When Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz went to see one of Riyadh’s many poor neighborhoods in November 2002, pundits and lay people alike heralded the landmark visit as the beginning of the end of poverty in Saudi Arabia. After all, it was the first-and only- such visit by a high-ranking member of the Saudi ruling family, let alone a Saudi Crown Prince who also happened to be one of the richest men in the world. At the time, the Crown Prince said he wanted to visualize what Saudi poverty looked like, for as he explained, “seeing is not the same as hearing.” For the first time in the country’s history, the Saudi public also saw, on national and satellite televisions, how poverty affects Saudi citizens and not just Palestinian refugees, migrant workers, or Bidoun Jinsiyya.[i] All across Saudi Arabia, people watched, in awe, as their soon-to-be King walked through narrow, decrepit alleyways, unescorted by his security guards, and entered one humble home after the other. They watched as he warmly greeted young boys and girls and consoled their bewildered parents in living rooms and kitchens that had no access to electricity or water. And they rejoiced when the “king of humanity,” as he was later nicknamed, promised to alleviate the material suffering of those whom he met and to “eradicate poverty” in Saudi Arabia.
The Crown Prince’s visit, as staged as it was, single-handedly and suddenly brought the problem of poverty into the Saudi spotlight. The Saudi government had hitherto denied that poverty existed in the oil-rich Kingdom, and with it, it denied any need for government intervention or protectionist policies. Since the formation of the Saudi state in 1932, and especially with the influx of petro-dollars in the 1980s, the Saudi government has invested heavily in projecting a highly developed and “civilized” image of Saudi Arabia, at home and abroad. In the process, it succeeded in keeping people everywhere blind to the existence of millions of economically and socially disenfranchised Saudi citizens. This abstraction was (and is) reified on the ground in the urban development plans of major cities, whereby lower class neighborhoods and slums were (and are) physically segregated and blocked from major highways, roads, shopping centers, tourist destinations, and central economic areas. The poor in Saudi Arabia, who live on the outskirts of every Saudi city if not deep within it, are invisible. The average, middle class Saudi person could live her whole life in Riyadh or Jeddah without encountering or passing through a lower class Saudi neighborhood. But shortsighted Saudi economic and social policies failed to account for the many developments that have challenged the Saudi state since the turn of the century. Increasingly staggering rates of unemployment, population growth, rising costs of housing, and inflation have made it exceedingly difficult for the government to ignore those who bare the brunt of excessive economic inequality. “The poor” have finally become a problem in Saudi Arabia.
Despite the grand, yet short-lived attention that followed the royal visit, very little hard data is available on Saudi Arabia’s poor, who have yet to become a target of the state’s surveying needs. Few studies have been carried out in the last eight years, and statistical data, when available, leans towards the conservative and for the most part, ambiguous. The government estimates that 1.63 percent of the total Saudi population, which it puts at fifteen million, or thirty-five thousand families[ii] live in extreme poverty, that is, on less than 453 dollars a month.[iii] Unofficial figures vary and are also highly contested. Those on the conservative side put the number of Saudi Arabia’s poor at around two million, or ten percent of the total native population, here estimated at twenty million.[iv] Of those, approximately 100,000 families are thought to live under 320 dollars a month, the unofficial poverty line. The unofficial minimum wage in Saudi Arabia is 400 dollars in the private sector. An income of 425 dollars a month is unofficially considered to be the bare minimum.[v] Neither figure accounts for the cost of housing, where low-income rents average around 4200 dollars a year, although the majority of people in Saudi Arabia do not own their homes. There is a larger consensus of opinion, however, that the poor actually constitute twenty percent of the total population, which would bring their numbers in Saudi Arabia to four million.[vi] The most conservative figures are thus a far cry from those whom Crown Prince Abdullah met during his historic visit, and who were made to represent “the poor” in the country.
Since assuming the throne in 2005, King Abdullah’s regime adopted various strategies and approaches in its fight against poverty. First came the building of two large residential compounds to house the residents of the neighborhood the King had visited in 2002. Then, the Minister of Social Affairs was tasked with heading a team that would devise a National Strategy for Combating Poverty. In coordination with the Ministries of Social Affairs, Labor, Health, Finance, and Education, the team is responsible for conducting research on poverty throughout the Kingdom, identifying its main causes and effects, and proposing various solutions. Finally, the government also established the National Charity Fund, to which it allocated an eighty million dollar a year budget in order to support those in need through educational and job training, small, interest free business loans and job coordination. The Fund relies heavily on private donations from individuals and corporations. As its name indicates, the National Charity Fund, despite claims to the opposite, seems to further the deeply entrenched culture of charity in Saudi Arabia. Like most charities there, it often reverts to giving financial and material donations to (some of) those in need instead of empowering them to overcome their economic dependence through serious, long-term training programs that ensure job preparation and retention. Furthermore, the anti-poverty programs have yet to enact much needed structural changes to the economic and social systems. The lives of the majority of Saudi Arabia’s poor remains unchanged, if their conditions have not worsened, eight years after then Crown Prince Abdullah promised to eradicate poverty in the oil-rich Kingdom. The myriad challenges the government has encountered in devising and implementing its anti-poverty policies, while typical, suggests that poverty is a larger problem than is admitted and is far from being under control in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi state provides approximately 1.5 million of its citizens, especially unemployed single or divorced women, the sick and the elderly, with a 215 dollar monthly allowance, costing the government 231 million dollars a year. Most people from low-income families continue to rely on charitable donations from NGOs, wealthy individuals, and members of the royal family, especially during Ramadan. Some, however, often do not have access to such aid or relief efforts due to the lack of public and/or affordable transportation, particularly for women. Despite the government’s efforts, hundreds of thousands of Saudi citizens continue to live in extreme poverty, with no access to clean water, electricity, education, health services, and security. In some extremely poor urban enclaves, mostly in Riyadh and Jeddah, but also in the northern and southern border towns, there is a total absence of government institutions; from police stations and fire departments to schools and health clinics. Some areas are worse off than others. An example on the extreme end of things is a little-known neighborhood in Riyadh’s eastern suburbs, to which representatives of government institutions must be escorted by the National Guard, dressed in riot gear, inside armored tanks, to conduct normal, everyday business of security and infrastructural maintenance.[vii] According to first hand accounts, the level of poverty there is so extreme that men, women, and children who are not related to each other live under the same roof; children do not receive formal schooling; prostitution is rampant; and illegal drugs are found everywhere. This Saudi neighborhood is a forty-five-minute drive from my home in Riyadh. However, poverty does not only come in such an extreme picture, but also permeates the everyday lives of security guards, librarians, teachers, taxi drivers, and museum employees, all of whom live in our midst, but cannot make ends meet and can only suffer in silence. Crown Prince Abdullah’s historic visit brought the problem of poverty into the fore of Saudi public life for a short while. But it simultaneously foreclosed the possibility for real, structural change by positing the poor Saudi neighborhood he visited in Riyadh as one of very few throughout the country. By helping those few, he was portrayed as helping most. Where the average Saudi person once denied the existence of poor Saudi citizens, this same person now actually acknowledges the problem of poverty, only to point out that King Abdullah solved it in 2002.
For short youtube videos on poverty in Saudi Arabia, see:
Al Arabiya report on poverty in Saudi Arabia
اسرة سعودية تسكن الجبال من الفقر ("a Saudi family inhabits the mountains because of poverty")
[iv] The last official census in Saudi Arabia was conducted in 2004, and put the national Saudi population at 16.5 million. See http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2010042069914
[vii] Such extremely low-income and segregated neighborhoods are distinct from and should not be conflated with other remote areas the government claims are breeding grounds for terrorist activities.