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Arab press investigates human smuggling for Saudi sex trade

By Jalal Ghazi
Aug 23, 2004

A Moroccan newspaper known as Al-Alam, which means "The Flag" in Arabic, first broke the story. It revealed in detail how women are being sent to Saudi Arabia under the cover of Al Umra, a religious ritual that is fulfilled by visiting Mecca at certain times of the year. Once the women arrive in Saudi Arabia, however, they find that they are in the control of a well-organized prostitution ring.

This news is having strong resonance in the Arab world, not only because vulnerable young women are being sexually abused, but also because a very sacred religious ritual is used as a cover-up for this abuse.

There always have been rumors about rich Saudi men importing European, U.S. and even Arab women for sexual gratification. There also have been rumors of “sexual tourism”, in which rich Saudi businessmen go to poorer countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Syria to exploit very young girls who usually are recruited on college campuses. Poverty sometimes makes these women easy prey.

In the case of the prostitution ring operating under the cover of the Al Umra pilgrimage, the source for the story is the well known Saudi Human Rights Center in Jeddah, reports Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London based newspaper which published an expose on the subject in its Aug. 11 edition.

One Moroccan woman told the Al-Quds newspaper her tragic story, shedding light on how the strict brand of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, which has zero tolerance for any kind of interaction between men and women, has made it difficult for the victims to seek the help from Saudi police.

The young woman told the paper that she experienced sexual abuse along with another eight Moroccan women who fell into the prostitution ring. The women were held in a prostitution house in Jeddah after they were granted a one-month visa to enter Saudi Arabia for the duration of the Umra.

Once they were in Saudi Arabia, an Egyptian woman running the business operation forced the young women to have sex several times a day with multiple partners. While the brothel was collecting payments, the women were getting nothing, except promises of being paid 5,000 dollars upon their return to Morocco.

The young woman was able to escape by seeking the protection of a Saudi family. When the family notified the police, an investigation was opened but the woman was quickly deported. The Saudi authorities were interested in pursuing the perpetrators, but they were more interested in keeping the story quiet and avoid embarrassment, the paper reports.

Al-Quds also reports that a Moroccan young female journalist infiltrated a fancy villa in a neighborhood in Rabat, Morocco and was able to get closer to “the world of the Saudis”. In May 2002, she published an investigative report revealing the unbelievable abuse that some Moroccan teenagers underwent at the hands of the smugglers and the sex trade in Saudi Arabia. The report caused enough trouble for the young female journalist that she emigrated from Morocco and now lives in the United States.

According to the Saudi Human Rights Center, the young Moroccan woman who escaped from prostitution ring was lucky because she escaped from potentially severe punishment that is usually applied for prostitution in compliance with Saudi laws. The Saudi human right organization also explained that it is likely a fear of a stain on the reputation of the Saudi police -- perhaps because some of them were involved in the scandal -- that explains why the woman was quickly deported.

Al Alam reports that the huge profits generated by the prostitution industry explains why it has spread, tempting some brothels to import young women from different Arab countries, mostly from Morocco under the cover of the Umra. Each woman can generate the equivalent of $267 daily.

Women are forced to live in inhumane conditions -- sometimes more than 20 of them are crowded in three-bedroom apartment, according to published accounts. They are not allowed to go out on their own; their guardians must accompany them at all times. They are only allowed to go to public markets one day before their departure.

Once a client calls, arrangements are made for the woman to meet with them in a certain hotels, private palaces or large homes in a diplomatic neighborhood in western Riyadh, because such areas are outside the reach of the police and the religious police known as “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”.

This branch of law enforcement is based on the Wahabi school of thought, the most rigid interoperation of Islamic law, especially when it comes to interactions between woman and men. It is common for these religious police to beat unmarried men and woman if they are found walking together in public. Notoriously, in March 2002, they caused a devastating tragedy when they stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress.

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