RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Today, Saudi Arabia stands as a stark reminder that even the richest of the world’s countries contain a population of people who live at or below the poverty level. With one of the strongest economies in the world backed by an enormous oil industry, the kingdom is largely perceived in terms of its wealth and grandeur. In light of this, it is surprising to hear that an estimated quarter of the Saudi Arabian population lives in poverty.
Indeed, the Saudi government has long made efforts to ensure that such a circumstance was not well known. The subject of poverty was considered taboo to discuss within Saudi Arabia for many years. It was not until 2002 when King Abdullah (then crown prince) visited a slum that it was openly covered by the media. Even in 2011 three video bloggers were jailed for making a video about Saudis living in poverty.
King Abdullah himself is a prime example of the exorbitant wealth disparity within his country – with a personal fortune of $18 billion, Forbes estimates him to be the third richest royal in the world. Anger and resentment have reached new levels as Saudis see the lavish spending habits of their King, both personally and professionally, while unemployment rates skyrocket.
The country operates a welfare system based on the Islamic system of zakat, which is a religious requirement for all individuals and businesses to donate 2.5% of their wealth to charity. Ideally, this should provide for reliable social welfare. While the country does spend billions each year to finance free education, free healthcare, and other such welfare programs, the government is markedly corrupt, meaning that vast sums of money end up in the pockets of the royals instead.
The growing unrest amongst impoverished in Saudi Arabia reached a boiling point in August when #الراتب_مايكفي_الحاجة became the sixteenth most popular hashtag of any language on Twitter, accompanying an average of 1.2 million tweets a day. Pictures and videos of the country’s beggars and slums have joined many of the tweets to help drive home the point. The phrase, which roughly translates to, “the salary does not meet my needs,” shows the insistence of the poor to make their suffering and economic injustices known. This campaign has been met with some surprise, given the traditional cultural privacy of Saudis. Nevertheless, it stands as a testament to the fact that a new generation of Saudis has arisen, and they are not content to be ignored by their government.
Their choice of Twitter as their platform stands as further proof of the role that social media can play in social reform. Despite poverty still being considered a largely taboo topic for media outlets, the citizens themselves have an alternative means to let their voices be heard. The continued popularity of the hashtag shows that Saudi Arabia’s poor are no longer willing to be silently overlooked.
– Rebecca Beyer