by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 2, Rajab, 1438)
Whenever the Saudi ‘royals’ mess up the economy, they reflexively target poor expatriate workers. There is not even a hint that the Bani Saud would curtail their extravagant lifestyle or accept responsibility for messing things up.
How badly battered is the Saudi economy? The kingdom’s annual budget deficits now surpass $100 billion. Until 2011, there were no budget deficits but the plunge in oil prices since 2014 has left the Saudi economy badly bruised. The Najdi Bedouins have only two major exports: oil and terrorism. While there are many oil producing and exporting countries, in exporting terror, the Saudis have the field virtually to themselves.
Whenever the Saudi economy hits a downturn, the first thing the rulers do is to tighten the screws on poor expatriate workers from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the Philippines by laying them off. There were 10 million until 2013. Now this number has shrunk considerably because of attrition.
The poor expatriates were sacked en masse but that has not staunched the economic hemorrhage. The Binladen Group, the largest construction company—yes, you guessed it right, Osama bin Laden was the scion of this family—laid off 70,000 workers from its constructions sites in 2015. They were not paid back salaries for seven to nine months. Many workers were the on the verge of starvation with their embassies running food kitchens to feed their citizens stranded in the desert kingdom.
These workers could not go back to their country of origin because they did not have passports with them. In Saudi Arabia, the company that sponsors a worker takes away his passport. Tens of thousands have now returned home, thanks to the help of their embassies but many are still stranded and living in miserable conditions.
Laying off slave workers has not helped the Saudi economy much. Now high paying expatriates from Europe and North America are also getting the boot. Saudi Arabia has a strange system: a white man gets a much higher pay than a brown skinned person with the same or better qualifications. According to Bedouin logic, intelligence is dependent on skin color!
This massive attrition of expatriate workers is meant to provide employment opportunities for Saudi citizens. At least this is the rationale behind Muhammad bin Salman’s move. The Deputy Crown Prince who is also Interior Minister and in charge of the kingdom’s economic policy has been dubbed “Mr Know it all”. In actual fact, he is Mr Know nothing. He has made a mess of the war launched on dirt-poor Yemen that has and continues to cost a fortune with no let up in sight. He is also messing up the economy with his hare-brained ideas about Vision 2030. If basic principles of economic management were to apply, Bin Salman (BS) would have been fired a long time ago. Not so in the desert kingdom. His father, Salman is the king so BS is above criticism, much less being fired.
The “Vision 2030” plan is ostensibly aimed at economic diversification to broaden the kingdom’s investment and business base, while placing more Saudis in the private sector. Hitherto, the government employed most Saudis. These people did little or no work. They showed up at the office once in a while to drink endless cups of coffee served to them by expatriate workers. For showing up periodically, they were paid a hefty salary. Habitually lazy, they acquired no skills. The only Saudis with capabilities are those educated abroad.
Jokes about the Saudis’ lack of skills abound. How many Saudis does it take to change a light bulb? Well, 11. How come? One to hold the bulb in the socket and 10 to twirl him around!
The late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had more than 60 years ago pointed to the lack of Saudis’ working skills. In his meeting with editors-in-chief of local newspapers, he said Saudis are not normally willing to take up menial jobs including those of plumbers and barbers. Instead, they prefer office jobs in air-conditioned rooms where they want to be served cups of coffee or tea by expatriate tea boys (Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi: ‘Saudization and expatriates,’ Saudi Gazette – July 17, 2013). Has anything changed since those frank comments by the late king?
The Saudis’ lack of skills is only one part of the problem. Even if local Saudis were to take up all the jobs currently being performed by expatriates—a big if—it would still not overcome the kingdom’s financial crunch. It is the manner in which resources are being allocated that is at the root of the problem.
There are two taboo subjects in the kingdom: the massive expenditure on weapons purchases, and wealth of the Saudi royals. During Barack Obama’s two terms as president (2009 – 2016), the Saudis purchased $115 billion worth of weapons from the US. Tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons have also been purchased from Britain, France and other countries during the same period. Given the gross incompetence of the Saudi armed forces, they are simply incapable of using them effectively as the disastrous war against dirt-poor Yemen has shown. It is also reflected in their desperate quest to rent soldiers and officers from other countries. The acquisition of the former Pakistani Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif is but one example of the Saudis’ lack of professional skills.
The Bani Saud are also mega-thieves. When they first erupted from the backwaters of Dari‘ya in Najd, they used to live in tents and survived on raiding other tribes as well as pilgrims’ caravans. Little has changed since the mid-eighteenth century even if their method of plunder has become somewhat more refined. Now they plunder the country’s oil wealth as well as gouge Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. The kingdom’s income is treated as family fortune. Not surprisingly, the now-dead King Abdullah’s “personal wealth” was estimated at $18 billion while that of his business tycoon nephew, Prince Waleed bin Talal at $21.5 billion (BBC News quoting Forbes News and Oxfam Report, January 19, 2015).
How did Abdullah amass such a fortune; surely his salary even as King and prior to that as Crown Prince would not accrue him such vast sums? This is clearly the result of theft on a grand scale with the Najdi Bedouins dipping their grubby hands into the country’s treasury. With wealth accumulated in the hands of the ruling family and the ever-expanding circle of hangers-on, poverty was bound to follow even if it was swept under the rug for so long as shiny new buildings were erected in the desert creating the illusion of prosperity.
The kingdom operates on a three-tier hierarchical system. At the top of the Saudi “caste” pyramid sit the thousands of princes—estimated to number around 7,000—as well as their hangers-on. In the middle resides the small and rapidly dwindling middleclass. At the bottom that constitutes the vast majority of Saudis, there is mass poverty. The millions of expatriate workers exist in the no-man land with no legal, social or political rights. Their Saudi masters have exploited them in many different ways. Their existence is akin to slavery.
Here is the rub. While the kingdom led by the de facto young ruler, Mr BS, plans to impose a levy on foreign workers with dependents starting in July, his octogenarian father left on February 26 for a month long tour of Asian countries. The entourage comprised 1500 people including 10 ministers.
After visiting Malaysia, Indonesia (of course resting in Bali), Japan and China, King Salman and his son BS are spending the last two weeks in the Maldives (as of the compilation of this report). The father and son are enjoying themselves on an exclusive island in the Indian Ocean where they can relax being massaged by scantily clad Filipino maids. Everything is permissible on these ‘Paradise Islands’. True, the aged king would not be able to indulge in much extra-curricular activity but it will be a different story for his son who only a year ago, acquired a new bride! Has BS taken his bride with him?