Today’s column: Freedom through diplomacy

One week has passed since President Gloria Arroyo came home from a successful state visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For many of us, the event was quickly forgotten – she did well, and that was that. Not so for more than a hundred distressed workers who were freed from Saudi jails as a result of this visit. This was diplomacy in action – a shining example of how the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) work jointly and efficiently together to achieve the common goal of assisting our nationals.
It helps that Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas maintain open lines of communication, and are, in fact, good friends. This makes it easier for the two departments to carefully plan the outcome of the President’s visits to countries with a high concentration of overseas Filipino workers. Once the President arrives, she is able to pursue her diplomatic agenda in a manner that is efficient, straightforward, and fully coordinated with the host government. Special mention must also be made of the work of our embassies in Saudi Arabia, the expertise in Middle East affairs of Undersecretary Rafael Seguis of the DFA, and OWWA Administrator Marianito Roque, as well as Special Envoy Roy Cimatu.
What were the objectives of the state visit? These were summed up in three “O’s”, namely: Overseas Filipino Workers, Oil, and Observer Status for the Philippines in the Organization of Islamic Conference. The first “O” was a resounding success. A total of 188 OFWs who were previously detained in Saudi Arabia came home aboard a Saudia flight on the same day that the President’s chartered flight came in. This accomplishment cannot be diminished or dismissed even by the most vociferous critics of the President though the militant group Migrante attempted to do so by branding this tearful homecoming as a gimmick.
All Filipinos appreciate this noble gesture of goodwill from one of the world’s richest nations, Saudi Arabia. King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz also known as King Abdullah deserves our profound appreciation for this remarkable gift of freedom. According to newspaper accounts, the Saudi monarch initially talked about pardoning only 50 Filipinos convicted of crimes ranging from theft to prostitution. The list grew to 138 and may yet reach 300 in the near future.
“The King has given his orders,” the Labor Secretary explained, and in that Kingdom, the orders of the King must be carried out to the letter. Secretary Sto. Tomas added that some 400 Filipinos were still in jail, and full labor diplomacy will be carried out to assist these detainees.
More than a million Filipinos live and work in the Middle East, where the climate is harsh and conditions of work are gravely difficult. Yet, Filipinos dominate the workforce and they can be seen everywhere in Saudi Arabia. Filipino workers can be found upon arrival, working at the airport terminal, behind duty-free counters, and inside shopping malls, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and many private homes. Work conditions are harsh and highly subjective to the employers’ whims, but hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have chosen to rise up to the challenge rather than return home to an uncertain future.
On the matter of oil, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) assured the President that it would provide stable energy supplies to the Philippines. The same assurance came from the Saudi’s oil ministry. This assurance is important because the Philippines obtains 92 percent of its crude oil needs from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco is also a partner of Petron Philippines.
Saudi Aramco manages oil reserves that constitute a quarter of the world’s total supply. It also manages the fourth largest gas reserves in the world. It owns and operates the world’s second largest tanker fleet to transport its crude oil production. So this assurance is a big thing, coming especially from no less than Aramco’s president, Abdallah S. Jum’ah.
The third “O” concerns our bid for observer status to the Organization of Islamic Conference. The state visit gave the President an opportunity to discuss with King Abdullah our country’s peace initiatives in Mindanao. An observer status in the OIC will bring the Philippines closer to the global family of Muslim countries that has been closely monitoring the Mindanao peace talks. In a formal statement, the President said, “The work of the king in helping bring peace to the Muslim south of the Philippines will truly be a global milestone as we demonstrate to the world that Christian and Muslim nations can stop and resolve war and move toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for mankind.
The President’s recent successful state visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reminds us of how diplomacy can change people’s lives. This corner hopes that the goodwill generated from this visit will result in freedom for more of our OFWs who continue to serve time in Saudi jails. Once again, thank you King Abdullah for this remarkable gift of freedom.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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