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Could Saudi Arabia really be next?


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

The 2011 popular revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have assumed an almost comical aspect in the social-media-fuelled guessing game of which country will be next to topple. Rule No. 1 of the game is premised on a hierarchy, a “ladder of likelihood” if you like – but that’s rather silly because in this game rules simply don’t apply.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, finance minister Pravin Gordhan predicted South Africa could, “in the long run”, face the same type of unrest currently wreaking havoc in North Africa if joblessness and inequality were not addressed. And as the amiable minister continued to tax the taxed, slap the wrists of gamblers and rip holes in the pockets of the country’s smokers and drinkers, my friend Zama, JoziGoddess on Twitter, announced that she’d much rather be living in Saudi Arabia. No, she wasn’t dreaming of a dusty desert, a rich oil sheik, or for that matter, even a wily Schabir Shaik. She just wanted to know what it would be like to be rich and tax-free – like the Saudis.

For all its reputation of being home to a population living sinfully opulent lives, with oil fields in every backyard and harems in every lounge, Saudi Arabia has this week been fingered as the next scene of the popular uprisings sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East.

For all its wealth – mineral and liquid – Saudi Arabia is not without severe socioeconomic and infrastructural problems.

This is a country with a rapidly shrinking middle-class, stymied by a poor education system, rampant unemployment, widespread corruption, government officials who are stubbornly unaccountable to the public, prolonged detentions without trial and the excesses of some in the royal family. The heavy-handed censorship of the media within the kingdom itself, coupled with the jaundiced focus on Saudi Arabia’s role in US foreign policy in Western media, makes the Gulf state one of the most poorly understood places in the world.

As the recent floods in Jeddah demonstrated, municipal infrastructure in even the most developed cities in the country remains shockingly rudimentary. While the floods this year were not nearly as destructive as the floods of 2009, which are believed to have cost 500 lives, it is an indictment on the Saudi government that these floods could well have been averted if Jeddah simply had an adequate drainage system. Even a few millimetres of rain can prove catastrophic when rain water has nowhere to go except the streets. Disgruntled Saudis have pointed out that other places in the world experience far more rain and pay far less for it, and, while the world’s eyes were trained on Egypt last month, protests broke out in Jeddah as residents gathered to voice their disapproval of city’s poor infrastructure.

If it is striking that the protests, however small, actually took place, it is particularly remarkable these protests were led by women. Days after the flood protests, another protest was staged when 50 women gathered outside the interior ministry to demand the release of male relatives who had been held for years without trial on suspicion of terrorist-related activities. While the women were detained, but later released, it’s clear that women in Saudi Arabia are beginning to push against their marginalisation.

Some 60% of the Saudi population is under 18, and a whopping 28% of working-age youths are unemployed. In stark contrast to other gulf countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, where home-ownership rates exceed 80%, less than 20% of Saudis own homes.

Jeddah, like the capital Riyadh, are cities with third-world skeletons wandering about in first-world clothing. In the shadows of the newly-constructed skyscrapers and mega-malls, people are struggling to eke out a living.

And King Abdullah is certainly not risking his regime on the possibility, however remote, that a festering disappointment may spill out on to the streets.

He has ordered up $36 billion in new welfare grants for his people – which amounts to about $2,000 for every Saudi. For the first time, the government has agreed to establish unemployment allowances for up to a year to help Saudis find jobs. University students studying abroad at their own expense will now receive scholarships, while $266.6 million has been added to social welfare rolls. A further $3.7 billion has been made available for home loans. The government also announced Tuesday that it is setting aside $2.6 million to fund literary clubs and licensed NGOs. Next will be a prisoner release and a cabinet reshuffle. These measures are in addition to $385 billion infrastructure injection, which is intended to halve unemployment by the end of 2014 but is yet to yield results.

