President Duterte’s visit to three Middle Eastern countries during the Holy Week was both unusual and necessary. During the holiest time of the Christian calendar, when the Philippines essentially shuts down for a weekend, presidents often use the time to go on holiday themselves—sometimes at the Executive Mansion in Baguio, often elsewhere. Mr. Duterte’s mainly economic mission to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar was an unusual working visit in that sense. But reaching out to Filipinos working or residing in the three countries, and making a favorable impression on the governments who host these Filipinos, proved to be a necessary responsibility.
To be sure, the timing also allowed the President, who has continued to attack the Catholic Church in the Philippines for what he calls its hypocritical criticism of alleged human rights violations in his so-called war on drugs, to avoid taking public part in Catholic rituals, or explaining any absence, during the week.
Upon his return, an effusive President called it his “most productive trip ever.”
The list of signed business agreements is impressive. According to Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, a total of $469 million in deals were signed in Saudi Arabia, $250 million in Bahrain, and $206 million in Qatar. That adds up to almost a billion dollars. The agreements covered different sectors, Lopez said, including property development, medical tourism, ports, warehouses, agri-industrial economic zones, and “pharmagenerics.” When implemented, the deals would generate 26,000 jobs, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.
Lopez said some of the deals were the result of negotiations that began under previous administrations; nevertheless, that these talks were successfully concluded is also an achievement of the current administration.
He also said that a potentially even more significant agreement was in the offing, an investment protection and promotion agreement with Qatar. Qatari businesses are expected to invest as much as $1 billion in the Philippines, in projects involving agriculture and infrastructure, among other possibilities. “Qatar has been planning to invest in the Philippines for a long time,” Lopez said.
But perhaps the real highlight of the Holy Week visits was the return to the Philippines of 138 undocumented Filipinos who had been granted amnesty by the Saudi government. These returnees were in attendance at the President’s early-morning arrival ceremony. “Kayo talaga pinuntahan ko [I really went there for you]. Hindi ko masabi lahat ng pinagusapan [I cannot tell you everything that was discussed], but I gave too many concessions because it is to the national interest of the Republic of the Philippines.”
In his arrival remarks, the President acknowledged the treatment he received from his various hosts as exemplary. “What really impressed me very much is that … I could not sense any kind of discrimination.”
This was in contrast, he said, with the kind of treatment the Philippines gets from its old allies. “Wala masyadong akong nakita [I didn’t see much discrimination] unlike ‘yung, itong the pretentious ones tsaka itong mga iba na loko-loko [and the others who are crazy]. Mahilig sa [They like] human rights. ‘Yun naman pala sila, mga bigots [And it turns out they are bigots].”
It is possible that, given the President’s brand of personal diplomacy, OFWs in these countries will enjoy better treatment. Among the promises he made was an unexpected offer of military assistance to these Middle Eastern states, some of the richest in the world. It is still too early to know how the President’s offer will be received, or whether in fact it will be accepted, but it must surely have made an impression on the monarchs who make the decisions.
We can hope for the best. Even among his airport audience, discrimination was a reality. Some of them had returned home because they could no longer bear the abuse they received at work.