Middle East Unpreparedness Team

IN DECEMBER 2002, or a decade go, when the US invasion of Iraq was imminent, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo organized the Philippine Middle East Preparedness Committee under Executive Order No. 159. Its functions though went beyond the Iraq crisis, and was based on the appreciation of the fact that more than a million of our citizens were working in Middle East countries, which for various reasons (as in the case of the Iraq war) could suddenly become a hostile place for them.

She gave the committee enormous powers, and its main function is exactly, eerily, what is needed now: “[It] shall, in relation with the critical developments in the Middle East, prepare the appropriate responses, formulate policies, develop modes for coordination, put into effect all plans approved by the President and monitor their implementation accordingly, in coordination with the Department of Foreign Affairs.”

The EO even detailed its duties, among them, to “undertake continuing assessment, update preparedness plans and provide policies and analyses that shall respond to the safety and welfare of the 1.4 million OFWs in the Middle East.” It was tasked to “develop and adopt interactive operating arrangements designed to effect maximum coordination among agencies in the implementation of preparedness plans.”

It was chaired by an official who was the President’s representative, thus his title of “Special Envoy to the Middle East,” whose posting was not at the Department of Foreign Affairs, but at the higher-level Office of the President. Because one of the committee’s main tasks was seen to be in evacuation operations in conflict areas, therefore requiring the skills of a military man, it was former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Roy Cimatu who has chaired the committee since its establishment.

The committee’s structure assured tight coordination among the various government agencies. Under EO No. 159, it consisted of representatives from the Departments of Foreign Affairs, National Defense, Energy, Labor and Employment, Social Welfare and Development as well as from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. There were even three private-sector members, from respected companies with manning operations in the Middle East.

Whenever there was the slightest chance of a Middle Eastern country becoming a hostile place for OFWs, the committee would convene and give its report to the President. Cimatu would be immediately dispatched to wherever there seemed to be trouble, to coordinate government agencies, and lead evacuation operations.

What happened to the Middle East Preparedness Committee? Just when our country needed it, just when epochal events are changing the Middle East, President Aquino had all but abolished it, even as his concise attention span was on our China and Taiwan troubles.

Cimatu was demoted from being a representative of the President to a functionary of the DFA. A DFA official even said that Cimatu was not needed, since the Philippine embassies “were already doing a fine job.” As he was planning to fly to Egypt to monitor closely the situation there, the DFA ordered Cimatu back into the country, and practically told him that he would be better off attending the Senate hearings on alleged military corruption that occurred a decade ago.

In September last year, Mr. Aquino’s Executive Order No. 6 gave the committee three months to wind up its affairs and close down by the end of the year. In January this year though, with the Middle East crisis emerging, he ordered it to operate anyway, but only until the end of June, and directed Cimatu to report to the DFA. Without support from Mr. Aquino and being an Arroyo appointee, it would have been practically impossible for Cimatu to convene the committee.

Cimatu has been a veteran in evacuation operations, the last of which happened two years ago, when he quickly went to Lebanon during the crisis there to lead a convoy of vans evacuating Filipinos through desert roads from that troubled country to Syria.

Our new foreign secretary, the 72-year-old Alberto del Rosario, apparently felt that that is his kind of job and, with the energetic Undersecretary Esteban Conejos at his side, he led the evacuation of about 100 Filipinos from Libya to Tunisia, “amid sounds of gunfire,” he relates. It was “heroic act,” DFA spokesman Ed Malaya gushed over his boss’ derring-do, which would be talked about by PR practitioners for many months.

And while his foreign secretary was on the ground in Tunisia, Mr. Aquino in effect made Vice President Jejomar Binay his point man for the Middle East crisis, since he had designated him as presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers last year, and the former Makati mayor was just raring to do his own rescuing, but couldn’t get a visa to Saudi Arabia.

Asked in a talk show if her department had informed OFWs in Libya to evacuate when the crisis started, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said it was the DFA’s job to make such an assessment. When he asked the Philippine embassy in Libya for guidance on the emerging crisis, an OFW leader said he was told to use “common sense.”

In a hearing last week in Congress, DFA and DOLE officials testified that they had not been coordinating for contingency plans to protect Filipino workers in the Middle East countries where political unrest and chaos have been erupting.

What we are seeing in this administration is a Middle East Unpreparedness Team.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer