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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 16:58 GMT
Saudis act on poverty
Internet cafe in Riyadh
The kingdom faces growing unemployment

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has ordered a committee to be set up to tackle poverty in the oil-rich kingdom.

The crown prince - the man who makes most key decisions in the kingdom - announced the action after visiting a slum in the capital Riyadh.

It was a sight many Saudis might have thought never to see.

Here was Crown Prince Abdullah in a slum in Riyadh, talking to one of the elderly, poverty-stricken inhabitants and, what is more, listening patiently while the old man wags his finger and pours out a long list of complaints.

Economic woes

After this highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, visit, the crown prince announced a national programme to eliminate poverty.

The announcement and the visit were symbolic of two things: the new mood of change in Saudi society and the increasing economic problems afflicting the kingdom.

Crown Prince Abdullah
One paper said the Crown Prince's slum visit heralded a new era
First the problems: oil revenues are falling in both absolute and per capita terms.

The population could double by the year 2015 and today half of Saudis are 18 years of age or younger, so unemployment is growing, as are government deficits.

The King Faisal Hospital in Jeddah, for instance, has not paid salaries for several months.

And the government has had to deny rumours that it will soon have to start doing the unthinkable, that is, to levy income tax on Saudis.

Changes afoot

How does this fit with the undoubted feeling that change is in the air?

The government knows it must radically modernise Saudi society.

One Saudi newspaper said that Crown Prince Abdullah's slum visit would come to define the moment when Saudi Arabia clearly entered a new era.

Over the top perhaps, but it reflects the huge expectations ordinary people now have that the royal family will bring about fundamental change in the kingdom.

See also:

11 Aug 02 | Middle East
17 Nov 01 | Middle East
10 Jul 02 | Business
12 Sep 01 | Country profiles
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