If someone mentioned spiritual poverty in Saudi Arabia, it would surprise few given the rigid literalist Wahhabi ideology that is imposed on people in the archaic kingdom. After all, women are prohibited from driving and the mutawwa, religious police go around beating people for no apparent reason except that these religious zealots presume people are not following their literalist ideology. But what about economic poverty that people have fallen into in a kingdom awash with oil wealth? Saudi Arabia has at least $1 trillion or more deposited in US banks. Before he left office, George Bush asked the Saudis to contribute another $120 billion toward a US economic bailout plan. Clearly, the Saudis are in no position to refuse such a demand.
Figures released recently by Mufleh al-Qahtani, president of the National Society of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, paint a grim picture of widespread poverty. He revealed that between 45 to 60 percent of Saudis are unable to own houses and heads of nearly 35,000 Saudi families earn less than SR 2,000 ($540) a month, according to a report in the Saudi daily, Arab News (February 13, 2009).
Al-Qahtani made the remarks while speaking to reporters after signing a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Establishment for Education and Training (SEET). The agreement is aimed at providing education and training to members of needy families in the kingdom. Al-Qahtani revealed that many people had complained to his organization about businesses denying them jobs despite the necessary qualifications. Upon investigation, it was found that the standard of training they received was poor while their education qualifications were insufficient. What was unreported was that the Saudis themselves imparted both training and education. Standards of training and education are appallingly low in the kingdom whose citizens had in the past been accustomed to getting by without bothering to acquire any education.
In fact, the standard procedure was for a child to go to school for a fixed number of years at the end of which a job was waiting for him together with a hefty salary. Work at the office or wherever was done by expatriate workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines or Sri Lanka. Notoriously arrogant, the Saudis mistreated such people and insulted them regularly. Poor and in need of whatever money they could earn in the kingdom, they put up with all the insults. Then came the oil price collapse of the eighties and early nineties that was engineered by the Americans to cripple Iran’s economy. The Saudi regime went along with this plan for two reasons: it could not say no to any US demand; second, the Saudis wanted to undermine Iran whom they viewed and continue to do so today, as rivals for influence in the Muslim world. The net result was that many expatriate workers had to leave the kingdom forcing the Saudis to work themselves.
This was a totally new experience for them. Accustomed to lording over poor Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and dependent on them for every little chore, the Saudis suddenly found themselves having to do things they had never done before. Even something as simple as changing a light bulb became a herculean task. Hitherto, they were used to drinking endless cups of coffee if and when they came to the office; now they had to do some work. Immediately, a number of training centers sprang up, financed by government handouts to train people. These included such facilities as fixing photocopying machines, industrial machines, and using computers. Poor training facilities coupled with the Saudis’ slow learning habits led to disastrous results. Only people linked to government made huge sums of money from such schemes but those in their care to receive training were left with little or no knowledge of what to do.
It has taken several decades to realize that such training was inadequate and that people have fallen into the poverty trap despite the kingdom’s huge oil wealth. Muslims who go for Hajj or Umrah returned with stories of poverty they had witnessed in the kingdom even in places like Makkah and Madinah but such information remained anecdotal. Pilgrims reported seeing beat up old cars still on the roads, something unheard of in the seventies and eighties when the Saudis would just abandon their three or four-year-old cars in the middle of the road and jump into a new one at the nearest dealership. Some people still do that but their number is dwindling as the number of hangers-on of the ruling dynasty has declined as a result of the kingdom being buffeted by frequent crises
The regime’s response to such crises is typical. For instance, to overcome housing shortage, it has allocated SR 10 billion to build low-cost housing in different parts of the country to meet the needs of the poor. In the absence of reliable figures about the actual number of people that will need such help, many projects may end up wasting money or building houses that people would not live in. Further, lack of proper training will continue to create an endless supply of poor people who will be unable to earn a decent wage. As Al-Qahtani pointed out, the kingdom lacks regulations encouraging social service initiatives by individuals and organizations. “The hurdles begin from opening a bank account,” he said. Even though his organization has signed an agreement with the Saudi Establishment for Education and Training, this official body itself lacks adequate standards. How can it impart the kind of training needed to pull people out of poverty?