Saudi Arabia’s ticking time bombs

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Rajab 22, 1434 2013-06-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 4, Rajab, 1434)

Saudi Arabia’s problems have become so severe that even a member of the ‘royal’ family has been forced to speak out publicly. Will King Abdullah and his inner circle take heed of Waleed bin Talal’s warnings?

Is the message finally getting through to at least some members of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia that the country risks an explosion unless the ruling family addresses the serious problems facing the kingdom? The rumblings of revolt are spreading. It is not only Shi‘is in the Eastern Province — the most deprived of all Saudi citizens — that are suffering from high unemployment, lack of housing and other basic necessities. Highly qualified Saudis, some with doctorate and master’s degrees from American and European universities, have said that they have had no response from any of the kingdom’s universities despite sending applications for jobs. The universities have job openings but highly qualified Saudis remain unemployed. Even the kingdom’s own English-language daily, the Saudi Gazette, reported last December that as many as 3,500 men and women with doctorate and master’s degrees from prestigious European and US universities are unemployed.

The Saudi billionaire prince, al-Waleed bin Talal, has described the high unemployment and mass poverty, according to some reports as high as 60%, as two of the five “ticking bombs” in the country. Al-Waleed is a businessman and not involved in or much interested in policy matters but he has been forced to speak out because he sees serious risks to the ruling family’s grip on power. Perhaps other Saudi royals may have muttered similar concerns in the secretive inner sanctums of the ruling family’s meetings but little seems to have been done to address the growing crisis.

Saudi Arabia earns nearly $300 billion annually in oil revenues. Billions are also earned from fees collected from hujjaj as well as the millions of Muslims that come to perform ‘Umrah each year. The Saudi rulers consider all this wealth as family fortune and spend it at their discretion. Given that there are more than 7,000 members of the Saudi ruling family, the billions are pilfered by them leaving little for development or job creation programs.

The Saudi rulers also spend tens of billions of dollars in acquiring weapons from the US and Britain because they cannot say “no” to their Western masters. Saudi armed forces are completely incompetent and have never been able to use any of these weapons to defend the kingdom. Indeed, there are no specific threats to the kingdom from any outside forces. Instead, the Americans have used these weapons whenever they have attacked a Muslim country in the region. The same applies to the multi-billion dollar military bases the Saudis have built across the desert landscape.

With such distorted priorities, it is not surprising that the employment situation is so bad and poverty levels so high. Whenever Saudis express concern about unemployment or poverty, the immediate reaction of the regime is to expel some poor foreign workers employed in slave-like job conditions. This is meant to assuage their anger without addressing the underlying causes. There are an estimated eight million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. The overwhelming majority do dirty, back breaking low-paying jobs that the Saudis would not touch. In recent months, the Saudi regime has expelled 800,000 foreign workers trying to create the impression that it is taking steps to address the Saudis’ concerns about jobs.

When Islamic awakenings swept the region and drove two long-time dictators from power at the beginning of 2011, King Abdullah announced that the kingdom would spend $30 billion to provide housing for the people. This figure has now risen to $110 billion and is meant to address such other issues as unemployment and alleviation of poverty. King Abdullah had just returned from back surgery in the US and hoped that throwing some money at these projects would keep people’s anger at bay. The regime has admitted that 500,000 new houses are needed to accommodate people.

Last January, Western media reports said that Saudi Arabia’s welfare programs were failing to keep up with its booming population. The reports also criticized the Saudi regime for its unequal distribution of wealth that has caused mass unemployment. The problem is that while pledging to spend billions on such issues, the bulk of the money is handed over to tribal allies of the Saudi family. The government runs on the basis of patronage. Powerful tribal chiefs have to be bribed in order to buy their loyalty. Thus, even while hundreds of billions are earmarked for development projects, they end up in the hands of a few tribal chiefs.

In the past, the regime was able to hide the disastrous consequences of its skewed policies through tight censorship of the print media. The internet has punctured this bubble of insularity. Information about the kingdom’s real situation has started to emerge. The other reason is that the growing numbers of Saudis with advanced qualifications are no longer willing to remain silent or remain marginalized. They not only want jobs but also want to be part of the decision-making process questioning a single family’s control over all matters as well as unchecked disbursement of funds. The grinding poverty, in which 60% of the population lives, stands in sharp contrast with the rapacious extravagance and lifestyle of the ruling family. Even Prince al-Waleed, who spoke out about mass unemployment and poverty, has a private jumbo jet, the A380 Airbus, fitted with four bedrooms, saunas, showers, a fully functional theatre, conference room and a pool table for a price tag of $485 million.

Al-Waleed did not speak out because he cares much for the unemployed or poverty-stricken Saudis; his real concern is the danger such indicators pose to the family’s grip on power. He said the other ticking bombs are the rapid population growth in Saudi Arabia, indiscriminate use of fuel and reliance on a single source of income: oil. With poverty already so high, any increase in population would definitely escalate pressure on the rulers. Notwithstanding their British and American advisors that charge hefty fees for services, the Saudi rulers have shown no ability to address any of the issues facing the kingdom.

The indiscriminate use of fuel, as the kingdom’s only source of income, shows that the rulers have no clue how to generate income. To please its American masters, the regime pumps an estimated 8 million barrels per day. This results in keeping the price of oil low and a net transfer of billions of dollars to the West, mainly the US. This policy also deprives other oil producers of increased income from oil. Also, the Saudis have invested more than $1 trillion in US banks. They are unlikely to see this money.

As the wave of Islamic awakenings continues to sweep the region, the pillars of the regime have been shaken. According to informed observers, there are at least 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. This troubling number points to the deep unease and people’s determination to speak out against gross injustices even if it means long years of incarceration without charge or trial.

With mass unemployment that experts say could triple in the near future, Saudi Arabia is heading for an explosion. When it does occur, there will be little left of the archaic family or its hangers-on. Prince al-Waleed bin Talal may be on to something even if his uncles and cousins are not listening.

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