Filipinos in Middle East pin hopes on Duterte's visit

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meeting the Filipino community in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on Wednesday. Over 5,000 Filipino workers were repatriated from the country last year.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meeting the Filipino community in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on Wednesday. Over 5,000 Filipino workers were repatriated from the country last year.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Many workers hit by oil crash are looking to Philippine President to defend their interests

DOHA • With over a million Filipino workers spread across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, it is small wonder that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has undertaken a week-long tour of the Gulf.

Workers have been drawn by a mix of factors - drug crime and corruption at home; the job opportunities and wages on offer in the Gulf.

Mr Duterte's deadly war on drugs might have brought him notoriety in the West, but it has earned him the admiration of many Filipino expatriates keen for change at home.

"I would happily say I'm a DDS - a Duterte Diehard Supporter," said Mr Harry Ramos, a senior mechanical engineer based in Doha for 12 years. "His platform is simple, and he's got the political will to do it."

Mr Duterte's populist agenda went down well with the Filipino diaspora in Qatar, where he won nearly 80 per cent of the expatriate votes cast in last year's presidential election.

Mr Ramos, 58, says Filipinos returning home no longer have to bribe officials to get through Customs, thanks to the crackdown.

Still, life has turned sour for some in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, where 760,000 Filipinos live, and they will be looking to Mr Duterte to defend their interests in his talks with the region's leaders.

A collapse in oil revenues since 2014 has seen delays in major projects. Over 5,000 Filipino workers were repatriated from Saudi Arabia last year; most have yet to be paid.

Mr Duterte held talks with the Saudi King on Tuesday, and was in Bahrain for talks on Thursday. He flew into Qatar yesterday.

"He will discuss with these leaders matters relevant to the welfare and dignity of Filipinos living in their countries, as well as explore avenues of economic and political cooperation," said Philippine assistant foreign secretary Hjayceelyn Quintana.

At the bustling Souq Waqif area in the Qatari capital of Doha, conversation outside the Manila Supermarket has turned to Mr Duterte's trip.

A 38-year-old civil engineer who wanted to be known as Ray said he would like to meet Mr Duterte in person, something he could never do back home. He admitted that poor treatment of some migrants, especially those in domestic service, was an issue, but said that life was generally good for Filipinos in the emirate.

"All Filipinos come here because they want to earn money," he said. "But if they had to choose a place to live, of course, they would live in the Philippines, they would choose it. Definitely."

Ray, who has been in Qatar for six years, said he earns "three or four times more" in Doha than he would back home.

Outside the Damascus International Gents Salon, a 27-year-old hairstylist said he earns around 4,000 Qatari riyals (S$1,540) a month. In the Philippines, he would earn the equivalent of US$190 (S$270) at a barber shop, he said.

Another Filipino, a 25-year-old woman who works in promotions, had never left the Philippines before coming to Qatar. Now, she has been in Doha for three years.

"It's better to leave first from the Philippines to earn money and then after a few years... you can go back," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Filipinos in Middle East pin hopes on Duterte's visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe