African migrants ‘left to die’ in Saudi Arabia’s hellish Covid detention centers (& First commercial Israel-UAE flight tomorrow)

August 30, 2020

Dozens of emaciated men crippled by the summer heat inside one of Saudi Arabia’s detention centers


The migrants, several displaying scars on their backs, said they are beaten with whips and electric cords by guards who hurl racial abuse at them



Tom Gross writes:

Below I attach an “exclusive” report from today’s (London) Sunday Telegraph (a paper I used to report for from the Middle East).

As the Telegraph notes: “Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, is keeping hundreds if not thousands of African migrants locked in heinous conditions reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps.”

The detention centers in the photos above show mainly Ethiopian men but there are believed to be others packed with women. One of the centers is believed to be in Al Shumaisi, near the holy city of Mecca, and one is in Jazan, a port town near Yemen. There are believed to be several other such detention centers.

There are similar conditions in migrants’ detention centers in Libya, and there are also reports of appalling abuse of thousands of Ethiopian domestic servants in Lebanon.

* Among other recent dispatches on Saudi Arabia: “The models arrived first. Boats carrying some 150 women…” (August 23, 2020)

* You may also be interested in my past interview with the exiled wife of Saudi Arabia’s leading liberal political prisoner, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes


In separate news…


Tom Gross adds:

You wouldn’t know it from biased media such as CNN and the BBC but a great many Palestinians support the recent Israel-UAE peace deal. One of them is Yasser Arafat’s widow Suha, who has been smeared and branded a traitor by the hardline Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for her support of the UAE for making peace with Israel.

The attacks on Suha Arafat, who lives in Malta, started after she wrote an Instagram post on August 21, saying she wished to apologize “in the name of the Palestinian people” for Palestinians’ burning of UAE flags and other insults made against the Emirates in the wake of the deal.

Suha Arafat has now warned in a TV interview that she will “open the gates of hell” on the Palestinian Authority chiefs if the attacks on her don’t stop. She says she has dirt on where top Palestinian officials have stashed huge sums of western aid money that Western governments have foolishly given them. She also says that she will make public Yasser Arafat’s diary (which is said to detail a lot of their crimes).

(My interview last week with Palestinian academic Mostafa Elostaz can be seen here. You can fast forward to 15 minutes into the interview for our discussion on the Israel-UAE deal, the Trump plan, and how the Palestinians should best react to Israeli offers to negotiate.)



The word “peace” in English, Hebrew and Arabic has been painted on the El Al plane that will tomorrow make the first ever commercial passenger flight between Israel and the UAE.

According to reports, Saudi Arabia has granted El Al permission to fly over its airspace for the first time for this flight.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and special advisor to President Trump Jared Kushner, who is a key architect of the UAE-Israel peace deal, will be on the flight, as well as Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and ordinary passengers.

In remarks in Jerusalem today, O’Brien said the future for Israel and Arab countries “has never been brighter” and that he was optimistic that Israel will soon establish diplomatic ties with other regional states, following the peace agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

(In May, an Etihad Airways plane flew from the UAE to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport to deliver coronavirus supplies to the Palestinians, marking the first publicly admitted flight by a UAE carrier to Israel, but there were no regular passengers on that flight.)

After the article on Saudi Arabia below, I attach a comment piece from the Daily Telegraph, on the UAE-Israel deal and the failure by the British (and European) governments to acknowledge the importance of the peace-making approach that the Trump administration has brought to the Middle East.



Investigation: African migrants ‘left to die’ in Saudi Arabia’s hellish Covid detention centres
By Will Brown and Zecharias Zelalem
Sunday Telegraph
August 30, 2020

Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, is keeping hundreds if not thousands of African migrants locked in heinous conditions reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps as part of a drive to stop the spread of Covid-19, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has found.

Graphic mobile phone images sent to the newspaper by migrants held inside the detention centres show dozens of emaciated men crippled by the Arabian heat lying shirtless in tightly packed rows in small rooms with barred windows.

One photo shows what appears to be a corpse swathed in a purple and white blanket in their midst. They say it is the body of a migrant who had died of heatstroke and that others are barely getting enough food and water to survive.

Another image, too graphic to publish, shows a young African man hanged from a window grate in an internal tiled wall. The adolescent killed himself after losing hope, say his friends, many of whom have been held in detention since April.

The migrants, several displaying scars on their backs, claim they are beaten by guards who hurl racial abuse at them. “It’s hell in here. We are treated like animals and beaten every day,” said Abebe, an Ethiopian who has been held at one of the centres for more than four months.

