Arab News | 12 June 2010
By RODOLFO C. ESTIMO JR.
As Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) celebrate their 112th Independence Day Anniversary today, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia are riding the crest of excellent diplomatic ties. In fact, such ties are set to grow stronger.
“The Philippines and the Kingdom have been discussing the feasibility of Saudi food production in Mindanao and other parts of the Philippines. The land could be leased, say, for 50 years, and renewable. That’s an entire lifetime actually,” Ambassador Antonio P. Villamor told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
Last year, Saudi Arabia Agriculture and Trade Investment Mission comprising 26 Saudi businessmen visited the Philippines for three days and they indicated their plan to acquire poultry farms and tracts of plantation land to grow cassava and sugar.
The Department of Agriculture said that it would discuss with the Philippine Export Zone Authority the possibility of declaring some areas in Mindanao as Special Economic Zones “where prices and cost of operation would be a little bit cheaper for food production.”
If the plan pushes through, Philippine ties with the Kingdom would no longer be anchored mainly on manpower and trade which have been the country’s traditional exports to the Kingdom but also on food production. The Philippines will also cash in on the foreign capital to be infused in the economy by Saudi businessmen.
It all started when a Thai trade delegation visited the Kingdom sometime back and both the Riyadh and Jeddah chambers of commerce and industry suggested that Thailand open up land for Saudi food production. Reading about it, Ambassador Villamor and Consul Romulo Victor M. Israel, Jr., consular head and in charge of the economic section of the Philippine Embassy, went to the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (RCCI) to inquire if the Kingdom needed land for food production. The RCCI officials answered in the affirmative and asked if the Philippines had 100,000 hectares of land for the project. Villamor said yes and promised to give the data on soil fertility and rainfall in the Philippines.
“In the meantime, I and Consul Israel visited Saudi Agriculture Minister Dr. Fahd bin Abdulrahman bin Sulaiman Balghunaim and we learned from him that there’s a royal decree issued by the king for food security in the Kingdom,” Villamor said.
He said that toward this end, a committee was formed and chaired by the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture. Others involved are the Saudi ministries of finance, commerce and industry and foreign affairs.
If the Saudi food production in the Philippines materializes, it would be one of the concrete achievements of Villamor that make his recall to the foreign service remarkable. He had earlier retired from the foreign service in 1999 after 43 years of continuous service to the country on different continents. He was recalled and assumed his post as ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 26, 2006.
The ties between the two countries saw official and private visits between the two countries. On a high level, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo visited the Kingdom three times. The first was on May 7, 2006 on an invitation from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. It was for a four-day visit, during which 170 OFWs were granted a royal pardon for various crimes. They comprised the first batch of more than 500 OFWs ordered released from various Saudi jails by King Abdullah “as a gesture of friendship and compassion.”
Arroyo also held talks with then Saudi Aramco president and CEO Abdallah S. Jum’ah, who was succeeded by Khalid A. Al-Falih on Jan. 1, 2009. Arroyo made a tour of the state-of-the-art facilities of Saudi Aramco at its headquarters in Dhahran and received a souvenir from Jum’ah after a luncheon meeting with the company’s officers and members. At night on May 9, Arroyo met with the Filipino community at the Ballroom of Le Gulf Meridien Hotel in Alkhobar.
Earlier on May 8, Arroyo was also able to meet with Crown Prince Sultan, who is also the deputy prime minister and minister of defense, in Riyadh. Arroyo’s second visit was on Feb. 2-3, 2009.
Villamor said that this was the most difficult visit for him to arrange. “If the visit could not materialize because of our inability to make the necessary arrangements with the local authorities, I’d resign. We had only a few days to do it. Before leaving the Philippines for Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, the chief of protocol in Malacanang kept on calling me to arrange President Arroyo’s visit to the Kingdom,” Villamor said.
He said that he was with House Speaker Prospero Nograles in Jeddah when he received a call from Manila. Arroyo wanted to visit Saudi Arabia on Feb. 2 on her way back to Manila from Davos. He informed Nograles about it, telling him that he had to rush back to Riyadh. He also called his staff for a meeting late in the night. At 9.30 a.m. the following day, Jan. 26, Villamor called the chief of protocol at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to seek assistance for the requested visit of Arroyo on Feb. 2 to make a follow up on the agriculture project.