In contrast to the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is one gulf state where foreign labourers do not outnumber the local population. For the legions of South Asian, Egyptian, Indonesian and Filipino workers mopping floors, sweeping streets, laying bricks, brewing coffee and waiting tables life in Saudi Arabia is no earthly paradise. These workers are afforded little if any rights, forced to live in appalling conditions, their lives subjected almost entirely to the whims of their employees. Last week a ban was imposed on hiring domestic workers from Indonesia. The decision came, the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, after  “exaggerated reporting in the Indonesian media on the abuse of Indonesian maids by Saudi sponsors”. The global outcry that erupted last year when doctors in Sri Lanka claimed to have extracted 23 nails from the body of a tortured housemaid who returned to Colombo from Riyadh hints at the kinds of abuses unprotected workers in Saudi Arabia are prone to experience.

There is little doubt Saudi Arabia is paying heftily for its historical reliance on imported labour. There is now a flurry of activity aimed at developing skills that have traditionally been imported, but Saudi Arabia’s hospitals, for example, continue to be great employers of South African nurses. So too, private schools, oil fields, industries, hotels and restaurants rely on foreign labour to keep the bottom line sound.

In the past week, in the Gotham City-like echo that Makkah is fast becoming, a strike was reported among construction workers, while in Riyadh 3,000 workers are demanding their rights before calling a general strike on the construction site of the King Abdullah Financial Centre. The workers were said to be very angry, their workplace is one of the largest construction projects in the country, but they are forced to live in appalling conditions. 

It would seem even among workers on the bottom rung of the ladder, a culture of resistance may well be advancing.

The plight of foreign menial workers in Saudi Arabia renders them more ready to revolt against their employers than their employers would be against the government. As we’ve witnessed in Tunisia, it takes just one burning man to incite a rebellion that straddles continents. Bu, unlike the Tunisians, these workers don’t have access to an ideology of freedom to back their cause, nor do they have access to tools such as social media. Although it would be as good as a mass-suicide, a revolt is still far more likely to be seen from the legions of foreign workers in the kingdom than it is from their Saudi employers.

But this does not, of course, detract from the reality of unemployment. The former labour minister of Saudi Arabia, the late Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, caused an outrage when he suggested that one way to cure unemployment in Saudi Arabia was to allow Saudi women to work as maids. And if the furore that erupted after that statement was not enough, Al-Gosaibi also took to working as a waiter in a local restaurant for a day in a plea to convince Saudis to accept low-status jobs. He was widely ridiculed. The road to self-actualisation for Saudis begins with a redefinition of what it means to be a Saudi, an acceptance that the middle-class in the country is a dying breed and survival of the species requires not arms to be taken up, but dirty work.

Last week a pocket of the Shi’a population of the Eastern Province protested in sync with protests in Bahrain. The Shi’ite grievances have centred on religious freedoms, inclusion in Saudi society and equality in winning jobs, but interior minister Prince Naif has summarily dismissed fears that the Shi’ite community poses a threat to Saudi security. While the Shi’ite minority do suffer problems of integration, representatives of the Shi’a community were among the first to pledge allegiance to King Abdullah when he ascended to the throne. Saudi Arabia is no Bahrain.

The  beauty of the uprisings sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East has been the wilful independence from the army of “We know what’s best for the Arab world although we’ve never been there”; these have been popular uprisings that nobody predicted and nobody sponsored. A people are learning to demand self-determination and it’s only a matter of time before Saudis catch on too.

King Abdullah’s return on Wednesday, after surgery in the US and convalescence in Morocco, was timely. Besides the pre-emptive measures he’s taken against any potential revolt with the announcement of the welfare grants, there was also an announcement of a new sports channel on state TV in celebration of his return. I had only to look at the social media profiles of friends in Saudi Arabia the day before the king’s return to realise that, unlike the universal revulsion towards Mubarak among Egyptian friends, the Saudi monarch continues to be revered by his people.

King Abdullah has endeared himself to his public by curbing royal spending on his watch while proposing reforms in education, the courts and women’s rights. These proposed reforms are, of course, yet to see fruition, but they have contributed to the reputation of benevolence in King Abdullah’s government.

This popularity, however, will not forever protect his regime from the harsh realities of the problems of the Saudi people.

In true Egyptian style, “a day of rage” has been planned and promoted on Facebook, and the Saudi government has in turn blocked access to the Facebook page from within Saudi Arabia. But could it really translate to the kind of full-scale revolt we’ve witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt, or indeed, Libya? DM


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