RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte surprised around 2,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Riyadh on Wednesday, April 12 (Riyadh time), when he opened the floor for questions during his meeting with the Filipino community here.
In front of Duterte, OFWs raised problems ranging from the lack of a department for migrant workers and the need for wage increases.
Two Filipinos even lobbied for ambassadors.
Another woman took the mic just to say, "Hello, Tatay (Dad). I have no questions at all. I just want to say thank you that you have given us hope. Thank you so much."
The scenes at the Riyadh Marriott Hotel on Wednesday depicted Duterte as the father of OFWs here, who have longed for change years after they left the Philippines.
During this event, Duterte delivered a one-and-a-half hour speech punctuated by roaring applause and chants of "Duterte! Duterte! Duterte!"
When Duterte was done speaking, he asked the crowd: "What else is there to say to you? If you want some questions answered, I am ready. You can take the floor. Let's have a short time for an open forum."
This, even if Duterte was going overtime, and was rushing to fly to Bahrain on the same evening for another state visit.
The crowd applauded, and many of them rushed to the center of the function room to raise their hands and take the mic.
In a firm voice, a woman faced Duterte first: "My first question is, where is the Department of OFWs? That is the first question – the Department of OFWs. We want it."
Duterte said the Department of OFWs "is coming."
In response to a similar question later during the forum, Duterte said, "The creation of a department does not belong to me. It belongs to Congress."
On another issue, a man pushed for a national ID system just like in Saudi Arabia.
Duterte replied, "It's also pending in Congress. I'm only 9 months into the presidency. We're working on it, actually, because it's good."
Later, another woman said OFWs in Saudi Arabia have long been waiting to have an ambassador. "I would like to take this opportunity to endorse Madame Imelda Panolong because she has the huge knowledge for being an ambassador."
Panolong is the charge d'affaires or officer in charge of the Philippine embassy in Riyadh.
Hearing the move to endorse Panolong as ambassador, some in the crowd cheered "whoo!" in approval, but many others cried "boo!"
Duterte responded, "We will consider it."
Another OFW had a similar concern about having an ambassador. The man, who identified himself as the secretary general of the Duterte Middle East Movement, said he had a "heart-to-heart question" for Duterte.
In a mix of English and Filipino, the man said, "My only question, Mr President, is, don't we have rights, being OFWs, to represent public office in the government like to serve the Filipinos overseas and to gain the ambassadorship for the first time in Saudi Arabia?"
Another man from the Duterte Middle East Movement later took the mic and endorsed Dr Abdul Hannan Tago, identified in a website as the head of their group, as Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Duterte replied, "We will consider the name."
Hitting embassy, labor officials
The most emotional plea came from a woman whose voice cracked as she addressed the President.
The woman appealed for a hospital for stranded OFWs, and also for lawyers who can help migrant workers like them.
She also said the Philippine embassy and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) should stop fighting. "Marami pong bulag. Kailangang buksan natin ang ating isipan," she said. (Many people remain blind. We need to open our minds.)
"Mahal na Pangulo," she said, "una sa lahat nagpapasalamat ako sa Panginoon. Kristiyano't Muslim kami, ibinigay ka ng Panginoon sa amin."
(Our dear President, first of all, I am thanking the Lord. Whether we're Christians or Muslims, the Lord gave you to us.)
She said she was one of the first Filipino nurses who flew to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
To the crowd's applause, the female OFW declared, "Wala pong presidenteng talagang nakatulong nang malaki, kundi kayo po." (No other president has really helped us this much, but you.)
Saudi OFWs' presidential bet
Duterte was the first Philippine president to visit Saudi Arabia since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did in 2009.
Former president Benigno Aquino III, who is often contrasted with Duterte in terms of decisiveness, never visited Saudi Arabia during his 6-year term as Philippine leader.
The other Philippine president to have visited Saudi Arabia, aside from Duterte and Arroyo, was the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte pointed out that Saudi Arabia was the first country he as president visited outside Southeast Asia.
"It is of our national interest that I visit first the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," he told the OFWs there. "You are not just citizens of the Republic of the Philippines. You are the assets."
Government data show that one in every 4 OFWs, or 24.7% of them, work in Saudi Arabia as of May 2016.
In the May 2016 presidential elections, 76.55% of Filipino voters in Saudi Arabia chose Duterte as their president. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.