It is hard to imagine that poverty exists in the largest oil exporting country in the world. But among the extravagant shopping malls and luxury SUVs lies a brutal reality— one laced with destitution, panhandling and unemployment.
Poverty in Riyadh has seen little media exposure. The Saudi government is reluctant to admit poverty exists and seldom releases figures pertaining to the poor population. In 2011, three video bloggers were arrested for reporting on poverty in the kingdom’s capital. The group of young men released a YouTube video on the actual conditions of Riyadh, as well as personal interviews and comments made by beggars in the community. After the video was viewed almost 800,000 times, the Saudi police arrested the boys, sending out a clear message to other young Saudis not to engage in any similar behavior.
The bloggers online show, “We Are Being Cheated,” raises many questions in the international community: How can countries so rich not do anything about their poor?
Although Saudi Arabia’s economy is one of the most powerful in the world, welfare programs have not kept up with the booming population that is now estimated to be over 28 million people. With little disclosed information on the poor citizens, it is hard to know how many Saudis live below the poverty line. However, private estimates suggest poverty in Riyadh affects about 2-4 million people. Analysts consider living on 530 dollars a month, or 17 dollars a day, to be the poverty line in Saudi Arabia.
Unemployment among 15-24 year olds plays a huge factor in the growing poor population. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 28.3 percent of the youth are unemployed. The percentage of unemployed females is almost 35 percent higher than unemployed males, demonstrating that gender imbalances and power struggles are very much present in Saudi Arabia.
In an Islamic society where men are supposed to be the breadwinners and provide for the family, women have a difficult time entering the workforce once the male figure is gone. In many instances, widowed women or women who have disabled spouses cannot finds jobs due to societal prejudices and gender discrimination. In addition, stay-at-home mothers who quickly have to find a way to feed their family often cannot due to lack of education and skills.
The country has roughly 16 million Saudis making up most of the workforce, with the remaining being foreign workers. As the young population struggles to find work, the poverty rate continues to increase. Government statistics display that almost two-thirds of the population is under thirty, and three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their twenties.
King Abdullah has made some efforts in battling poverty-related issues, but no lasting impacts have been made. In 2011, the Saudi government pledged to address the issues of poverty and gave out a 37 billion dollar handout in an apparent bid to bring the country’s poor back on their feet. The money helped with unemployment benefits, raising wages and providing affordable houses, but the people of Riyadh need more than free money. They need long-term solutions.
– Leeda Jewayni