With a weary expression reminiscent of the father in the Oscar-winning film Parasite, a migrant worker was photographed this week bearing a sanitizing station on his shoulders for the benefit of workers at Saudi Aramco.
The image of the man, dehumanized into an inanimate object at the offices of the world’s most profitable company, went viral this week, sparking an outcry online.
Hisham Fageeh, director of Saudi Arabia’s 2017 Oscar submission, Barakah Meets Barakah, was one of the first to flag the incident on Tuesday.
“Gulf class, a gift from Aramco,” Fagee tweeted sarcastically, below two photos showing the migrant worker being used as a mobile sanitary gel dispenser.
In the first photo, an employee in a suit uses the dispenser as the worker looks down; in the second, the man stands before an elevator, looking exhausted.
The tweet garnered 6.9 thousand shares and 17.4 thousand likes in less than two days.
The public backlash prompted a swift apology from Aramco, which three months ago made its debut listing on the Saudi stock exchange, and which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has long hoped to list internationally.
“Saudi Aramco would like to express its strong disapproval of this abusive act … which was done without the company’s approval,” a tweet read.
The Saudi state oil giant stressed it had taken measures to ensure such an occurrence would not be repeated, though no mention was made of consequences.
For some, the apology was not enough to address what many see as systematic racism against South Asian migrant workers.
“The most important thing isn’t stopping the act, you have to punish those who were behind this heinous, inhumane act and compensate the worker financially and apologize to him,” tweeted Mohammed al-Qadi, in response. Qadi listed his location as inside Saudi Arabia.
Other reactions from inside the kingdom were defensive, comparing the incident to employees paid to stand outside fast food chains with signs and costumes in the West.
The labor sponsorship, or kafala system prevalent across the Middle East, however, effectively ties blue collar migrant workers to their employers. Employers secure their visas and can prevent their exit, giving men like the one photographed little option against tasks outside their job description.
Many of the defensive Saudi tweets were reminiscent of the orchestrated, nationalistic cyber-campaigns for which the notorious MBS deputy Saud al-Qahtani is known.
Qahtani, yanked from the limelight after the US Treasury sanctioned him for his alleged role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, was in December cleared by Saudi prosecutors of any wrongdoing.