Editor’s note: This piece is the first in an ongoing series, “Dispatches from the Arab World,” in which a variety of perspectives will examine topics such as servant culture in Saudi Arabia, feminism in Islam, and journalism in the Middle East. Next in the series is an interview with acclaimed Wall Street Journal editor Karen Elliot House on her experiences reporting from Saudi Arabia.

In November 2012 over 80% of California voters passed Proposition 35 which increased the penalty and fines for human trafficking. In what would have been the first case tried under the statute, Princess Meshael Alayban, the 42-year-old wife of Saudi Arabian Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud, was arrested in July 2013 after her Kenyan maid flagged down a passing bus for help. The maid claimed she was held against her will and forced to work day and night for little pay. Four other maids were found in the princess’s three-story condominium in Irvine, also allegedly held against their wills. The princess’s lawyer claimed it was a contract dispute, that the maids were well treated, traveled first class, had access to a gym and could lounge at the pool, even joined the princess on shopping trips. Alayban’s five million dollar bail was paid by the Saudi consulate, whereupon she was released with a GPS tracking monitor and forbidden from leaving the US. After more than a month-long investigation, the charges were dismissed by an Orange County judge for lack of corroborating evidence.

Several years ago, as a way to make quick cash, I took a job as a chauffeur for members of the Saudi royal family and their entourage visiting Beverly Hills. When we picked up the group at LAX in the middle of the night (I was tasked with driving someone named “Michele”), the men exited first, dressed in suits, and immediately lit cigarettes. Then the women trickled out, many looking like runway models. Other, mostly older women, were more sedately dressed but still chic. None looked like they’d come off a 17-hour flight. Finally, a group of women in hijabs and covered from head to toe began to exit the terminal. They looked exhausted.

“Ah! Here are the Saudis,” I thought.

It turned out the chic ladies were the Saudi princesses and their friends; the cluster of tired Muslims were the palace servants.

I searched for my client. “Michele?” I asked one young woman after another. Finally I found him, Michel, the Tunisian hairdresser accompanying Princess Zaahira—the royal hairdresser to the princess. In fact, the princess and her family traveled with an entourage of almost 40, including trainers, tutors, and therapists, occupying whole floors of Beverly Hills luxury hotels. This was my first introduction to such luxurious jet setting, but I soon learned this is often the norm in Saudi royal life.


“Sleep is irrelevant when you’re changing the world.” Fahad Al Saud

In June 2013 Prince Fahad Al Saud (son of the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Adul-Aziz al Saud), self-described as a philanthropist addicted to Instagram, threw himself a 20 million dollar graduation party at Disney Paris while treating his friends to a world tour of the park. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of King Abdullah, spent 500 million on an Airbus A380 and had it outfitted with a garage, steam room, and a concert hall for his frequent business traveling.

For the royal servants, however, palace life is filled with drudgery and toil, even as they travel first class with their employers. Over one-fifth of the Kingdom’s current population of 30 million are immigrants; domestic or oil workers comprise over half the country’s workforce, with no rights, not even to practice their own religions. Many work long hours for little money with no time off. I was told by the servants that it’s customary for Saudi employers to hold the passports of domestic workers so they’re unable to leave or change jobs.

Antoinette Vlieger, a Dutch journalist and lawyer, conducted fieldwork and interviews in the Middle East for her book Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: A Socio-legal Study on Conflicts. The work’s introduction utilizes ethnographic research to illuminate the issues surrounding servitude in the Middle East. She cites the following conversation:

Filipina domestic worker, employed in Riyadh: ‘Really they are good to me. If I say I need rest, they give me rest.’ [And if they were not so good to you, if you would have some problem with your employer, where would you go?] ‘Madam, I cannot go anywhere, I am not allowed to go outside. I cannot go to the embassy. I will just cry in my room and pray.’” Vlieger continues, “If a domestic worker is lucky her employer is good to her; if she is not so lucky, she has nowhere to go. Under the best of circumstances a domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia may be treated right, but she has no rights.

Similarly, a Human Rights Watch Report [VOL. 16, NO. 5(E)] from 2004 describes what is still true today:

In 1962, then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree. Over forty years later, migrant workers in the purportedly modern society that the kingdom has become continue to suffer extreme forms of labor exploitation that sometimes rise to slavery-like conditions. Their lives are further complicated by deeply rooted gender, religious, and racial discrimination. This provides the foundation for prejudicial public policy and government regulations, shameful practices of private employers, and unfair legal proceedings that yield judicial sentences of the death penalty. The overwhelming majority of the men and women who face these realities in Saudi Arabia are low-paid workers from Asia, Africa, and countries in the Middle East.”(Nearly a decade later, The Watch’s 2013 World Report reports much the same in this analysis.)

In his book Saudi Arabia Exposed, John R. Bradley, a British journalist who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for many years, further details the lives of the Kingdom’s workers:

Maids are cheap–with salaries ranging between $150 and $200 a month without benefits, insurance, or medical allowance–and are often kept around the clock behind the high walls of their employer’s home….The Saudi Labor Law does not define rights and duties of theemployer of domestic staff, who are in effect his slaves. Of course, not all employers are deliberately cruel or abusive. Many are merely casually so. They believe what they have been told for decades: that theirs is a perfect society and that they, as a consequence, are more completely civilized than anyone else. Quite innocently, they regard their maids and drivers as lesser humans, born in filth and ignorance, who should be grateful for the opportunity to serve them. Children in such matters tend to take their cues from their parents. Small wonder then that sexual abuse of maids is common at the hands of adolescent boys, some of them following in their fathers’ footsteps, some simply acting within the general climate of contempt for the Third World nationals that pervades the kingdom. The maids are uniquely cut off from the contact with their community that sustains many other foreign labourers. Kept prisoners in the house, they are more likely to resort to desperate measures than others. Hence the suicides, which many maids attempt by jumping from balconies. Others run away. each Indonesian and Sri Lankan embassy and consulate reports scores of escapes each month.

During my driving assignment in Beverly Hills, I saw that the royal family’s servants were more like well-fed slaves—but instead of sleeping in hovels on the edge of town, they slept in luxury hotel rooms, presumably to guarantee proximity to their employers. A young girl I met told me stories of how her employer, a Saudi princess, would regularly wake the exhausted girl in the middle of the night (after an eighteen hour work day) to search the princess’s bed for jewelry that somehow slipped off. The young girl described with envy many of the royal family’s servants’ escape flights in the middle of the night once they’d reached the “land of opportunity.” I observed one family’s distress after a brave North African teenaged girl took off in New York City’s JFK airport. Her escape was successful and obviously well-planned because she had the foresight to do it when she finally had her precious passport in her hand and was in the middle of a crowded airport. But most of the servants I met hadn’t the nerve to escape in such a way. They were happy to have jobs at all, and willingly succumbed to their fate.

One night during a performance of my solo play, Driving The Saudis, in Memphis, a woman in the front row wept the entire show. Afterwards during the Q&A, she told me she had a daughter who worked for the State Department whose first assignment was at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. The daughter had been calling home distraught, describing the terrible working conditions and low wages of the staff working in the embassy. The daughter could do little about the situation, but slipped extra cash to the young servants (many close to her own age) who worked for her and the others in the embassy quarters, knowing the servants were probably feeding many unseen mouths, and hoping to make their lives just a little bit better.

When I read about the Kenyan girl who flagged down a bus in Orange County trying to escape a life of abject drudgery and toil, I cheered for her. And I cheer for her still, even if Princess Meshael Alayban, and others like her, go free.

Further Reading:

Academic Sources

News Stories