The Saudi cabinet’s approval of a bill to impose taxes on undeveloped urban land, has revived interests in local affairs that were overshadowed by the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. This decision will alter the rules of housing and livelihood without burdening the government budget. It will decrease citizens’ cost of living, and redistribute wealth that has for decades been controlled by rich monopolists.
Saudis are patient, but we must not bet on that. It is enough to take a tour of Riyadh or Jeddah to hear citizens’ complaints regarding the quality of services provided by local administrations.
Time has come to admit that quality of life does not meet the expectations of citizens. This is attested by the millions of Saudis who travel to other countries for their vacations. Local newspapers estimate that 5-8 million Saudi tourists - more than a quarter of the kingdom’s population - spent some $60 billion abroad last summer. Most of those who do not travel abroad for tourism wish they could afford to do so.
Saudi cities are no longer comfortable or enjoyable. Traffic jams are unbearable, and there are no parks or playgrounds. Buildings are very close together, and their locations are not properly planned as commercial entities are moving deep into residential arias . This makes it impossible to find a parking space in front of your house.
Jeddah’s municipality has become incapable of managing, providing or developing basic services. It is even incapable of removing old neglected cars and rubble from its streets, or of covering sewage slots, that waiting until someone falls into one of them? It is time for Saudi cities to progress from a mere state of living to a better quality of life.
The housing crisis and increased land prices have resulted in turning a blind eye to height-restriction laws. This in addition to not taking into account basic requirements that a first-year student in urban planning knows, such as providing parking lots and spaces for gardens and playgrounds, and separating residential and commercial spaces by applying basic zoning rules . Some eastern Jeddah neighborhoods are alarmingly crammed, and their situation is worsening due to lack of planning.
This is the case for all Saudi cities. The public relations manager in Jeddah’s municipality may reply to my article via an elaborate letter detailing the massive costly projects executed by them . But why do the billions spent on these projects fail to reflect the city’s quality of life?
Opinion polls indicate that most Saudis are reluctant about democracy and are not demanding it, but they certainly want a better life. A better life starts by reducing the size of Saudi cities, which expand for no logical economic benefits. If local administrations are incapable of providing services in existing neighborhoods, why are they making plans for new ones?
Saudi cities are no longer comfortable or enjoyable. Traffic jams are unbearable, and there are no parks or playgroundsJamal Khashoggi
Construction in the three biggest cities - Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam - has reached up to 50 kilometers away from the city center, which has many undeveloped spaces due to the monopolization of lands by the wealthy at zero cost. This is more lucrative than investing in gold, which needs guarding and preserving, and requires following up on the stock market and taking risks.
Many solutions have been suggested, such as the aforementioned bill to tax undeveloped urban land, which the government recently approved and the people celebrated. These taxes will contribute to solving part of the problem. The solution should be restoring Saudi society and economy to their ordinary state by driving foreigners out, specifically unskilled cheap labor. This is not a racist stance, but a social and economic solution.
Cheap labor are not experts benefiting us with nanotechnology or solar energy. Most are unprofessional, and do not work in any significant industries. They also compete with Saudi citizens for housing and subsidized food and energy. The worst part is, they are denying young Saudi citizens the chance to acquire work experience.
This has created a dilemma. A Saudi employer complains that a citizen lacks experience and skills, while the citizen complains that he cannot find a job to acquire skills. In the end, the employer prefers to hire a foreign laborer because he has the required skills and accepts a wage lower than the Saudi. So the solution is to remove the foreigner from the equation.
The funds spent by Jeddah on constructing bridges and tunnels are more than that spent by the London and Paris municipalities combined. However, Jeddah still suffers from traffic jams. Therefore, we must develop solutions other than building more bridges and tunnels.
What is needed is a strict system that provides parking spaces, and separates residential and commercial spaces. Decreasing the price of land, due to taxing undeveloped urban areas, will constitute a source of income for the government, and will allow municipalities to turn the undeveloped land into gardens and playgrounds for children and youths, who constitute the majority of the kingdom’s residents.
More importantly, popular participation should be encouraged via neighborhood councils and elected local councils. This allows citizens to interact with the state, and revives the culture of neighborhoods.
On Dec. 28, a second round of municipal elections will be held, and although council jurisdictions have been enhanced a little, further enhancement would allow the inclusion of citizens in the process of holding officials accountable. This will restore the trust of citizens, many of whom did not register to vote in the upcoming municipal elections, because they feel that those who represent them have done very little.
The citizen’s word is the most important, so it is time to say the people want a better quality of life.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct 24, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi