The Saudi Poverty Line and Freedom of Press

The minister of Social Affairs recently made a statement that there are 1.5 million Saudis under the poverty line. Everyone knows that there are poor in Saudi but to have it stated as such a matter of fact has gotten some to take notice. Two quite outspoken Saudis just won’t let it go. The first is Mohammed Al Ritayan from Al Watan Newspaper. He has written two articles on the issue. The latest was published yesterday. In the beginning he sarcastically comments on how expensive the minister’s office furniture looks in the interview photos. Then he moves on to make mathematical calculations that prove that the minister’s number was underestimated. He argues that the real number of poor is no less than 25% of all Saudis. Then he ends the article with a remark that regardless of whether his calculation are correct or not, even the minister’s number is shameful considering that Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world!

The second Saudi to speak out is a social activist, Trad Al Asmari. He has gone one step further by producing and directing a documentary on Saudi Arabia’s poor. In it a Saudi security guard recounts his struggle.


Title: My salary is one thousand riyals (267 dollars)

Security Guard: “No accommodations, no insurance, no education, no hospital expenses cover, not even for our kids. They (employer) give us absolutely nothing. They won’t even give us health insurance. They basically just give us our salaries and say good-bye. Now I’ve been working here for three to four years. I should have at least health insurance. I live in this misery. I should at least be covered under the company’s health insurance plan. But no, three years and still I am at loss.”

Newspaper headline: Saudi family under the claw of poverty: Only dream is to own a tent

Director’s question: Is every working Saudi outside the circle of poverty?

Security guard: “My whole salary is 1200 to 1300 riyals. It is not enough for rent, my kid’s expenses, school supplies. We have kids, we have…lots of things. It’s not enough. 800 goes to rent. I end up with maybe 300 riyals. It’s not enough with six kids and household expenses…water…electricity. It doesn’t cover it all.”

Director’s note: For a Saudi, it takes 1600 riyals monthly to sustain them without factoring in rent. Accordingly, a monthly income of 1200 is considered beneath the poverty line.

Director’s note: The courage of a King

King Abdullah quote: “Hearing of is not like seeing and responsibility goes beyond offices. The problem of poverty cannot be cured improvisationally.”

Newspaper headline: The King visits poor districts

Director’s note: The king of the people and friend to the poor


There are some who deny their (the poor’s) existence

Newspaper headline: Government committee finishes discussing poverty in one meeting and ensures the limitedness of the problem.

Director’s note: Why deny their existence?

Security guard: “In this problem we are lost. We can’t do anything and every time we try to complain no one listens and they keep throwing blame around. Everyone I go to tells me it’s not their job. You can never get answers. No one takes responsibility. “

Director’s note:  They live among us

They are hurt and too modest to beg

Quran verse translation: (Charity is) for those in need, who, in Allah’s cause are restricted (from travel), and cannot move about in the land, seeking (For trade or work): the ignorant man thinks, because of their modesty, that they are free from want. Thou shalt know them by their (Unfailing) mark: They beg not importunately from all the sundry. And whatever of good ye give, be assured Allah knoweth it well.

Security guard: “Of course I finish work at eight completely tired out. I barely have time to see my family over dinner and then it’s another day’s work. So I can’t make any good use of my time. I don’t even have time to spend with my kids.I can’t take them out. I only go to and from work, from 8am to 8pm. We as Saudis should get our complete rights.”

Director’s note: One saudi citizen asks

Who says I don’t live here?

Poverty is a huge problem here with more and more people falling into it because of inflation. Logically with the demand on expatriate workers, this should not be. The government won’t assign a minimum wage and I can see their point of view. With millions if not billions of riyals seeping out of the country through expatriate workers’ salaries, assigning a minimum wage would only raise the money going out. And even though nationality discrimination  is widely accepted here, fortunately, the government will not stoop that low. The issue is multi-dimensional and the solution is beyond me. However to have these two men  openly speak out and criticize without fear of prosecution is a tremendous step forward.

