I spent Eid al-Fitr in my hometown in Medina. I was looking for the ordinary joy on friends and family faces. There were a lot of happy faces of course, but with a certain degree of expected complaints in any society that endures the high cost of living and high rates of unemployment, as well as the government’s action to treat the unemployment crisis.
Many of the city's residents are traders and they are now suffering from narrow Saudization procedures imposed on them by the Ministry of Labor; some believe that it will not solve the problem, but rather may push them out of the market. The second traditional complaint for Medina residents and all other Saudis is the distancing between family members or loved ones; the usual romance and nostalgia brought back to life during the holidays.
Everyone got involved in a Twitter campaign that a Saudi young man had created, which states “the salary doesn’t meet our needs.” This hashtag turned into an economic subject for columnists and a debate over whether salaries are enough and deep economic analysis saying that the problem is due to local and international inflation, while the country has restrained its choices with a support policy that helps traders before helping the citizens.
We would then get back to the normal societal rules that we had witnessed before the oil boom and that we still see in the cities of the developed world where we go every summerJamal Khashoggi
Debates on the economy are useful for any society. They motivate people to search for solutions that maintain the stability of communities. Stability has become the main concern for the Saudi citizen, especially when he sees the situation of other Arabs around him, whose leaders did not work on the economy, lives and means of support of their citizens but rather were preoccupied with governance and political disputes.
What is the solution that will economically and socially relieve Saudi citizens so that they would be happy and satisfied on the next Eid? Of course this will not happen by 2014 or the year after because a plan needs many years to be functional. The Saudi Ministry of Labor has already started to amend the conditions of foreign workers through its controversial decisions, which are irrespective of state regulations and Saudization.
I also believe that there are two things that would contribute to fix the economic and social situation: Zoning and shortening working hours. We would then get back to the normal societal rules that we had witnessed before the oil boom and that we still see in the cities of the developed world where we go every summer, in the decision-making countries in particular. Those peaceful and elegant cities close their stores in licensed areas at a specific hour of the night or during the day, and then quietness reigns over the city with some restaurants remaining open to welcome happy citizens after working hours.
I did not find a single word in Arabic that would translate the trending word ‘Zoning,’ which is the basis of what urban planners are studying; most of the planners are graduates of American or British universities and have studied the “separate science areas” in the faculties of urban planning and civil engineering, where the areas of the expanded city and the new neighborhood are distributed between residential and commercial areas. There should be offices in some areas and shops in others, along with workshops and services.
I have previously asked a mayor about zoning and he said that they have put modern schemes for all cities in Saudi Arabia in the seventies - i.e. during the first years of the country’s boom at all levels - but these schemes were distorted because of exceptions and intercessions, described by the mayor as the “incurable disease” - and this has opened a door for corruption that led to the collapse of the planned schemes. What worsened the situation were the first migration from the rural and remote areas and villages to major cities, and the relocation of foreign labor, which gradually expanded and at least constituted a third of the Saudi population. Saudi citizens have left their typical neighborhoods that the speaker described as “neighborhoods outside the initial wall.” Saudi citizens moved to small elegant neighborhoods around the downtown and then later kept moving further away, causing the expansion of the city and chaos, along with the increase in the cost of the services.
Applying zoning rules that rely on the separation between commercial and residential neighborhoods would be the best solution for the Saudization of the job market. Most of the stores that are silently crawling into the residential neighborhoods will be closed if zoning was applied and will lead to the unemployment of a few hundred thousand foreign workers. The second required resolution is limiting the stores’ hours of operation. This will encourage Saudis to enter the retail market and gain control over it again after it has become a more profitable market, and does no longer require long hours of work that destroys a normal social life. There is a happy life that the citizen should enjoy: a friend or relative visiting him or a football game to watch after working hours.
Let us go back to our old traditions. I heard someone in Medina say: “my work hours were consistent with my social life. I go to my shop early in the morning; I used to open the store and close it by myself. After the noon prayers I go back to my house, which was close to my work. After the Asr prayer, I would get back to the store, where I stay for an hour or so after evening prayers, and then come back home or visit some friends. Our life was happy until another shop started to open for longer hours, and then handed the key of the store to his foreign employee, and later fully handed the shop to the foreign worker; consequently, I had to do the same.”
We must search for smaller cities, less stores, and more homogeneous citizens who know each other better… This is what life should normally be, anything otherwise is wrong and our society must be restructured.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 25, 2013.
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.