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Poverty and little work drive young Saudis toward radical Islam - International Herald Tribune

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  • Zafar Khan
    Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com Poverty and little work drive young Saudis toward radical Islam Craig S. Smith NYT Wednesday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 18, 2002
      Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune |
      www.iht.com

      Poverty and little work drive young Saudis toward
      radical Islam
      Craig S. Smith NYT
      Wednesday, December 18, 2002

      http://www.iht.com/articles/80666.html

      JIDDA At the Liwan tea and water pipe parlor on a
      rooftop near the airport here, young Saudi men, many
      of them unemployed, while away the evenings puffing
      fruit-laced tobacco, drinking sugary tea and wondering
      about their uncertain future.

      "Can you give me a job?" asks Khalid al-Harib within
      minutes of a rare Western visitor's arrival.

      Harib, 27, is wearing the elegant white robe with
      starched white collar that distinguishes Saudi men
      from the Egyptians, Syrians and Lebanese who work in
      the country. He explains that he cannot afford to get
      married, let alone move out of his parents' house.

      He is one of millions of economically distraught,
      educated young Saudis who form a restive core in this
      oil-rich land. Their idle presence represents a prime
      recruiting ground for radical Islamists and is a
      growing source of anxiety for the ruling royal family.

      "Unemployed young people could turn into a huge
      problem affecting our security," said Sultan ibn
      Saleh, a prominent Saudi businessman, during a recent
      interview at his office in Riyadh. "You don't want to
      create this terrible war between the haves and the
      have-nots."

      More than half of Saudi Arabia's estimated 16 million
      people are under 20. Their prospects are bleak:
      Unemployment is 28 percent among 20- to 24-year-olds
      and at least 10 percent among 25- to 29-year-olds,
      according to Saudi American Bank estimates.

      Moreover, the economy is growing far more slowly than
      the population, which means more Saudis entering the
      workforce each year than jobs being created.

      Economic distress has already forced many poor Saudis
      into the arms of Islamic charities, something that
      Saleh said made him and his peers "fearful, because
      that invites other things."

      Like religious-based charities elsewhere, conservative
      Islamic charities often carry a politically laced
      message, and for them it is sometimes anti-Western.
      The United States has alleged that some of the
      charities provide financial support for terrorist
      organizations.

      Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, most
      middle-class young men who veered into religious
      extremism before becoming terrorists.

      During the 1970s and early 1980s, oil prices were
      high, and wealthy Saudis traveled the world leaving
      hundred-dollar bills behind them like confetti. Almost
      any Saudi could get a piece of land and an $80,000
      interest-free loan to build a home. The government
      even subsidized rice, sugar and cooking oil.

      But all of that disappeared when oil prices collapsed
      nearly 20 years ago, and today the fabled land of gold
      bathroom fixtures is filling up with unemployed
      youths. Many Saudis worry that the wobbly economy,
      still reeling from the Gulf War of 1991, could worsen
      if a new war with Iraq removed Saddam Hussein from
      power and started Iraqi oil flowing freely again.

      After being largely stanched for years by UN
      sanctions, Iraqi oil could drive global prices lower,
      shrinking Saudi government revenues - three-quarters
      of which come from the sale of oil - and crimping the
      government spending that supports many Saudis.

      Even for employed Saudis, salaries are half what they
      were during the country's heyday, or only a quarter if
      adjusted for inflation. The government, which spends
      billions of dollars more than it earns each year, is
      deeply in debt. It now owes almost as much as the
      entire country produces in a year.

      The kingdom's brief economic history traces an acute
      arc, from the Bedouin camel trade at the country's
      founding, in 1932, to the 1973 oil embargo, which sent
      oil prices soaring, to the mid-1980s oil price
      collapse that left the Saudi government with a
      mounting public debt.

      The country squandered its few fat decades at the top
      of that curve importing the best of everything money
      could buy. But little was put into developing domestic
      industries or educating pampered youth. "We didn't
      prepare a horse to pull the beautiful golden
      carriage," Saleh said.

      Companies turned instead to imported labor; today,
      Africans or Asians do most of the work and send their
      salaries home. By some estimates, Filipinos, Indians,
      Bangladeshis and other expatriates drain the kingdom
      of $16 billion each year.

      Saudi businessmen, discouraged by the local economy
      and attracted by better prospects elsewhere, send
      still more money out of the country.

      In a country steeped in fundamentalist Islam, there is
      little besides prayer to occupy idle minds. There are
      no movie theaters, bars or dance clubs, and flirting
      is technically forbidden. Young men with cars cruise
      the streets in a Middle Eastern equivalent of
      America's Midwestern teenagers. Many older men spend
      their evenings in water pipe parlors sharing a $2 bowl
      of tobacco.

      Harib, a thinly bearded man with a fast-receding
      hairline, said he graduated more than a year ago with
      a bachelor's degree in business administration. The
      only work he has found is as a temporary secretary at
      a magazine published by the school.

      The job pays 3,500 riyals a month, or about $930,
      which he says is barely enough to cover living
      expenses, let alone raise a family. He said he would
      take a lower-paying job if it had a future, but would
      not work for less than 3,000 riyals a month.

      That's a problem in a country with no minimum wage and
      few immigration restrictions on educated Filipinos,
      Indians or Pakistanis who are willing to work for half
      as much.

      "This country is full of job opportunities, but Saudis
      won't accept any kind of job," said Khaled Kourdi, a
      member of the government's advisory Supreme Economic
      Council.

      "Who built my house?" he asked, waving a hand at the
      vaulted brick ceiling of his private den. "They were
      all foreigners. Young Saudis only want white-collar
      jobs." Everyone agrees that the education system is
      partly to blame.

      English, for example, a key to employment in many
      industries, is taught in high school, but not as a
      serious subject, and powerful religious scholars have
      blocked a proposal to teach it at the elementary
      level. Universities, meanwhile, turn out plenty of
      graduates, but few emerge with skills relevant to the
      jobs at hand."We only graduate officers, but we need
      foot soldiers," Saleh said.

      Alarmed at the rising unemployment, the royal family
      has begun demanding that employers hire more Saudis
      instead of relying exclusively on foreigners.

      Under the plan, called "Saudization," Saudi citizens
      must account for at least 30 percent of all companies
      with 20 or more workers by the end of this year. The
      percentage is supposed to increase by five points a
      year.

      But many Saudi economists and businessmen argue that
      the program is a short-term patch for an economy that
      has never had a long-term development plan.


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