PHOTO: Saudi Arabia: “Begging is a common sight on the outskirts of the slums”

Carolien Roelants and Paul Aarts write for The New Internationalist:

In the online show Mal3ob3lena (Malob Aleyna or We are being cheated) an item entitled ‘Poverty in Saudi Arabia’ features several desperately poor people in one of the slums of Riyadh, five kilometres outside the city centre.

It’s a scene of crowded dilapidated dwellings, filthy alleys – full of uncollected garbage – and ragged children playing, some barefoot.

A local imam tells us that kids are being sent out onto the street to sell drugs. Not only that, fathers encourage their daughters to go into sex work – simply as a means to survive.

The material in this film was sensitive enough to get the filmmakers put in jail a few weeks after it went online in 2011.

But campaigns launched on Twitter also drew attention to destitution in the land of black gold, like the one under the hashtag “Salary doesn’t meet my needs”. In the first two weeks of summer 2013, it got more than 10 million tweets.

“We Want to Live Like Other Human Beings”

Saudi Arabia is known for its huge oil reserves, for its super-rich elite who own palace-like mansions in the US, Spain and London.

But in terms of gross domestic product per capita ($52,300) the kingdom is not as rich as its neighbours, such as Qatar ($137,200), Kuwait ($70,700), or the United Arab Emirates ($66,300).

Income inequality is dramatic.

Saudi household income is around $3,800 per month and the average Saudi family comprises six members.

According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Social Services, the poverty line stands at $480 a month. One leading economist at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran has made a calculation of his own. “The government’s figures are not really reliable. I reckon that 35 per cent of the population has to get by with much less than $533. They are poor.”

These figures were confirmed during recent interviews with economists in Riyadh.

Some people are very poor. They live in neglected provinces such as Asir, Jizan and Najran; but also in the big cities. Al-Suwaidi, al-Jarradiyah and al-Shimaisi (in Riyadh) and al-Karantina, al-Rowais and al-Salamah (in Jeddah) are slums that rival each other in notoriety, inhabited not just by extremely poor Saudis but also by foreign workers. According to some sources, the average foreign worker earns as little as $266 a month.

Begging – mainly by fully covered women – is a common sight on the outskirts of the slums, on the roads to the city centre. In another YouTube film a Saudi woman, standing outside a charity organization, describes her situation. She lives in a cramped and decrepit house with four of her divorced daughters, each having four to seven children. The family’s monthly income is $372, while the rent has increased to $298. She says: “We want to eat and live like other human beings.”

How High is Unemployment?

Unemployment forms a large part of the poverty problem. The official figures are relatively low: 11.7% of men and 32.8% for women. But, off the record, experts cite much higher rates. According to a senior official of the oil company ARAMCO, the unemployment rate is closer to 27 to 29%, rising to 33% among youths between 20 and 24 years and 38% for 24 to 29-year-olds.

If all the 9 million or so foreign workers (about a third of the country’s population) were sent home, the unemployment and poverty problem would be solved. In theory. But not really, because unemployed Saudis rarely possess the skills and drive to do the work foreigners do.

For many years now, the government has been trying to limit the number of foreigners and to make the workforce more Saudi. With little success so far, given it resolved a decade ago to reduce the proportion of foreigners to a fifth of the kingdom’s population.

Since frustrated youth in Tunisia, Egypt and neighboring Yemen took to the streets to try to topple their governments in 2011, various programs have been launched – such as Hafiz (Stimulus) and Liqaat (Encounter) – to link employers to Saudi jobseekers. Whoever enrolls in the Hafiz programm gets a monthly allowance of $400 until they get a job. The Nitaqat (Zones) program is specifically aimed at replacing foreign workers by Saudis.

In December 2015, Saudi Gazette reported that 1.7 million Saudis work in the private sector, making up 17% of the workforce in this sector. More than twice as many work in the public sector.

Lingerie and a “Thatcherite Revolution”

Thanks to gender inequality and strict cultural and religious rules of segregation, women remain underrepresented in the workforce. But their cause has been taken up by young entrepreneur Khalid al-Khodair, who set up the recruitment agency Glowork.

He started by recruiting women as sales staff for lingerie shops for women, which the government had allowed despite fierce resistance from the clergy. In a recent interview, al-Khodair proudly noted that the number of Saudi women employed in the private sector had increased from 48,000 in 2010 to 504,000 in 2015. Resistance by conservative families has evaporated as their daughters bring in much-needed salaries.

Despite Glowork’s success, large sections of the Saudi population face – and will continue to face – dire conditions.

It is true that healthcare and education are free – though these services are often of a poor quality – and until recently, water, electricity and petrol were heavily subsidized.

But for ordinary Saudis things may be about to get worse. A new austerity budget has been announced to cut subsidies in response to a looming deficit caused by the sharp drop in the world oil price.

Ironically, this has already translated into a 50% increase in the price Saudis have to pay for petrol; soon water and electricity will go up, too.

These measures are likely to hit the poorest hardest – though in an interview with The Economist, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said “the 20% of middle classes and lower, who benefit from subsidies” would be spared.

When asked whether his policy could be seen as a “Thatcher revolution for Saudi Arabia”, he answered, “Most certainly”.

If so, it does not bode well for Saudi Arabia’s have-nots.