Reflections on Poverty in Saudi Arabia

American Bedu wrote about a video-blogger-journalist who was arrested in Saudi Arabia for this short, but extremely well-done documentary on poverty in Saudi Arabia.  I especially liked that the journalist tried to offer some positive suggestions for help to the poor at the end.  The reason he was arrested was for violating the Arab cultural norm of never speaking out in public regarding in one’s own country (or any other Arab country); speaking out publicly is considered more shameful than letting a shameful situation continue.

However, in this video, I was somewhat surprised by a couple of things.

First, having lived in the Middle East for the past twenty years, the level of poverty shown in this video is not nearly as bad as what is current in some other parts of the Middle East. The people shown in this video as living in extreme poverty in Saudi Arabia are living at the same level as much of North Africa’s lower middle classes today (excepting Libya), for example.  For example, I noticed all these homes had TVs and hot water, as well as refrigerators, even if they are in bad condition.   (The poor in other places have none of these things.)  The kids in the poor neighborhood were all dressed in the latest sport shirts.

Clearly, what makes people feel poor is not how their life is compared to poor people in other countries, but how their life compares to those around them in the same society. The wealthy in Saudi are living at such a high level compared to other countries, that even their poor are living at a high level (when compared to some other Arab countries).

The second thing which struck me about this video was the attitude about what should be done about these problems. Unlike in America, there was no talk of any personal responsibility. One man shown in the video explained that he was married to two women, and that the first one had six children, while the second one had five children.  Whatever is a poor man like this doing with two wives and eleven children? If he had one wife and even two children, he would not be poor with what he stated his income was in this video.  Furthermore, each person interviewed in the video just asked for the government to “give” them a house. It seems to be the norm in that society to just ask others to give people what they don’t have, rather than taking any personal responsibility for one’s life, and planning accordingly.

Saudi Journalist-Blogger Feras Boqnah, Arrested for Documentary on the Poor

Saudi Journalist-Blogger Feras Boqnah, Arrested for Documentary on the Poor

Oddly (to a Westerner) the journalist never suggests anything about working harder, or looking for better paying jobs, or improving one’s skills, or even being responsible about how many wives a man chooses to marry, or how many children he chooses to have.  At the end of the video, the journalist makes suggestions that charities be especially organized to regularly assist poor people with their lives in all the poor areas.  It’s clear that ideas of personal responsibility don’t even occur to the interviewer, indicating that what these people are asking for seems “normal” for Saudi Arabian society. It’s just an interesting contrast with the values and ideas of the Western world. Many people in Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East assume that they are not at all personally responsible for how their lives turn out; they view themselves as victims of fate and circumstance and God’s will, or as victims of “bad luck.”

In America, by contrast, people are seen as being about 90% responsible for their own fate. Perhaps this is too much. But in Saudi, where people seem to believe that they have no personal responsibility for their fate, this is too little. People should make an effort to “help themselves” and not just wait only for charity from the government, or from others.

–Lynne Diligent

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2 Responses to “Reflections on Poverty in Saudi Arabia”

  1. cybermd Says:

    It is interesting that in Western society, personal responsibility is so often given as the reason for one’s poverty, especially by the political Right. I agree it appears that in Arab countries there is very little personal responsibility. But perhaps this is because there is less opportunity.

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  2. kactuzjay kactuz Says:

    Nice blog, Lynne. 90% is too much. I figure 82.451% is just about right. Actually, how much a person is responsible for his/her fate depends on many factors – too many to even contemplate.

    In America, at least until recent times, if one came from a stable family (whatever income), studied hard, worked well, lived a reasonably trouble-free life (no crime or substance abuse), and stayed married, he/she would have a very good chance of living well and being comfortable. Now the rules have changed and things are a bit more complicated.

    One thing is for sure, in America there is a large portion of the population that screws up on their own or with the help of family and friends. This has become the ‘underclass’, and I figure it is not less than 20% but not more than 30% of America. This group is either in school (but not learning much), on welfare or in one of the many parts of the criminal justice system. Note also that this population is not useless – it supports a huge infrastructure of public and private services, all this made possible by deficit spending and mindless compassion. One day it will all go ‘boom’.

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