015.

[8] Peter Elstrom and Saritha Rai, “Trump’s Next Immigration Move to Hit Closer to Home for Tech,” Bloomberg News, Jan. 30, 2017; Gretel Kauffman, “How Trump’s immigration stances could affect the tech industry,” Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 20, 2016; David Z. Morris, “Tech Industry Could be “First to Suffer” From Trump’s Immigration Stances,” Fortune, Nov 19, 2016; Salvador Rodriguez, “Why Tech Companies Need Immigrants to Function,” Inc, Jan. 30, 2017; Paresh Dave and Tracey Lien, “Trump’s shocking victory could squeeze Silicon Valley on immigration and trade,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 9, 2016; David Jones, “Silicon Valley Up in Arms Over Proposed H-1B Overhaul,” E-Commerce Times, Jan. 31, 2017; Marisa Kendall, “Trump poised to overhaul H-1B visas relied on by Silicon Valley tech,” Mercury News, Jan. 31, 2017; Hansi Lo Wang, “In Silicon Valley, Immigrants Toast Their Way To The Top,” NPR News, Apr. 19, 2014; Marie-Astrid Langer, “Silicon Valley Wants High-Skilled Immigration on Campaign Agenda,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18, 2015.

[9] Andrew Murr, “Immigrants In The Valley,” Newsweek, Dec. 25, 1994.

[10] Some immigrants are doing well however. Even by 1998, one study found that “Chinese and Indian immigrants were running a quarter of the high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley, collectively accounting for more than $16.8 billion in sales and over 58,000 jobs.”

[11] Ian Smith, “Obama Games the Visa System to Lower Wages and Please the Tech Industry,” National Review, September 30, 2015; Arnold Ahlert, “The Tech Industry’s Immigration Lies,” FrontPage Magazine, April 2, 2014.

[12] The report shows that most of those who are the “well educated, highly skilled and specialized foreign workers” accepted under the H1-B Visa program are from China, India, the Philippines, and South Korea, with thousands of other petitions accepted from the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, France, Pakistan, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, Nepal, Venezuela, Colombia, Italy, Russia, and Spain, among other countries.

[13] H.A. Goodman, “Illegal immigrants benefit the U.S. economy,” The Hill, Apr. 23, 2014; Rowena Lindsay, “How immigration helps the US economy: Report,” Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 24, 2016; Ted Hesson, “Why American Cities Are Fighting to Attract Immigrants,” The Atlantic, Jul. 21, 2015; Daniel Griswold, “Immigrants Have Enriched American Culture and Enhanced Our Influence in the World,” Insight (CATO Institute publication), Feb. 18, 2002; Rohit Arora, “Three Reasons Why Immigrants Help the U.S. Economy,” Inc, Feb. 24, 2015; Timothy Kaine, “The Economic Effect Of Immigration,” Hoover Institution, Feb. 17, 2015; Sean Hackbarth, “Immigrants are Good for the Economy,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dec. 5, 2014; A. Barton Hinkle, “Immigration Is Good for the U.S. Economy,” Reason, Jul. 21, 2014; Minyoung Park, “The vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the US are here working: BAML,” Yahoo! News, Jul. 21, 2016.

[14] This speech is made by Homer near the end of the Simpsons episode, Much Apu About Nothing (Season 7, episode 23, May 1996) when Homer has the realization that the measure that would deport immigrants from Springfield, proposition 24, proposed by the loyal mayor, Joe Quimby, to distract from the “bear tax” to pay for the worthless “Bear Patrol” is wrong. Regardless, the measure passes anyway, with 95% approval, and Homer declares that democracy “doesn’t work” while all of the immigrants have gained citizenship (after passing the citizenship test), except for Groundskeeper Willie, who goes on a ship back to Scotland.

A bastion of imperialism: the corrupted nature of Saudi society

A shopping mall in Saudi Arabia (2011)
A shopping mall in Saudi Arabia (2011)

Editor’s note: Reading this again, I see it as wholly underdeveloped in structure and content. I think it necessary to keep on here, but it is not one of my better pieces. Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but I’m a bit embarrassed to have a piece like this on such a site like this where I engage in better, more thoughtful analysis. Still, I think this is a necessary part of understanding Saudi Arabia. As always, I’m open to comments and criticism.

