The Saudi Royals’ and Merchants’ Duplicitous Collaboration

The Saudi merchants’ and ruling princes’ policies and practices are likely to lead to public retaliation.


Credit: Mohamed Messara/EPA

The staggering and avoidable unemployment rate among Saudis is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

It’s estimated that unemployment among Saudi youth is 30 percent and much higher among women. It’s not only uneducated Saudi women who cannot find jobs, but 60 percent of women with Ph.D. degrees cannot find or are denied employment because of their gender.

This is not because there are no jobs to be had, but most jobs in the private sector are given to an estimated 9 million foreign nationals, men and women. According to Saudi figures, only 15 percent of the private sector employees are Saudis, while the other 85 percent are foreign nationals, the majority of whom are impoverished and maltreated Asian laborers.

The arguments used by Saudi merchants and their royal business partners to justify their economic and political exploitation of the imported cheap laborers and the unemployment of an astounding number of Saudis are profuse. They argue that the native people are not well-trained, are untrainable, want more money for less work, are culturally lazy and prefer to work in the public sector (government) where many of them are compensated for merely showing up at work, signing in and then disappearing. While some of these allegations might be true, the reasons behind high unemployment among Saudis, especially women, are entirely different than the mostly self-serving and profit-driven excuses contrived by merchants.

The real reasons are political and economic, objectives shared by the merchants and the government.

As evidenced by their near zero investment in developing a national workforce and in the economic growth of the country, the Saudi merchants have proven that their overriding obsession is to maximize their profits at the expense of society’s well-being and long term economic security. The ruling princes share the merchants’ devious objectives, but for political reasons rather than to siphon more public revenues to fatten their bloated bank accounts and investments abroad. In other words, neither the merchants nor the royals want to invest in human development, a strong, self-reliant and well trained workforce that could pose threats to their total political and economic control.

Given the unprecedented uprising in the Arab world against political and economic disenfranchisement, the Saudi merchants’ and ruling princes’ policies and practices are likely to lead to public retaliation. Rendering millions of educated and aspiring men and women idle, unproductive and reliant on government handouts will not achieve the government’s and merchants’ dubious and dastardly intended objectives: a submissive society.

As a Washington political insider and expert in Middle Eastern affairs diplomatically put it,

“To be sure, $100 billion in subventions from the palace and the promise of 60,000 jobs can help postpone, for a time, the demands of unemployed Saudi youths. But political freedom, transmitted across borders via cable TV and the Internet, has proved to be a seductive idea. In the end, it will not be assuaged by economic bribes or police-state suppression.”

Under normal conditions, the private sector is the trade and financial backbone of society. In Saudi Arabia, under the State’s current outright political and economic arrangements, the private sector is a burden on society and could be considered a looter of public wealth. The Saudi merchants (with the blessing of the government) continue to fail to provide jobs for Saudi citizens. The merchants have shunned investing in the development of domestic industry which could create meaningful long term employment for citizens.

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Instead, the merchants import most of their merchandise from foreign lands and import millions of poverty-stricken, underpaid and maltreated laborers to sell their goods to Saudis, the majority of whom are unemployed and many of whom live at or under the poverty line as designated by the United Nations.  Despite their meager income earned under deplorable conditions, foreign workers transfer an estimated aggregate of about SR300 billion or $80 billion to their home countries annually. On the other end of the spectrum, Saudi royals and merchants siphon and invest billions of dollars of public wealth in foreign countries.

Given the self-serving historical cooperative relationship between the Saudi monarchy and prominent business families, such as the Saudi Bin Laden Group, it would not be surprising if the business community and the government have colluded to prevent the development of a strong and financially self-reliant workforce as well as preventing the growth of a diversified domestic economy.

The question is why would the Saudi government and its partner business community continue to pursue such a suicidal path, given the recent and ongoing unprecedented uprising in the Arab world against oppression, lack of accountability, of economic opportunities and of political participation?

Having manipulated the political and economic affairs of the country since its inception more than 80 years ago, the ruling family calculates that it might be safer for the monarchy to continue its intimidation and marginalization-based policies despite the unparalleled threats it faces internally and externally. The monarchy may have concluded that this is a safer path to take rather than sharing real power with their citizens, a step which could expedite the fall of the ruling family. Apparently the ruling family still believes that what has worked in the past-oppression, intimidation and handouts-will continue to work in their favor.

By ignoring the transformative changes that have occurred in the world and in Saudi society since the establishment of the Saudi state, the monarchy is setting itself and its people on a destructive path. Despite the ruling family’s and Saudi merchants’ myopically heavy-handed policies and practices aimed at keeping the Saudi population financially and politically chained, unemployment and lack of financial security, coupled with political discontent among the people, especially youth and women, constitute a ticking bomb waiting to explode.

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Ali Alyami, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.