Oil rich but poor

Social unrest in Saudi Arabia

Disarray in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, the third richest king in the world, will have to bring more to the table than the reforms he promised to appease the poor and unemployed in his country.

Saudi Arabia recently reformed its employment legislation. Or more accurately: it added a small amendment. In an attempt to revive the economy and employment market, Riyad focused on the country’s estimated two million illegal economic migrants. Henceforth, economic migrants can no longer start their own business. Foreigners without a work permit are irrevocably being laid off when they fail to put their paperwork in order within three months. Following a national raid on companies and in the streets conducted by the official inspection and security services, more than 250,000 foreigners have been repatriated. One million migrants have left on their own initiative. According to the conservative Saudi Arabian government, this is a necessary first step in order to provide better opportunities in the employment market to its own population. Reformist Saudi Arabians believe this is a ploy. They call it an attempt by the Saudi government to divert attention from its own responsibility. Despite growing unemployment in Saudi Arabia, structural measures to widen the employment market are still lacking. More than two million - mostly young and female - Saudi Arabians are unemployed. And this is provoking more and more protest in the hitherto calm Saudi Arabia.

‘King Abdullah obviously knows that it was social inequality and hopelessness in the employment market that drove Tunisians and Egyptians to the protest squares’; the well-known Saudi human rights activist Waleed abu al-Khair reacts over the phone. ‘More and more people murmur that the Saudi king wants to lay the blame on employed migrants, people that were brought here by the royal family themselves. Far bigger investments than these are needed to quell social unrest.

Saudi spring?

Saudi Arabia has its own version of the Arab spring. The protests are less violent, the demands less severe, and overall, it seems less considered.

‘We have to take into account two control levels here’, says Waleed abu al-Khair. ‘There is the administrative power level of the royal family, as well as clerical power at the street level. Control is everywhere. People are afraid to become the next political prisoner that finds oneself in jail without a fair trial.’

Saudi Arabia saw its own ‘Days of anger’ in March 2011. Above all the protest was aimed at the release of political prisoners. The demonstrations mainly took place in cities in the Shiite and oil rich east, where people have been protesting for decades against discrimination and political underrepresentation of the Shiite minority in the country, who make up about ten to fifteen percent of the population. The Saudi security services responded brutally with rubber bullets and shock hand grenades. Since then, protests continued infrequently, but increased in full force after November 2011, when in the city of Qatif five demonstrators were killed and many others were injured.

‘Control is everywhere. People are afraid to become the next political prisoner that finds oneself in jail without a fair trial.’

People demonstrated in non-Shiite cities as well, albeit to a lesser degree. In March 2013 Saudi troops arrested 161 people in Buraida, the capital of the central Province of Qassim. And elsewhere protests resounded also. Does this announce a Saudi spring after all? Waleed abu al-Khair explains: ‘Buraida, a city in the North, is not representative. The people react much faster, are more radical in their actions and demands. Whoever relies solely on the numerous Saudi Arabian protest-tweets, will think the revolution is going to break out tomorrow. The streets remain empty. Public protest and civil obedience are still too little present in our culture.

There exists, however, firm protest in the social media. And according to abu al-Khair four petitions have been sent to king Abdullah since 2012. ‘Recently 12,000 people signed, in short amount of time, a petition in favor of constitutional reforms in the matter of civil rights.’ The demands are clear and “Arabic recognizable”: the release of political prisoners, an end to deeply rooted corruption, unemployment and poverty.

Oil-rich poor

Saudi Arabia has seen a population explosion in recent decades, from six million in 1970 to 28 million at the beginning of this year. However, this was not accompanied by the necessary job creation and investments in a structural welfare system. The Saudi government provides nonetheless free education and healthcare and other social programs such as food contributions and social allowances for vulnerable groups. That money stems mainly from the reallocation of the zakaat, the yearly religious charitable contribution Saudi Arabians donate to the government.

But apparently that is not enough. Poverty and social inequality have experienced a marked increase. According to The Guardian, between two and four million Saudis have to manage with less than 408 Euros per month, while oil revenues last year amounted to 231 billion Euros.

Official poverty figures are missing, however. ‘There is no communication about poverty. Poverty is a taboo of the first rank in our oil-rich country, something our rich royal family doesn’t want to see’, says abu al-Khair. ‘Single women or women with unemployed husbands, are suffering especially. They can hardly find a job and don’t receive welfare as Saudi law dictates that they have to be supported by their husband.’

King Abdullah promised in 2012 to invest 28.5 million Euros in accommodation, salary increases and higher unemployment allowances. Furthermore, he promised six million new jobs by 2030. Abu al-Khair remains skeptical. ‘Abdullah applied social reforms but these are drops in the ocean. They are isolated measures that don’t deal quickly enough with growing poverty. In the area of women’s rights his reforms were relatively inconsequential. Women received the right to vote and can now become a member of the Shura (the Saudi legislative advice counsel with 150 members, td). Many call that a milestone. Agreed, but those women still have to, according to the law, ask for the permission of their legal male guardian to leave the house.’

King Abdullah is ninety. Will prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz – who is heir to the throne – be a possible reformer? The question evokes cynicism from Abu al-Khair. ‘He is seventy. We cannot expect much change from the “oldies palace”.’ But change has to come from somewhere, he continues. ‘I stand by the idea that a week before the Tunisian spring nobody believed revolution would explode.’

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