Every day, more of a black gooey substance, black gold as some call it, is pumped out of the ground in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Like the socially democratic state of Venezuela, which is struggling for dear life against US-backed neoliberal opposition, “oil is the economy of Saudi Arabia,” meaning that depletion of oil will undoubtedly weaken their economy. The Saudi economy is so dependent on the substance, despite some efforts to purportedly diversify their economy in recent days, that officials overstated their country’s crude oil reserves by about 40 percent and owe billions of dollars to contractors which they did not pay because of an “oil slump.” As it stands now, the oil Kingdom is a client state of the murderous US empire, a bastion of imperialism with feudal shiekhdoms in place, in no way representing Arab nationalism of the past. This Persian Gulf protectorate is not only authoritarian, but it uses its “oil weapon” to push its agenda. This article is the first in a series about Saudi Arabia, focusing on the corrupted nature of Saudi society as it currently stands.

At the current time, there is the possibility of political instability in the country. The KSA is backed by the imperial juggernaut. Its leaders can easily placate the Saudi citizenry with decisions like slashing the salaries of government ministers, even as they ask ordinary families to cut back their salaries. Another method to maintain control could be the acquisition of millions of acres of prime farmland, mostly in the Senegal River Valley. One of the corporations participating in the land grab is owned by the father of now-deceased Osama Bin Laden: the Bin Laden Group. These land grabs were fully supported by the Saudi state, headed by late King Abdullah, with an idea of acquiring cropland abroad, growing corn, wheat, and soybeans, to feed those in the homeland. In Ethiopia, 1,000 locals every day load, pick, and pack hundreds of tons of fresh produce into waiting trucks, with the food going through the country, one of the “hungriest places on the planet,” and back to those living in the Kingdom. The Saudis are not the only ones engaging in such land grabs, with other states taking land in order to feed those living in their respective homelands. This practice, which leads to exploitation of the poorer, “underdeveloped” countries by ones that are much more wealthy, a form of imperialism which is inherent in the dynamics of capitalism itself.

At the same time, the Sauds can also stir nationalism in an effort to gain territory , such as two islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, handed over by Egypt’s authoritarian (and US-backed) government to the Saudis. This was in exchange for Saudi aid to the Egyptians, to boost their ailing economy, a deal which was recently greenlighted by a court in Cairo. The Saudis could exploit this incident to cull nationalistic feelings in their own country.

The class dynamics of Saudi society are important to recognize in order see its true nature. For one, in imperial client states such as Bahrain, KSA, Qatar, and other monarchies, there has been a large rallying cry against US presence in the country by Islamic reactionaries and by a “significant layer of Saudi society” which see foreign troops, partially, as an affront to national pride. However, an armed uprising in the country could be unlikely due to oil wealth since “Saudi citizens enjoyed a high standard of living” if they stayed quiet and didn’t engage in democratic debate. At the same time, tensions are rising because new migrant workers plus unemployment among young Saudis is creating much resentment, with the creation of a “native Saudi working class.” This could lead to a possible social basis for Saudi social movements and resistance from the working class.

The thousands of migrant workers in the country are also part of the dynamics of the Saudi class society. Due to few opportunities in their home countries in Southeast Asia and the horn of Africa, “millions of poor, desperate men and women” annually immigrate, and are vulnerable at home and abroad. Many are abused, killed, and enslaved through the kafala sponsorship system which ties the status of migrant workers to their employers. This system means that employers control any ability for the eight million workers, comprising one-third of the Saudi population, to leave the country. Additionally, there are excessive working hours, wages withheld, and numerous forms of personal abuse and horrific events, such as sexual violence.

Adding to the misery of workers in KSA, racism is spread across the country’s society. Migrant workers are tarred as “black” and Ethiopians are placed at the bottom of this racist hierarchy. This is reinforced by the fact that all religions, but Islam, are banned inside the country and access to translators is denied to migrants. Some migrants are deported (“repatriated”), in theory, to help native Saudis, but this actually hurts them  since the crackdown on migrants weakens the fabric of society in and of itself even as many Saudis are caught up in anti-migrant sentiment. Some have argued that unless root causes of “poverty, poor education and lack of opportunities…extreme social and economic inequality” are not addressed than many immigrants will “migrate elsewhere…placing themselves at risk of further exploitation, abuse and even death.” Recently, a building bust has trapped thousands of starving (South Asian) Indian workers in Saudi Arabia who are stranded in the desert leading to a “food crisis” and direct action by workers.

The class and racial elements of Saudi society are addressed in the recent Hollywood Hollyweird comedic drama named A Hologram for the King which bombed at the box office. Usually movies about Arabs are utterly horrible. Jack G. Shaheen, an authority on media images and stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs, argues in his tome which reviews 900 Hollyweird films, says that the vast majority of them distort Arabs of all ages and genders, saying that from 1896 to the present, “Hollywood’s caricature of the Arab has prowled the silver screen…[staying] as repulsive and unrepresentative as ever…[with] Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, and abusers of women,” treated as the other. [1] The problem with this, of course, is while Arabs can be villains in movies, “almost all Hollywood depictions of Arabs are bad ones” with repetitive and duplicitous images going across generations.

This movie was a bit different in that there were no heroes, no villains, just star actor Tom Hanks playing a businessperson, Alan Clay, who is trying to find his way in a culture foreign to him. Without getting into the movie too much, in one instance, one character, a Saudi cab driver, Yousef (a white actor named Alexander James Black who acts as a person of color, yet again, ugh), asks Clay “so if I start a democratic revolution here, you would support me?,” to which Clay says that he would personally fight for a revolution, but that the US would not send troops, air support, or other assistance. The conversation, of course, is just brushed off, but is telling since it seems to indicate the tensions in society itself. At another point, Clay says when looking at workers working on the roads of a future “desert city” that “I’m guessing these aren’t union men.” Yousef responds “Oh, we don’t have unions here. We have Filipinos.” This is also not addressed any further and is passed by, but is worth noting regardless.

Later, there is a scene when Clay talks to a nearby Saudi who asks “You work for CIA or something?” after seeing him take a lot of picture, with him joking “Just a little freelance work. Nothing full-time.” Of course, the Saudi takes this joke seriously and Hanks tells his cab drive to head off what he deems is a “ludicrous question” by telling the Saudi “if I was from the CIA, I wouldn’t tell the first person who asked me” and shakes his hand. You could say this makes Saudis look dumb for asking about the CIA, but at the same time it is treated as normal and expected as Saudis, like many in the “Third World,” know to watch out for the CIA based on what they’ve done. Also, it pokes at Hanks’s character (and by extension all Americans) are naive about the actions of the CIA. All Hollyweird movies have problems, but this one seemed more positive about Arabs and Saudis than other movies, so that is a good thing. To be clear, I’m not trying to promote this movie, I’m just trying to bring in something I thought was relevant to the subject of this article. If you wish to watch or not watch this movie, that’s up to you.

Back to Saudi society, apart from the racist and class elements, there is a sexist dimension. A recent article on Time’s website described the country as having a private society “rooted in a conservative strand of Islam” that requires adult women to have male guardians, which some call “gender apartheid.” The article further noted that men have more power in relationships since they are allowed to unilaterally divorce their wives while women cannot do the same thing. When men do divorce their wives, mediators and judges are typically conservative men, and the husband remains the guardian of the wife. The article describes specific cases and says that there are consequences for women who engage in legal challenges to male authority, with many women have struggling with “being a women in Saudi” showing that none of them are passive.

The horrid nature of the kingdom is evident. Any dissent or perceived challenge to the absolute monarchy of the Saudi Royals is crushed either by brutal force, concessions, or is outright banned (like unions and labor strikes). The Saudi state includes an internal security agency, the Ministry of the Interior, which has used its power and unlimited budget to train their forces, purchase cameras and surveillance technology in an effort to put in enforce social control. During the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Saudi religious establishment declared that peaceful demonstrations were “a sin against God,” and $36 million in monies was given to the general population with promises of housing and employment. [2] While Pakistan helped suppress dissent in the country, the late King Abdullah granted “reforms” such as the ability of women to participate in local elections in 2015 and the ability to be members of the Consultative Assembly, a formal advisory body, in an effort to blunt protest.

After reading all of this, no one of the right mind should support a relationship with this country. If one considers themselves a feminist or defender of gay rights, they should oppose this country for demeaning women and homosexuals. This can reflexively apply to the United States, which would require challenging existing norms in society. While I am not talking about the US-Saudi imperial interrelationship, these aspects are covered in the next article in this series. This article, for any of those critics out there, is just meant as a brief overview to start a conversation, not to say everything that is possible to say about Saudi society, which would fill a large book easily.

Notes

[1] Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001), 1-2, 6-8, 11, 13, 21-22, 28.

[2] Saudi forces also suppressed protest in the nearby kingdom of Bahrain, with a huge military base, after they were asked by the government for assistance