The Middle East Channel

Saudis sound off on the economy

Saudis sound off on the economy

A Saudi-initiated, Internet-based campaign called "The Salary Doesn’t Meet My Needs" that was launched in mid July has taken cyberspace by storm. The petition circulating via Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp instant messaging service is an appeal by "thousands of Saudi youths, employees of both the public and private sector and retirees" to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to find a solution to what they deem to be the disconnect between their salaries and the increasing cost of living in the kingdom. The organizers hope to collect 10 million signatures.

Unlike previous petitions that called for various political reforms, this one has the potential to cut across sectarian, regional, generational, and gender cleavages that have thus far made mass mobilization of any sort in Saudi Arabia incredibly difficult. Should authorities respond to it in some fashion — even by merely acknowledging that prices of basic goods and services are in need of tighter regulation — it would signal a new and potentially powerful addition to the repertoire of tools available to Arab youths across the region who want to affect change. That is especially the case for those who want to eschew violence and who deem mass protests unfeasible and politically too risky. 

However, while the use of social media to galvanize public support for this ever increasing issue of concern might get the attention of Saudi leaders relatively quickly, how the government addresses it for the long run is not entirely clear. One thing is more certain, the online campaign has opened a discussion among Saudis with potentially far reaching implications not just for the future but also for the "ruling bargain" on which the modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded.

It is virtually impossible to scroll through a Saudi-related Twitter feed or browse a Saudi-focused online discussion forum without seeing some reference to the campaign. Even mainstream Saudi newspapers have found it impossible to ignore, one of which reported recently that the Twitter hashtag dedicated to the campaign — the most illuminating component of the drive — is shattering records, having registered over 17 million tweets in a little over two weeks after its launch. Analyses by two websites that track internet traffic and trends on Twitter indicate that the campaign’s hashtag maintained an average of 1,214,000 tweets a day and 50,600 tweets an hour during that time period. That made it the most popular hashtag in Arabic and 16th on the list of the most popular hashtags in any language. 

It is not surprising that this long-discussed disparity between salaries and the prices of basic commodities like milk, cooking oil, and rice — along with sharp hikes in real estate that bear the unmistakable mark of a bubble — has pushed some Saudis to utilize social media to make what they hope to be a direct appeal to the king himself to redress their grievances. However, those who lump Saudi Arabia — a country of close to 30 million people — with the tiny, nearby principalities of Qatar and Dubai are bound to find the news articles, photographs, and videos that are being attached to the campaign’s Twitter hashtag, startling.

The links are clearly meant to not only highlight the increasing difficulties that average Saudis are having just trying to stay afloat but also that, in accordance with Saudi standards and sensibilities, some citizens are living in abject poverty. The links mostly show native Saudis — often elderly or children — begging in the streets, sifting through trash bins for food, or living in dilapidated homes or even tin-roofed huts.

A clip of an interview by a reporter for the news channel Al Ikhbaria with an elderly widow is particularly revealing. In it, the woman makes an impassioned plea for assistance and speaks candidly about her inability to provide the bare minimum for herself and five daughters, all of whom she says are divorced and have a minimum of three children and absentee husbands. She laments the fact that social security doesn’t come close to covering her needs, forcing her to rely on the generosity of other citizens who donate food, clothes, and other necessities.

This may be a rather extreme case of a Saudi in dire straits. However, judging from the over 1,300,000 hits the clip has generated on YouTube thus far, it clearly hit a nerve with some Saudis. The video provided a window into some of the social maladies with which Saudi society — like any other in the world — is coming to terms.

Another interesting image posted to the hashtag cited the recent $5 billion aid package to Egypt and juxtaposed it with an image of a decrepit, elderly Saudi couple laying on a straw mat, with a caption asking rhetorically "aren’t they more worthy?" According to a prominent Saudi reform advocate I spoke with, it was this relatively large foreign aid package that spurred a small group of young Saudis to launch the campaign to express their displeasure at what they perceived as the government’s warped priorities.

The hashtag also reveals that some Saudis even lament the recently announced $22 billion Riyadh metro project, billed as the largest modern metro system currently under development in the world. Authorities portray the enormous undertaking as the crown jewel of the many projects that have transformed Saudi Arabia from a sparsely populated desert into a modern state whose citizens have access to the best technological innovations known to man.

While there seems to be widespread agreement among large swaths of Saudi society that the growing poverty and more frequent belt tightening is a problem, a vocal minority that includes some Saudi journalists and writers, has launched a counteroffensive and is raising questions not only about the spending habits of some Saudis — with some writers directly accusing Saudis of being profligate — but more importantly, some seem to suggest that Saudis need to temper their expectations and to stop their heavy reliance on the government.

A YouTube clip that has circulated among participants in Saudi chat rooms for quite some time and which depicts a heated exchange between a farmer and the Saudi minister of agriculture captures this sentiment in dramatic fashion: responding to the farmer’s complain that he doesn’t have enough vaccines for his cattle," the minister angrily retorts: "Do you want the government to provide you with everything for free? Go and buy it [yourself]." 

So far, the only government reaction to "The Salary Doesn’t Meet My Needs" has been in the form of a short but extremely critical statement issued by the secretary general of the Council of Ministers, Abdul Rahman Al Sadhan, during an interview conducted by the Saudi daily, Al Watan. Al Sadhan said that the drive "is lead by individuals who are envious that the kingdom lives in security and stability midst the turmoil that some countries in the world are undergoing." Ironically, this sort of dismissive attitude and the concomitant attempt to question people’s intentions — much more common among non-royal officials than senior princes — has raised the ire of Saudis, and increased their frustrations. That largely explains why the petition is addressed directly to the king.

What may appear to some Saudis as a simple fix to the problem — a royal decree ordering an increase in government salaries and pensions — others are directly cautioning against, citing the rapidly changing demographics of the kingdom, the volatility of oil markets, and the still narrow economic base of the economy, which remains largely reliant on oil revenue. The most recent high profile Saudi to ring the alarm bell about the need for economic diversification is non-other than billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, who oddly enough, expressed his concerns via an open letter addressed to the Saudi oil minister that was reposted on the prince’s Twitter account. 

Critics of the online campaign have raised some valid points, the most important of which is whether it’s realistic for Saudis to continue to expect the government to reach into its coffers to help balance the budgets of each of its citizens. That too, is untenable, they argue. 

The Saudi economy — much like many across the Middle East — is a hybrid that combines a free market with a state that plays a strong role through not only regulation, but also by carefully planning and funding the development of the country. It also maintains a huge public sector which some analysts estimate employs as many as nine out of every 10 Saudis. The government has pumped billions of dollars into education, housing, and healthcare in the hope of preparing its young population to compete in a global economy. While a country like Qatar, whose native population is a few hundred thousand and whose natural gas deposits are exceeded only by Russia’s and Iran’s might come close to eradicating poverty completely, other countries cannot realistically be expected to do so.

Young Saudis have to come to terms with the reality that in a modern state of Saudi Arabia’s size, there is bound to be some public sector inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption, and cronyism, as well as greed and unscrupulousness among some in the business community.

These problems — some development experts have argued — are especially endemic to developing counties. Despite its wealth, Saudi Arabia is still a relatively young state that is in the middle — if not early — stages of development. 

The government’s efforts to diversify the economy, create jobs, and replace the estimated nine million expatriates with Saudis could very well pay dividends and help ameliorate some of the hardships about which an an increasing number of Saudis are complaining. However, being the world’s biggest, single repository of crude oil — and the birthplace of Islam — does not guarantee a Utopian existence in which the public sector operates like clockwork, government planners are all visionaries, and for-profit enterprises "answer to a higher source."

Nevertheless, Saudi leaders need to stress that while they might have been thought of as "shepherds" looking after a "flock" when the "ruling bargain" between them and the people was first struck, it might be instructive to think of them now as mere "custodians" of the county with the people at large in the driver’s seat. It is not a coincidence that "the people are our greatest asset" has become a mantra of sorts among Saudi officials. This message will have to be amplified and repeated.

This paradigm shift will not happen overnight and will not be easy especially as average Saudis remain acutely aware of the extravagant royal palaces in their midst and as they continue to hear about lavish "Disney" vacations that cost millions of dollars in which some Saudis still indulge.

Nevertheless, the online campaign is one of several indicators of a political maturation process among the Saudi populace. Next must come a critical juncture in which the Saudi state will have to reevaluate its responsibilities to the people of Saudi Arabia and in which the citizens will have to redefine their obligations to their country. They must reach a consensus regarding the parameters of what is entailed by being Saudi. In short, the "ruling bargain" needs to be reconfigured.

Fahad Nazer is a political analyst with JTG Inc, in Vienna, Virginia. His writing has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Yaleglobal online, Al Monitor, and was recently featured on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. His writing was also included in "The Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Challenge of the 21st Century," Mark Huband and Joshua Craze eds, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @fanazer.