Last updateSat, 19 Apr 2014 1pm


“Vengeance is mine”, saith the Lord

Weekend Reading: A Habesha perspective on the Arab world - By Tesfu Telahoun
The harsh persecution of Ethiopian migrant workers by the Saudi Arabian government and many of its people has enraged Ethiopians from all walks of life. Although our national dignity has been affronted by the Arabs on numerous occasions, this latest round of abuse has been the worst to date.

 Up to a dozen Ethiopians have been murdered in cold blood, countless others suffered cruel beatings and scores of our women have been violated, not to mention the severe damage wrought on the national image.

Ethiopians have not been the only targets of Saudi Arabia’s mass deportation of illegal migrants, of which there is an estimated, four to seven million. However, Ethiopians have been particularly singled out for the harshest treatment and persecution.

In what was apparently part of a systematic exercise, Saudi authority’s also unleashed vigilante youth groups to hunt down, harass and abuse defenseless Ethiopian migrants.   

Like any other sovereign state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (hereafter referred to as KSA), is entitled to determine who is or isn’t welcome to live and work within its borders.

The KSA has hosted tens of millions of foreign migrant workers in the six decades of petroleum-fueled prosperity which followed upon three decades of abject poverty (The KSA traces its founding to 1926; significant income from oil began to gush in the fifties).

The current wave of Saudi Arabia’s xenophobia is one of the many indirect effects of sudden and massive oil wealth which has created a nanny-state mentality.

Relatively few Saudis from among a rapidly expanding population of about 29 million now deign to work for a living, preferring, like their rulers, to pay migrant workers to keep the KSA and their homes running.

The ‘Habesh’ in Hejaz

Ethiopians have lived in the Arabian Peninsula for at least the last 2500 years, much longer than the Christian and Muslim eras.

We were there as conquerors and as captive slaves, as seers and also simpletons, merchants and beggars, builders and destroyers; in short, the ‘Habesh’ as we are known to the Arabs, have figured prominently in the literary, economic, religious, geo-political and military history of the Arab lands.

The zenith of Ethiopia’s influence and power on the Arabian Peninsula was reached early in the 6th century when in AD 519, King Caleb occupied the whole of southern and southwestern Arabia. For the next two centuries, all the settled areas, seaports and trade routes were administered as provinces of the Aksumite Kingdom.

The bronzed conquerors were skilled administrators, making sure to provide Arabia security against raiding Bedouin tribes and with food provisions in lean times.

What is meant by the description ‘Arab World’? According to general convention, it consists of a core of 13  ‘genuine’ Arab states, a largely Arab but ethnically diverse North African group of 3 states and a clutch of peripheral nations at varying degrees of socio-cultural ‘Arabization’but which are ethnically non-Arab.

The ‘genuine’core of the amorphous ‘Arab world’ is made up of  Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco comprise the North African group.

Complimentary Video: Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia detention centers

On the periphery we find an even more disparate set of nations, most of them in a perpetual crisis of national identity. They are Sudan (North), Mauritania, Western Sahara, Chad, Niger, Somalia and the Comoros.

I have long maintained that this last tier of nations is anything but Arabic. Accordingly, this article discusses Ethiopian viewpoints on happenings in the ‘Arab world’ proper. In other words, the peripheral states do not figure in the scope of this article. 

Ethiopia has always had a very complex relationship with the Arab world. Shared geographic, ethnographic, cultural, religious and linguistic traits have compelled these otherwise distinct peoples to mingle and cross paths.

Although this ancient interaction had been peaceful-and even amicable-during certain eras, the overall relationship can be described as one of fierce rivalry fueled by mutual distrust. 

The Ethiopia-Arab world dynamic is further complicated by Ethiopia’s parallel relationship with the Jewish world and with Israel itself, a huge elephant in the room which our Arab neighbors rarely fail to notice when dealing with the ‘habesh’.

In fact, many contemporary Arab intellectuals are deeply suspicious of Ethiopia’s historic affinity with Judaism and its strong political, military, economic and social ties to Israel.

The Ethiopia-Arab relationship; political and people to people, is based on a forced interaction in which the two sides seek what advantages may be gained through-or despite of-the ever present fog of mutual distrust.