“If I see that there is no escape, I will take my own life. Others have already,” he added via an intermediary who was able to communicate on a smuggled phone.

“My only crime is leaving my country in search of a better life. But they beat us with whips and electric cords as if we were murderers.”

The images and testimony have sparked outrage among human rights activists, and have particular resonance in light of the global Black Lives Matter protests.

“Photos emerging from detention centres in southern Saudi Arabia show that authorities there are subjecting Horn of Africa migrants to squalid, crowded, and dehumanising conditions with no regard for their safety or dignity,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, after being shown the images by The Sunday Telegraph.

“The squalid detention centres in southern Saudi Arabia fall well short of international standards. For a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia, there’s no excuse for holding migrants in such deplorable conditions,” Mr Coogle added.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has long exploited migrant labour from Africa and Asia. In June 2019, an estimated 6.6m foreign workers made up about 20 per cent of the Gulf nation’s population, most occupying low paid and often physically arduous jobs.

The migrants work mainly in construction and manual domestic roles that Saudi nationals prefer not to do themselves. Many are from South Asia, but a large contingent come from the Horn of Africa, which lies across the Red Sea.

The detention centres identified by The Sunday Telegraph house mainly Ethiopian men and there are said to be others packed with women.

Over the last decade, tens of thousands of young Ethiopians have made their way to the Gulf state, often aided by Saudi recruitment agents and people traffickers, in a bid to escape poverty back home.

They have been trapped partly as a result of the pandemic but also by the ‘Saudization’ of the kingdom’s workforce, a policy introduced by Muhamad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince who took power three years ago.

The testimonies gathered by The Sunday Telegraph directly from migrants on encrypted channels about the conditions they now find themselves in are harrowing.

“Plenty of inmates are suicidal or suffering from mental illnesses as a result of living this for five months,” said one. “The guards mock us, they say ‘your government doesn’t care, what are we supposed to do with you?”

“A young boy, about sixteen, managed to hang himself last month. The guards just throw the bodies out back as if it was trash,” said another.

When the pandemic struck in March, the Saudi government in the capital Riyadh feared the migrants, who are often housed in overcrowded conditions, would act as vectors for the virus.

Almost 3,000 Ethiopians were deported by the Saudi security services back to Ethiopia in the first ten days of April and a leaked UN memo said a further 200,000 were to follow. A moratorium was then placed on the deportations after international pressure was brought to bear on Riyadh.

The Sunday Telegraph has found many of the migrants who were slated for deportation five months ago have been left to rot in disease-ridden detention centres. “We have been left to die here,” said one, who said he has been locked in a room the size of a school classroom and not been outside since March.

“Covid19? Who knows?, he added, “There are a lot of diseases here. Everyone is sick here; everyone has something.”

The images smuggled out show many of those held are plagued by disfiguring skin infections. They claim they have received no medical treatment.

“We eat a tiny piece of bread in the day and rice in the evening. There’s almost no water, and the toilets are overflowing. It spills over to where we eat. The smell, we grow accustomed to. But there’s over a hundred of us in a room, and the heat is killing us,” said another young Ethiopian man.

A short video clip smuggled out shows several rooms covered with filth from an overflowing squat toilet. One Ethiopian man can be heard shouting out: “The toilets are clogged. We tried unblocking them, but we’re unable to. So we live in this filth, we sleep in it too.”

“To [the Saudis] or even to Abiy, it’s like we’re ants. When we die, it’s as if an ant died, no one cares or pays attention,” the man added, referring to Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Saudi Arabia is deeply stratified by race and cast. African migrants enjoy few legal rights and many complain of exploitation, sexual and racial abuse from employers.

New laws further limiting the rights and employment prospects of foreign labourers were introduced in 2013 and crackdowns have continued under the rule of the young Crown Prince Muhamad Bin Salman, who took power in 2017.

The Sunday Telegraph was able to geolocate two of the centres. One is in Al Shumaisi, near the holy city of Mecca and one is in Jazan, a port town near Yemen. There are believed to be others housing thousands of Ethiopians.

Migrants in each of the centres said there were hundreds of them in each room. Satellite imagery shows there are several buildings at both centres, meaning there may be far more migrants in each centre who are uncontactable.

Several of the migrants said they had been rounded up from their homes in various Saudi Arabian cities before being placed in the camps. Others are African refugees from war-torn Yemen.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that Houthi forces used Covid-19 as a pretext to expel thousands of Ethiopian migrants into neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Testimonies gathered by the NGO say that the Houthis killed dozens of Ethiopians and forced others at gunpoint over the Saudi border. Saudi border guards then fired on the fleeing migrants, killing dozens more.

“Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, has long held undocumented migrants including many from the Horn of Africa in conditions that are so crowded, unsanitary, and appalling that migrants often emerge traumatised or sick,” said Mr Coogle.

“It’s fair to question whether Saudi authorities are purposefully allowing these detention conditions to exist in order to punish migrants,” he added.

The Sunday Telegraph approached the Saudi Arabian embassy in London for comment but had not received any at the time of going to press.

A representative of the Ethiopian government in the Middle East was also unsuccessfully approached for comment.



Donald Trump is doing good in the Middle East. Why won’t the Foreign Office support him?
By Tim Stanley
Daily Telegraph (London)
August 22, 2020

The peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a win for Donald Trump and a win for the world. He won’t get a Nobel Prize; no Netflix docudrama on how he did it. But it is a substantive achievement that nudges the Middle East in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, Britain lags behind. The Foreign Office does not see the potential for progress; it probably doesn’t want to. Someone at the top needs to give it a kick.

The traditional US/UK view is that everything in the Middle East begins and ends with the Palestinians: you have to fix that issue before you can do anything else. Trump was elected on a different prospectus. Israel, he thought, is the West’s one constant ally; the real challenge is Iran. America can’t withdraw its military presence from the Middle East, he reasoned, until it puts Iran back in its box.

Ergo, Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s policies: he relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem and walked away from the Iranian nuclear deal. He launched a charm offensive on the gulf states, trying to build an anti-Iranian coalition that would include Israel. The UAE’s peace deal is, one hopes, just the first fruit; the administration predicts Saudi Arabia will be next. Sudan’s foreign minister said his own country would push for normalisation and was dismissed from office – yet this is still heady stuff. Sudan was the site of the 1967 Khartoum Declaration that pledged no peace with Israel, no recognition and no negotiations.

Critics say Trump can’t take credit for an inevitable development. Dismissing his leadership, however, is not only unfair but dangerous. The Middle East is an arena in which the foreign policy consensus has done a lot of harm, so we need to acknowledge and learn from what the President did that was new. He was mocked for deploying his family as diplomats, but it circumvented the State Department and Arab states seemed to like it.

It was wrong, said the experts, to partner so openly with Benjamin Netanyahu, but the back slapping paid off; and how could anyone deal with the ghastly tyrant Mohammad bin Salman of Saudia Arabia? Ideally, no one would – but, as an Iraqi once said to me, “in this part of the world, the choice is between bad or worse”. The attempts by Europe to work with Iran have strayed into the latter category.

The US has triggered a process at the UN to reinstate sanctions on Iran. France, Germany and the UK have opposed it. The UK also lobbied against America leaving the nuclear deal, and its response to the UAE peace deal was remarkable for its leaden orthodoxy, almost damning with faint praise. Dominic Raab welcomed the normalisation of relations along with Israel’s pledge not to annex land in the West Bank, adding, “there is no substitute for direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel, which is the only way to reach a two state solution and a lasting peace.” To repeat: “There is no substitute.”

Well, there is, and this is it. The UAE’s move has shown that Arab states can be persuaded to deal with Israel if they face a greater threat, namely Iran. So why, even when the Iran nuclear deal is dead, won’t Europe accept the new dynamic and follow Trump’s lead? The other curiosity, of course, is why Brexit Britain is falling in line with the Europeans at all, and why it sticks to outdated formulas on Israel like a parrot reciting the Nicean creed.

Lack of bandwidth is one answer: in the middle of Covid, the Government just can’t process events. Another is the Foreign Office’s prejudice against Israel, fuelled by guilt for the way we carved up the Middle East. As the foreign policy thinker Ed Husain points out, this is likely to get worse because the Department for International Development is about to be rolled into the Foreign Office, stuffing an already biased department with “Left-leaning” bureaucrats whose raison d’etre is to hand out cash as penance for British imperial history.

There is a third calculation: Trump is going to lose the election, putting the Democrats – and the State Department – back in charge. But even if this is correct, why not recognise that the Trump doctrine has brought real movement to Middle East politics, that the anti-Iranian coalition could be the basis for an Arab detente with Israel and that the Palestinian question could be settled on a new, more realistic basis?

Never mind what the Foreign Office feels comfortable with, let’s start by examining what Britain wants and needs in 2020. Several Arab states like and trust us and Israel is always ready to talk, so why not make ourselves indispensable to this process as the champions of engagement? The long-term destination remains peace and it would be an act of utter madness not to walk through that door just because Donald Trump was the one who opened it.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.