Newspaper on fire
When you read an offensive statement, the first thing that comes to mind is how dare he? Image Credit: Ricardo Cristian/Pexels

Back in the days when newspapers flourished in the region and were the only source of news besides television and radio, many events created a ruckus once they were set in print.

One such headline that had appeared in a leading local English daily covered a news conference by the Saudi labour minister at the time, who was speaking about the presence of an unlicensed labour force in the kingdom. The story’s headline was: ‘Illegal expats will be thrown out.’ It caused me to double-take, as I am sure it did so with many other readers.

When we hear the words’ thrown out’, a picture of a sack of garbage or a bucket of dirty water heading towards the nearest dumpster forms in our minds. But this is not the story. When you read such an offensive statement, the first thing that comes to mind is how dare he? Are these human beings he is talking about or pieces of dirt? All living souls must be afforded a degree of respect regardless of their financial situation. People just don’t get thrown out, full stop!

Fair statement and unfair headline

I was offended by such a caustic remark and, reading the full story, realised that such words were indeed not said by the minister. What he actually said was, and I quote from that particular article: “We’ll intensify the ongoing campaign to drive out all illegal workers. Only those people who respect and abide by the country’s laws and the system must stay … We are determined to clean up the labour market, and we’ll not allow violators to work in the country for any reason.”

Now that is a fair statement from the labour minister, as his organisation has been feverishly working to straighten out the mess that has languished for many years, especially on the issue of undocumented and runaway workers. There are ongoing security concerns and the spectre of a rising unemployment rate among the local population that need to be addressed. But in carefully reading the article, nowhere did I read that he was going to ‘throw’ them out.

But I was not the only one whose anger was raised by reading that headline. Several readers expressed their anger and misdirected them to the poor minister, who was unaware of the storm that an eager reporter had created with his poor choice of words. The headline created a storm in a teacup.

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One said, “This newspaper makes most of its revenue from expatriate English-speaking community (majority of them from India-Pakistan community), and yet it has the audacity to use such a hideous headline to insult and vilify the community ... Wow ... such high standards of professionalism ... every expatriate should stop buying this paper.”

Another equally incensed reader added, “After the expats serve the kingdom and make their economy grow, now it’s time for them to be thrown out just like a piece of trash. Please use a nice decent statement that will praise you rather than be hated. We are not bloodsucking invaders. We expats are also human, not animals.”

This followed, “The caption [headline] will even affect the legal expatriates who are performing their duties tirelessly for the development of this country and for their career. They come here to give their all and do not expect thanks and praises. But such statements printed in the daily press give them a negative impact morally.”

Negative criticism

And finally, one from an obviously cynical reader: “To all the expats who are hurt by the term ‘thrown out’.......I guess you are under the false assumption that your feelings matter in this region.”

The expatriates have had to unfairly bear the brunt of a lot of negative criticism in the media in past years. It seems that all the good they had done for the country suddenly evaporated into thin air. Reporters and columnists became liberal in their attacks on the presence of the expatriates and occasionally downright insulting, something no one should be subjected to. Such assaults breed insecurity in the psyche of the guest workers.

It is ironic however that in this particular incident, the reporter who prepared and submitted the story was himself an expat! Was he trying to raise a storm? Was there an ulterior motive in his selection of words to put up that headline? Was there acquiescence from the newspaper leadership in agreeing to such a vitriolic statement? Or was it as I suspect, just a case of a bad choice of words?

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena