Rags and Riches in Saudi Arabia

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Lurking behind its renowned title as one of the world’s leading exporters of oil, behind even the rims of its luxury vehicles and sleek skyscrapers, is a stifling secret. Although Saudi Arabia has progressed enormously within the past two decades to become among the richest nations in the world, especially within the Arab sphere, it also a kingdom that has been stroked by the far-flung hands of poverty.

In fact, the number of poor people in Saudi Arabia is estimated at nearly a quarter of the nation’s total population. Little data is provided by Saudi officials, but it is estimated that approximately two million to four million of the nation’s residents survive on just $17 per day. Furthermore, due to Saudi Arabia’s strict enforcement of Islamic laws, women struggle to find adequate high-income jobs. Although this restriction is not necessarily a great financial burden for married women, women who are single, widowed, or divorced may struggle to support their families. Indeed, the poorest families in Saudi Arabia are households led by single mothers.

As a whole, impoverished individuals, male or female, are more apt to remain caught in a cycle of poverty, a demanding condition in itself that has been exacerbated by the tendency of the vast majority of Saudi Arabians to ignore the destitution of their homeland.

The Saudi government has also played quite an influential hand in the nation’s alarming obliviousness of its own poverty by often taking a stand against raising poverty awareness. Take, for example, how in 2011, virtual bloggers working on an informative and insightful documentary on the poverty in Saudi Arabia were arrested and jailed. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many critics accuse the kingdom of placing the lavish reputation of the kingdom above the well-being on its people.

On the other hand, under the reign of King Abdullah, the kingdom has made progress towards addressing its furtive poverty problem. For instance, the government allocates billions of dollars in funds each year to provide cost-free education and health care opportunities to its poor along with a plethora of other social welfare programs. Since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic nation, these welfare programs are largely supported by zakat, a tenant of the Islamic faith in which followers are encouraged to donate 2.5 percent of their income to charitable causes.

Despite these government interventions, many Saudi Arabians remain hesitant towards recognizing the kingdom’s poverty and critics remain adamant about their conviction that the Saudi government is more preoccupied with preserving the idyllic and lavish vision of the nation rather than adequately combating the destitution. Although the Saudi government has provided multiple forms of social welfare in hopes of easing families as they battle poverty, by failing to address the population’s general ignorance of poverty within kingdom walls, a deeper source of the problem remains unresolved.

Phoebe Pradhan

Sources: NPR, The Guardian
Photo: Bad Perm

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