Poverty and little work drive young Saudis toward radical Islam - International Herald Tribune
- Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune |
Poverty and little work drive young Saudis toward
Craig S. Smith NYT
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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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