On a more personal note, last year I drew up a complete business plan for an after school center. The plan provided part-time jobs for seven Saudi women with a minimum salary of 3000 riyals. My target employee was enthusiastic college students or young school teachers looking for a second job. And my target clientele was two income families whose both parents have full time jobs i.e. mothers who hold jobs in the medical or banking sector. I had an investor signed up. All I needed was to launch the project. But I had to put the whole thing on the back burner because of all the red tape and bureaucratic nonsense.


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7 responses to “The Saudi Poverty Line and Freedom of Press

  1. I like how you are able to see the issue through different p.o.v’s, because I think the problem we have with the press–additional to lack of freedom–is lack specialization and ability to realize the complexity of issues at hand. One may argue that it is not the job of the reporter or journalist to be an economist or sociologist, however, the least required I believe is expertise within the very field of journalism to better serve the issues rather than straight burn them–to be present as sufficient gov’ts where gov’ts are absent or absented.

    I believe we are at a milestone with our economical situation in SA.

  2. p.s,
    The documentary was GREAT!

  3. I do think a minnimum wage is required here. The govrnment needs to step up and demand companies to think of their employees. While the government already has saudization as a policy, part of the saudization can be completed with a minnimum wage. The security guard has a job most likely to it being a saudidized position (which is the case with most security guards) so set a minnimum wage and benefit package.

    The government should also do more to help such families live in poverty. A social network where aid can be provided without having to beg. A person should be able to keep their dignity. But they shouldn’t have to keep it even while having their family living in a tent like we see way to often.

    I would also argue that doing away with many expatriate workers and having saudis do the job is needed. Why can’t Saudis be garbage men, making a good wage, like the US? With the salarys of 4-5 Indians to do the job 2 saudis can be employed and make money. No iqama fees, no housing fees, no food fees, no medical fees, no flight fees, all of which can make for a decent salary for a saudi.

    I don’t see why there should be 10 indian workers digging a whole for the roads department. Get two saudis and give them the salaries of the 10, that is decent money.

    My list can continue as it is a long list. But I think self reliance in sustaining many aspects of the Kingdom are a necessary part in beating poverty.

  4. ihudaif

    I’m very tired of these whom insist that Saudis are rich, intentionally, betraying themselves and the public. Lots of reasons caused these people to be broke, first, segregation of the fortune and secondly, not paying the Zakat (which is one of the Islamic laws, where lots of companies do not compel to) to the poor. I really appreciate your article … please continue that way.

  5. lola

    Dear Sir,
    Mr Mohammed Al Ritayan,

    All our congratulations for yr article, you focus on
    a point that hurts directly deep inside Saudi jet-set
    people .Inchallah, with many sensibilisation compaigns
    gvt welfare state will react .

    A lot hs to be done , like
    Creating free associations to visit poor districts
    To submit a minimum wage / per person
    Donnations to families with minimum wages

    A lot reremain to be done ALLAH BLESS YOU .

    Best regards

  6. Pingback: Poverty in KSA « Saudiwoman’s Weblog

  7. faridbaig

    The Honourable
    King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz
    Custodian of Holy Places
    Saudi Arabia,

    In the name of ALLAH the most beneficent the most merciful. May ALLAH shower his blessing on his Last Messenger (Peace & Blessings may ALLAH be upon him)


    I want to draw your kind attention towards the huge three buildings in front of HOLY KABBA, those buildings reflect the image of Christian slab (presume in enclosed two pictures).

    Being a Muslim, I recommend the level of all three buildings must be same in length. Either two sided buildings are must be more constructed (ramps) according to the mid one or clock tower (middle building) must be demolished as per the length of sided two buildings.
    I am strongly requesting to your honour that buildings must be re-constructed and privilege must be given to our Holy KABBA.
    Submitted for your quick & early action please.

    Farid Baig –Pakistani
    Cell # 92-0322-8152027
    Cell # 92-0333-7839530

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