People all over world share one dream: a job and a house. Saudi citizens have the same dream. That is why the government announced it would provide millions of its citizens with housing, and it has become an issue. Why is the government late in fulfilling its promise? Why didn’t it pay the promised loans and only spent less than three billion from the promised 66 billion?
Even though the happiest people are those who do not know the governments and are not known by the governments, this has become impossible now. In the past, the majority was made up of peasants and shepherds who could live independently, but now the government is administering the minutest details of their lives, and it only makes sense that the government becomes responsible and accountable for their needs and dreams.
The housing project is a developmental, economic, social, and of course political action. If the government keeps its promises, it might be one of the world’s biggest projects. There are two ways to make this project materialize: to give citizens the money or give them the keys. It is better if the government gives each citizen half a million riyals and lets him manage his own business while making sure that the prices of basic construction materials are regulated. The less favorable option is that the government handles the construction process.
Thirty years ago, the country witnessed a new urban experience when Saudi citizens built their own houses benefiting from interest-free government loans, and that is how most new cities were built. What the government constructed was a failure, and the government itself admitted that. This will not change a lot today no matter how many Chinese or Irish experts are consulted or no matter how many international companies are involved and how much money they get. A house, with all its details, is a personal choice, and government engineers cannot impose their taste on the people. Even after the construction is finished and the houses are handed over, official bodies will definitely face several problems when it comes to the distribution of addresses and locations and will be blamed for every time a faucet is broken or rain water leaks from cracks in the walls.
People will start accusing the government of corruption instead of being thankful for it. Why should the government place itself in a position where it would be accused, while it can let people decide what they want and build their own houses? One of the positive decisions related to this issue was allowing loan seekers to use government support to buy constructed houses instead of the condition that stipulated owning the land or having to build the house. This made things easier for them. The government can impose restrictions to prevent profiteering from government loans like prohibiting the sale of those houses, which is what the government of Abu Dhabi does, or setting a minimum time for living in it. A house, after all, is to be lived in.
The government should learn from the mistakes of others and not take it upon itself to build the houses. Socialist countries failed when they tried to be in charge of people’s needs under the pretext that they will be gentler and fairer than the market. Those governments provided people with electricity and gas, supplied them with bread, sold them cars, and built houses for them. This proved a failure because with the expansion of the government’s services, nepotism, corruption, and inefficiency, it has become rampant. This also contradicts with citizens’ desire to have freedom of choice. It is better to allow people to build through regulating the market and the laws, preventing manipulation, and fixing prices.
There are of course several valid questions that might highlight the disadvantages of allowing citizens to deal with their housing after getting the loan. What is the solution to complicated problems like making housing land available despite the price hikes? In fact, government institutions are responsible for those hikes, since they ban vertical construction, that is multiple-storey buildings, in the cities; and at the same time, allows the owners of vast swathes of land to leave it without building and without paying fees or taxes. So, people are forced to by more land and prices keep hiking. All the pretexts for preventing hikes are not valid and so are the excuses for not bringing land dealers to task. Now, the state has a golden opportunity to reconsider the entire issue in a comprehensive and cohesive manner. It has railways that can make movement easier and distances shorter and new suburbs can be constructed along train lines. It can close all the areas around the promised railway lines inside and outside the cities and dedicate them to housing projects. During the years in which the railway project is implemented, infrastructure -- like water and electricity -- can be built, while loans and lands in remote areas can be allocated. Within three years, these areas will become populated and linked to cities.
That is why the state should allow citizens to handle their housing and not to play the role of the father then be surprised tomorrow with complaints and accusations.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat n March 30, 2013.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.SHOW MORE