While in Davos, Arroyo’s entourage kept on calling Villamor.
“From Davos, Arroyo went to Milan, where she had a meeting with businessmen. At that time, Villamor had not yet received an approval for Arroyo to visit the Kingdom. On Feb. 1 at 10:30 a.m., the deputy chief of protocol of Saudi Arabia called Villamor to inform him that Arroyo was welcome to visit Saudi Arabia and talk to the two ministers involved in the agriculture project — Agriculture Minister Dr. Fahd Balghunaim and Commerce and Industry Minister Abdullah Zainal Alireza.
As soon as Villamor received the approval from the deputy of chief of protocol of Saudi Arabia, he immediately communicated it to the presidential party.
The president’s third visit was late last year when Arroyo was invited for the inauguration of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal near Jeddah on Sept. 23, 2009.
From the Saudi side, Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman went to the Philippines on a state visit in 1999, during which the government thanked the Kingdom for the fact that hundreds of thousands of OFWs were working in Saudi Arabia. At present, an estimated 1.3 million OFWs are working in various sectors all over the Kingdom. Some 80,000 of them are nurses, according to the Filipino Nurses Society in Saudi Arabia.
Recently a delegation from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) headed by Undersecretary Carmelita Pineda visited the Kingdom. With her were 10 deans of well-known colleges of nursing in the Philippines. They held talks with Deputy Minister of Health Ali Al-Qahtani and other MOH officials regarding training of licensed Filipino nurses. They also visited government hospitals suggested by the MOH where they could observe hospital practices and get inputs from the director of nursing to be incorporated in the six-month crash course program.
Another member of the royal family, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company (KHC), also visited the Philippines on April 2, 2007, to sign an agreement with the Ayala Group for the construction and operation of two five-star hotels. On a lower level, several official visits from the Philippines and vice versa also took place.
The ties between the two countries grew stronger as the Kingdom showed willingness to accommodate Philippine requests, such as mercy for Filipino housemaids convicted and sentenced to be beheaded for having killed their employers.
One of them was Sarah Dematera who was sentenced to death for the 1992 slaying of her employer. The family of the victim agreed to sign the act of forgiveness (tanazol) after lengthy negotiations because the families of the victims were convinced that the perpetrators of the crime had shown repentance.
Dematera was accused of killing her employer by clubbing her with a piece of wood after the latter kept on scolding her for her unsatisfactory work. She was convicted of beheading. She came to Saudi Arabia in November 1992 to work as domestic helper and the incident took place only three days after she had started working for the Saudi family.
Villamor thanked Eastern Province Gov. Prince Muhammad bin Fahd and the police authorities for their cooperation in the case. He also thanked President Arroyo for her support.
Arroyo said, “I would like to thank all the individuals and benefactors, many of whom have expressed preference to remain anonymous and helped in the settlement of Sarah’s case.”
She also thanked the victim’s family for granting forgiveness to Dematera and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for his “continued assurance of good treatment for all Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia.” Dematera also thanked those who had helped make her release possible and the Kingdom’s courts for “their show of mercy.” The other two were Idan Tejano, a native of Batangas, and Marjanna Sakilan of Jolo, Sulu. Both were charged with homicide and robbery for the death of Tejano’s pregnant lady employer on May 21, 2001. On May 2004, the Jeddah General Shariah Court sentenced them to death by hanging.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that personal letters of Arroyo to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah helped saved Tejano and Sakilan. After King Abdullah sent an emissary to the victims’ family, Villamor was able to negotiate that the two OFWs be forgiven. Meanwhile, the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah, headed by Consul General Ezzedin H. Tago, tapped the services of a top-caliber lawyer to represent Tejano and Sakilan in court.
On Sept. 23, 2009, Arroyo personally handed a note to King Abdullah requesting for clemency and the immediate repatriation of the two OFWs, who served eight years and seven months in jail.Villamor said that the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Philippine Embassy and the Consulate General in Jeddah have also been constantly monitoring death penalty cases involving OFWs and finding ways and means of securing forgiveness for them from affected families.