Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Rich Arabs?

In a country with vast oil wealth and lavish royalty, an estimated quarter of Saudis live below the poverty line. Millions of Saudis struggle on the fringes of one of the world's most powerful economies, where jobs and welfare programmes have failed to keep pace. The Saudi government discloses little official data about its poorest citizens. But press reports and private estimates suggest that between 2 million and 4 million of the country's native Saudis live on less than about $530 a month – about $17 a day – considered the poverty line in Saudi Arabia. Many of the poorest Saudis are in families headed by women who are either widowed, divorced or have a husband who cannot work. Under Islamic law, men are required to financially support women and their children. So women who find themselves without a man's income struggle, especially because the kingdom's strict religious and cultural constraints make it hard for women to find jobs. The situation for many families is worse because they are "stateless" and not officially recognised as Saudi citizens, even though they were born in the country. The UN estimates that there are 70,000 stateless people in Saudi Arabia, most of them descended from nomadic tribes whose traditional territory included parts of several countries. Their legal limbo makes it harder for them to receive government benefits.

 "The state hides the poor very well,"
said Rosie Bsheer, a Saudi scholar who has written extensively on development and poverty. "The elite don't see the suffering of the poor. People are hungry."

In 2011, for example, three Saudi video bloggers were jailed for two weeks after they made an online film about poverty in Saudi Arabia. For many years, image-conscious Saudi officials denied the existence of poverty. It was a taboo subject avoided by state-run media until 2002, when Abdullah, then the crown prince, visited a Riyadh slum. News coverage was the first time many Saudis saw poverty in their country.

The kingdom has a two-tier economy made up of about 16 million Saudis, with most of the rest foreign workers. The poverty rate among Saudis continues to rise as youth unemployment skyrockets. More than two-thirds of Saudis are under 30, and nearly three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s, according to government statistics.

The oil industry brought in $300bn last year. Forbes magazine estimates King Abdullah's personal fortune at $18bn, making him the world's third-richest royal, behind the rulers of Thailand and Brunei. Vast sums of money end up in the pockets of the royal family through a web of nepotism, corruption and cozy government contracts, according to Saudi and US analysts.Bsheer said some Saudi royals enrich themselves through corrupt schemes, such as confiscating land from often-poor private owners, then selling it to the government at exorbitant prices.

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