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Saudi Arabia now has a new working class

Badria al-Bishr

Published: Updated:

The minute a Saudi citizen wrote on Twitter complaining that "salaries alone are no longer enough" to live off, thousands of tweets and followers came in response. But the continuous complaints among citizens that their salaries are not sufficient is where misjudgement mixes with excessive economic inflation.

A woman complained that she cannot afford to pay the salary of a housemaid. A man complained of paying installments for a new car as well as to paying salaries less than $500. He who hears us complain of poverty as such would be surprised and would as whether we are a Gulf society living in the lap of luxury. Do we live according to a dysfunctional structure that makes a housemaid, a car, fatty meals and living in villas a necessity? Or do we just imitate others? It's true that we have national economic struggles, and this shows when a Saudi complains they we cannot afford to pay the salary of a driver since women cannot go to work or schools or anywhere else by themselves considering they are not allowed to drive cars.

In addition to price increases and the excessive desire of consumption which has spread in Gulf societies, a new social class is sliding towards poverty.

Badria al-Bishr

But such knotty complaints do not mean that economic inflation in Saudi Arabia does not threaten to expand poverty and end up creating a new poorer class. Ministries and governmental institutions still need employees. But they've begun to cooperate with companies that are not part of the institution to hire employees in order to decrease costs. These companies find Saudi employees who accept to work with lower salaries without any guarantees, benefits, paid vacations, health insurance or retirement pensions. Instead of having these employees work directly for the ministry or the institution, they are hired indirectly, in a manner close to forced labor, and they buy these employees' efforts with the least of costs, without making any professional guarantees.

The desire to consume

In addition to price increases and the excessive desire of consumption which has spread in Gulf societies, a new social class is sliding towards poverty. These new categories include fresh college graduates who are suffering from the lack of job opportunities that suit their limited skills. Add to them the victims of a generation who studied commerce and obtained diplomas which promised them college degrees with reduced instalments but which ended up qualifying them for postponed unemployment. We now have a new class of university graduates to be called the new working class in the future. They will most probably have low income, while at the same time confronting strict Saudi traditions, as they live in big families which aspire to have a large number of children.

They are also confronting the high cost of real estate, cars and goods, the absence of health and government insurance and the deterioration of governmental education. It has become self-evident that a man with a low income would not think of enrolling his child at a public school, not because he wants better education but because he would want a school which air conditioner is always working in the summer and has drinking water fountains in the school hallways. This is why the number of private schools that only provide these services are increasing.

The government has a lot of solutions. But housing loans should be the first of these solutions. Providing means of public transportation is another solution. But for any solution to be effective, controlling prices is a must. This cannot be carried out by calling on merchants to fear God and act with good intents. There are commercial solutions that other Gulf societies have endorsed. They are commercial cooperatives. The latter will contribute to stabilizing the prices of goods. The more these cooperatives spread, the less the merchants will compete to raise prices and will therefore compete to lower prices instead. There are loyal economic experts among us capable of devising strategies to deal with the mess.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 27, 2013.

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Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies. Twitter: @BadryahAlbeshr

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