Poverty amid plenty in the Gulf
Many in the Gulf are genuinely convinced that their country is free of poverty, which is a contradiction in a region of plenty
The UN appointed Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has concluded his mission on 19th January and his report focusing on national as opposed to migrant workers’ poverty, makes for some interesting reading.
While there are differences in absolute numbers of those who genuinely need assistance if they fall below defined national poverty line figures in the different Gulf countries, the report makes for some uncomfortable reading, highlighting that poverty encompasses non-financial targets that encompasses women’s right to work and move freely, inhibiting factors that lead to family poverty.
In a country with Gulf countries characteristics, it would be largely meaningless to adopt an absolute line or to attach great significance to the World Bank’s universal extreme poverty line of $1.90 per person per day given a large variance in GCC GDP per capita, ranging from around $ 25,000 in Saudi Arabia to $ 95,000 in Qatar. National poverty line figures accordingly vary from $ 1,300 per month to $ 5,000 levels.
Many in the Gulf are genuinely convinced that their country is free of poverty, which is a contradiction in a region of plenty. The common narrative is that there are no homeless and no hungry people, and that the innate spirit of generosity within the society and the deeply held Islamic charitable foundations, especially in Zakat giving, ensures that there is no poverty, and as the UN rapporteur highlighted, until very recently, the word “poverty” was carefully avoided by policy-makers and commentators.
Eradicating poverty is a multi-faceted approach that also requires a definition of what constitutes, other, non-financial poverty benchmarks, otherwise the result is a veritable hodgepodge of programs which is inefficient, unsustainable, poorly coordinated and, above all, unsuccessful in providing comprehensive social protection to those most in need.
Cash payment handouts in the face of a renewed Gulf effort to reduce subsidies to balance national budgets and at the same time support needy sections of their population are fine, but are short-term measures as key to poverty eradication or reduction, is to remove people from the poverty line through education, access to work and removal of social restrictions, especially for women’s participation.
To varying degrees, all the Gulf countries have given emphasis to ensuring more female work and civil and political participation, given their young and aspiring female populations. Vision 2030 calls Saudi women “a great asset” and acknowledges the role of the Government in assisting them to develop their talents and investing in their capabilities.
Eradicating poverty is a multi-faceted approach that also requires a definition of what constitutes, other, non-financial poverty benchmarksDr. Mohamed Ramady
In the Gulf and worldwide trends, in general, women tend to be more represented in universities than males and often outperform them in different spheres, especially in countries where females have to struggle and compete for the same jobs in male dominated societies.
According to the UN Report, if it is to succeed fully, Vision 2030 should also be seen as a transformational opportunity to enhance gender equality, especially of women and girls in the lower income quintiles.
According to the UN Rapporteur’s report, the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development, over 877,000 Saudi households (some 2,400,000 individuals) receive such payments.
Orphans, the disabled, the elderly, unsupported women, and unsupported families are eligible for a maximum monthly amount of SR5,000 (for a family of 15 individuals) and a maximum one-time payment of SR 30,000.
In addition, other benefits are provided for housing loans; unemployment; home furnishing and renovation; school bags and uniforms for students; electricity bills; people with disabilities; terminally ill patients; higher education support; and emergency assistance in natural disasters.
Moreover, there is a Productive Family program, a range of loans from the Social Development Bank, and grants from the National Charitable Fund. It is little wonder that with such a plethora of potential benefits, most Saudis assume that no citizen could be left wanting.
This also excludes the work of many of the activities of a great number of charities operating in the Gulf. This requires major challenge in coordination of social protection policy, not just among government departments, but also vis-à-vis a very extensive network of charities that channel large amounts of money and carry important operational responsibilities.
The UN Report also highlighted a rather patchy private sector charitable effort, and above all, their uneven corporate and social responsibility to carry out effective training and offer more opportunities for female workers and handicapped employees.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo-political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
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