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Saudi Arabia – Is a Welfare State Enough?

March 21, 2011

This morning my wife and I were eating breakfast at our holiday resort in the lush island of Phuket. As we looked around the restaurant at our fellow guests – most of them European – I noticed one striking feature about them. None were smiling, let alone giving any other sign that they were enjoying themselves. In fact they were going about the business of eating with a look of gloomy determination. True, it’s difficult to smile when you’re eating. But even in breaks between foraging, couples and families were sitting at tables mainly in stone-faced silence.

Then I looked at the Thai staff, whose job it was to keep the coffee flowing, clear away the plates, set the tables and replenish the mountains of food from the central buffet. They were smiling. Not just the professional smile of the obliging waitress, but amongst themselves. Laughter, good humour, enjoyment of each other’s company.

Their wealth would be a fraction of the average holidaymaker’s. Yet they looked like the ones on holiday.

A few weeks ago I was visiting a Saudi friend in his house. He doesn’t live in a palace, but it’s a spacious, well-furnished and comfortable home nonetheless. As we sat drinking coffee and discussing recent events in the Middle East, the conversation turned to reported wealth of Hosni Mubarak and Zine Ben Ali. Why did these men feel the need to amass their millions and billions? For the sake of their families? As insurance against their overthrow? Or was it because they could? Because extreme wealth was a mark of their success?

If they wanted to provide for a comfortable retirement in exile, surely tens of millions would be enough, not tens of billions?

“You know, sometimes I think that wealth is the punishment of Allah”, said my friend. We swapped quotations on the subject of wealth from the Quran and the Sermon on the Mount. Each has a different take on camels passing through the eye of a needle, but the meaning is more or less the same.

His remark often comes to mind, especially when I think of his country. For most of the Saudi Royal Family, wealth is not a novelty. Only the very oldest of them, King Abdullah for example, can remember a time before their country was blessed – or cursed – with great wealth. Most members of his family were born into wealth and privilege. So for them, wealth is not a matter of having a roof over their heads and food on the table. It is a matter of competition between peers – who has the largest palace, the best private jet, the most successful business, the most prestige.

As a family, they will also be aware of those who are jealous of their wealth, and have been very adept at seeing off threats to their pre-eminent position in the society that they conquered by the sword and forged by largesse from the ground. They are as politically astute as any ruling class. They saw off Gamal Abdul Nasser’s attempt to absorb them into a secular pan-Arab empire. They have seen off – so far – the threat of Al Qaeda and its predecessors. And now, as the youth of the Arab world rises in revolt against autocracy and what they see as a lack of personal and political freedom, the King and his ministers have responded to unrest in their country by disbursing billions in welfare programmes. Hundreds of thousands of new homes, salary increases and a minimum wage for government employees, increases in education budgets, and a stipend for the unemployed.

The calculation is that the King can say to his subjects: “you’ve never had it so good. Why would you want political freedoms when the state provides so much for your comfort and well-being?”

And they have a point. For most of remembered history a people would look at times like these as golden days. They would not expect a say in how they are governed. They would rejoice in prosperity and peace. They would thank God that they could feed their children and live in a country not threatened by invaders or civil war.

That has been the achievement of the Saudi Royal Family over the past eighty years of the Kingdom’s existence. Many other countries similarly blessed with mineral resources have felt the curse of their wealth – Iraq, Iran and Libya for example.

The Saudis have maintained their social equilibrium not – as is commonly believed – through autocracy, but by creating a consensus within the competing stakeholders of their country – their own family, the tribal leaders, the religious leaders and the business leaders. By striking a balance between these interests, and ruthlessly acting against individual and group dissent, they have maintained their own power and by and large allowed their people to live in peace.

But the people of Saudi Arabia no longer live in social and cultural isolation. Millions watch Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands study in countries where people can say what they think, believe what they like, dress as they wish and change their leaders with a vote in a ballot box. Many will learn from the finest Western minds while thanking God that the society they will be returning to is free of the moral depravity of the West. Others will yearn for the freedoms that their fellow-students from America, Britain and Australia enjoy – the right to vote, to protest, to aspire to be president or prime minister, to blog, write books and make movies without fear of censorship.

So will the King’s new initiatives be enough to satisfy his people? Will they take the view of a friend of the eminent Saudi blogger, Ahmed Al Omran, who cannot understand why there is a section of society that seeks political reform when the government has done so much to assure the welfare of its people? Or will the reformers resort to more extreme measures to ensure that their voices are heard? Ahmed’s post is here.

The King’s measures have been widely welcomed. He is loved and respected by the vast majority of his people.

But niggling questions remain.

Will increased benefits for government employees further disincentivise Saudis from seeking careers in the private sector, which many see as insecure? There are only so many government jobs that Saudi Arabia can create. So will the private sector become even more populated by foreigners, further undermining the government’s efforts to put its people to work?

Will Saudis prefer to remain unemployed now that they receive monthly welfare payments? Many of the unemployed of Saudi Arabia are not like those in Western countries – the strong family structure in the Kingdom means that there are not so many youngsters living on their own in social housing. Unemployed sons and daughters tend to remain within the protective bosom of the extended family. Will the Kingdom’s social problems – drug abuse for example – be exacerbated through increasing numbers of bored and aimless youngsters?

Watching my fellow holidaymakers tuck into their breakfasts in gloomy silence reminds me that wealth is not the secret of happiness. Most of us – once we have achieved a modicum of comfort – need more out of life. We need risk, excitement, success, and yes, failure. We need to walk without our parents being on hand to stop us falling. We need to make our own choices according to our individual consciences. We need to find joy in our journeys as well as in reaching our destinations.

I’m sure that this is what King Abdullah wants for his people, too – but not at the cost civil disorder. Whether his recent measures turn out to be enough to satisfy those in his country who want more than a comfortable life from cradle to grave remains to be seen.

  1. Brilliant post Steve. Fundamental issues taken up with such simplicity.

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