Saudi Arabia’s wealth hides the growing problem of poverty

Children Suad Al-Shamir watching TV in their living room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

A few kilometers away from the closed shutters of shopping centers of the capital of Saudi Arabia, Suad Al-Shamir lives in a concrete house on a narrow street, strewn with debris. She has no job, no money, but she has five children younger than 14 years old and unemployed husband, who suffers from chronic heart problems.

"We’re at the bottom," — she said, sobbing heavily behind a black veil, leaving only her eyes visible. "My children are crying, and I can not provide them financially."

Millions of Saudis are struggling to make ends meet "on the margins" of one of the most powerful economies in the world in which jobs and social assistance programs are not keeping pace with the population, which increased from 6,000,000 in 1970 to 28 million today.

Under King Abdullah, the Saudi government has spent billions to help the growing number of poor, which is estimated at a quarter of the indigenous population of Saudi Arabia. But critics complain that these programs are not satisfactory, and that some members of the royal family seems to be more concerned about the image of the country, rather than a help to the needy. In 2011, for example, three Saudi videoblogera been concluded for two weeks in jail after being created online film about poverty in Saudi Arabia.

"The state is very good at hiding the poor" — said Rosie Beshear, a Saudi scholar, writing in detail about the development and poverty. "The elite does not see the suffering of the poor. People are hungry."

The Saudi government to make public the little official information about its poorest citizens. But reports in the press and unofficial estimates suggest that 2 to 4 million indigenous people in Saudi Arabia live on less than $ 530 a month — about $ 17 a day — which is considered below the poverty line in Saudi Arabia.

In the kingdom of a two-tier economy, consisting of around 16 million Saudis and most of the others, who are foreign workers.

The poverty rate among Saudis continues to grow, increased sharply and unemployment among young people. More than two-thirds of the Saudis — under 30, and nearly three-quarters of the unemployed — people 20 years of age, according to government statistics.

In just seven decades of its existence as a state of Saudi Arabia has evolved from impoverished isolated from the outside world of the desert nomads in economic power to the oil industry, which last year brought in $ 300 billion.

"Forbes" magazine estimates the personal fortune of King Abdullah’s $ 18 billion, making it the third richest monarch in the world after the rulers of Thailand and Brunei. He generously spends government funds for major projects, most recently it was the plan of nearly $ 70 billion for the construction of four "economic cities" where, as stated in the printed materials the government "will to live, work and play up to 5 million people."

The King also announced last year plans to spend $ 37 billion on housing, higher wages, unemployment benefits and other programs that many considered an attempt to appease the middle class in Saudi Arabia and to prevent any discontent in the style of the "Arab Spring." Abdullah and many members of the royal family are also known for its generous charitable donations.

For years, Saudi officials are serious about image, denied the existence of poverty. It’s also been a taboo subject, which avoided gosudarsvtennye media until 2002, when Abdullah, the then Crown Prince visited a slum in Riyadh. Lighting in the news this was the first time that many Saudis saw the poverty in their country.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, the son of Crown Prince Salman said in an interview that the government recognizes the existence of poverty and is working to "fulfill its obligations to the people."

Prince Sultan said that the Saudi government in "three to five years" from a significant reduction of poverty through economic development, micro-credit, vocational training and job creation for the poor.

The Saudi government spends billions of dollars on the provision of free education and health care for all citizens, as well as a variety of social assistance programs — even free funeral. The government also provides pension benefits and monthly payments for foodstuffs and public services for the poor, the elderly, the disabled, orphans and workers injured on the job.

Much of the cost of social security comes from Islamic system "sunset" of the religious requirement that individuals and corporations should donate to charity 2.5% of their wealth, money is paid to the state and then distributed to the needy.

"Life in Saudi Arabia is like living in a charity fund, it is an integral part of who we are," — said the Prince Sultan. "If you do not donate to charity, you are not a Muslim."

Despite these efforts, poverty and anger over corruption continue to grow. Huge amounts of money into the pockets of the royal family by nepotism, corruption and government contracts, according to the Saudi and American analysts. Beshear said that some members of the Saudi royal family are enriched through corrupt schemes, such as the confiscation of land from private owners are often poor, and then sell it to the government on the transcendent prices.

At the other end of the spectrum — a lot of the poorest Saudis, whose families are headed by women like Shamir, who are either widowed or divorced, or have husbands who can not work. According to Islamic law, men are required to provide financial and women and their children. Therefore, women with no husband present themselves in a difficult position without her husband’s income, especially because the strict religious and cultural limitations of the kingdom make it difficult for women to find work.

The situation for many families, including the family, Shamir, and even worse, because they are "non-citizens" and are not officially recognized as Saudi citizens, having been born in the country.

The UN estimates that Saudi Arabia‘s 70,000 non-citizens, most of them — the descendants of nomadic tribes, whose traditional territory included parts of several countries. Their legal oblivion makes it difficult for them obtain government benefits.

Shamir, who 35 years old, lives in the shadow of a huge cement plant. Houses and trees are hidden by haze of smoke and dust. Her concrete house is at the end of a narrow street where graffiti covered wall with cracks and garbage lying around in the street. The landlord threatened to evict her house her and the owner of a local shop refused to give her food and fuel for cooking on credit. It lives mostly on handouts from the rich Saudis who bring food and clothes.

On a recent morning her children ran to the door to help unload the products that brought a couple of Riyadh on his "off-road vehicle." Shamir said that donations to help her pay for the electricity to use the air conditioner, but that she did not have enough money to buy school supplies for the children.

While the Saudi youth of the middle class has all the latest gadgets, the 14-year-old daughter Shamir, Nora, never used e-mail or Facebook. Husband Shamir has a second wife who has 10 children. Most of them are unemployed.

Shamir said her husband was earning about $ 500 a month as a security guard until his health forced him to leave work five years ago. She said that she tried in
vain to find a job as a dressmaker or the cleaning lady.

"I was patient all these years," — said Shamir. "I hope that God will reward me a better life for my children."

This material has been published in "The Guardian Weekly," which also includes material from the "Washington Post".

Like this post? Please share to your friends: