/ 9 September 2023

Saudis use ‘sportswashing’ to paint over alleged killings

Ethiopian Migrants Crossing Yemen
Rocky road: Ethiopians seeking political asylum, or just a better life, in Gulf states, walk along a highway in Yemen to cross into Saudi Arabia on 23 August. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Fourteen centuries ago, in the land known now as Saudi Arabia, the earliest followers of the prophet Muhammad were in trouble. They were being tortured and persecuted by the ruling Quraysh tribe and they needed to find refuge.

Muhammad advised the group, which included his own daughter, to cross the Red Sea and seek protection in the Kingdom of Aksum, which stretched across parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. He sent them with a letter for the Negus, the Christian monarch, who was reputed to be just and fair.

When they arrived in Aksum, the refugees pleaded their case before the Negus, who responded positively: “Go, for you are safe in my country,” they said.

This proved to be a seminal moment in the history of Islam and is known as the First Hijra or the Migration to Abyssinia.

Saudi Arabia’s current rulers are not reciprocating this generosity.

Instead of providing refuge, the country’s border force has been murdering Ethiopian refugees, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month. 

The rights group documented the killing of hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March last year and June this year.

Saudi Arabia denies any wrongdoing, describing the allegations as “unfounded and not based on reliable sources”. 

The embassy of Saudi Arabia in South Africa did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The first-hand testimonies collected by researchers are harrowing. 

One survivor said: “When the firing stopped the Saudi border guards took us. 

“In my group there were seven people — five men and two girls. 

“The border guards made us remove our clothes and told us to rape the girls,” he said.

“The girls were 15 years old. One of the men refused. The border guards killed him on the spot. I participated in the rape, yes. To survive I did it. 

“The girls survived because they didn’t refuse. 

“This happened at the same spot where the killings took place.”

Another interviewee described going to the border to collect the remains of a girl from his village. 

“Her body was piled up on top of 20 bodies … it is really impossible to count the number. It is beyond the imagination.”

Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Over the past few years, conflict in Ethiopia — especially in Tigray — has displaced more than a million people from their homes. 

For Ethiopians trying to leave the country, one of the main routes to safety is known as the “Eastern Route” or “Yemeni Route”. Refugees travel by boat across the Gulf of Aden and then on foot through Yemen to Saudi Arabia.

Crossing Yemen, which is in the middle of its own war, is extremely hazardous. 

Vulnerable refugees must contend with a network of smugglers, traffickers and authorities who routinely kidnap, detain and beat Ethiopian migrants and extort them or their families for money. 

Some are press-ganged into joining one of the warring groups.

Should refugees survive all of this, they usually try to cross into Saudi Arabia — one of the richest countries in the world — in the mountainous border area between Yemen’s Saada Province and Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province.

This is where the majority of the killings documented by Human Rights Watch, and verified using photographic evidence and satellite imagery, occurred.

There are an estimated 750 000 Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Most are there legally, for economic reasons. 

In April, the Ethiopian government began a highly publicised drive to recruit 500 000 Ethiopian women to be domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, despite concerns over how they would be treated.

In separate research in 2020, the human rights organisation documented how Saudi Arabia’s notorious kafala employment system, in which the legal status of migrants is tied to their employers, facilitates “abuse and exploitation including forced labour, trafficking and slavery-like conditions”.

While hundreds of Africans are murdered or dehumanised at the border and in Saudi homes, Saudis are pouring billions into a different set of Africans — football stars such as Sadio Mané, Édouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech. 

This is part of an orchestrated campaign. Saudi Arabia would rather the world did not dwell on its human rights record. 

In recent years, under the leadership of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country has spent billions of dollars in an effort to improve its global reputation.

Much of this has been channelled into “sportswashing” — sponsoring major sporting, entertainment and cultural events in an effort to sanitise its dire human rights record.

Jeddah hosts a Formula One Grand Prix. Golf has an entirely new, Saudi-sponsored tour. Newcastle United, in the English Premier League, is owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund. 

That same fund has pumped outlandish amounts of money into the Saudi Professional League, which has recruited global stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mané.

Saudi Arabia was offered a path to membership of the Brics group of countries at last month’s summit in South Africa — as was Ethiopia.

This article first appeared in The Continent , the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian . It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here