GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Poverty in the Land of Plenty – Politics of Benevolence and Charity for the Poor in Saudi Arabia: Emerging Forms of Civic Engagement in the Shadow of the Arab Spring?
Paper Proposal Text :
Although in global comparison the echo of the ‘Arab Uprisings’ has so far been relatively silent in Saudi Arabia, grievances and careful critique of existing social injustice have been articulated. While Saudi Arabia is often portrayed as an oil-rich country with princes lavishly living in luxury, macroeconomic realities emphasize the high population growth combined with a low standard of education, the presence of corruption, cooptation and millions of guest workers in the market. Accordingly a high unemployment rate, especially among youth and uneducated Saudi citizens, is well known. Thus the notion of economic inequality and injustice, an elementary spark to the Arab Uprisings, has been articulated in Saudi Arabia, too – most provocatively in 2011 by the social media activists around Feras Boqna with their short youtube series on the impoverished outskirts of Riyadh, mal‘ob alena/ i7na bi-khair. Feras’ immediate imprisonment proves, that since king Abdallah, then crown prince, opened up the discourse on poverty in 2003 with his historic visit to the very same area, speaking of poverty again has become a taboo in the Kingdom.

Looking at the responses of Saudi Arabia towards the ‘Arab Spring’, this paper argues that while on the national level persistence is a dominant political mode, on a domestic level the macroeconomic difficulties that the Saudi state is facing, have caused an echo of ‘Arab Spring’ in Saudi Arabia. First research results show how national politics of benevolence on the one hand have (traditionally) been instrumentalised to silence social grievance and the fear of social unrest in the Kingdom. On the other hand it analyses how the legal framework of charity is being seized in Jeddah as a space to accommodate cultural and social transformations.

Saudi Arabia is a country of outstandingly vast natural resources and economic wealth – while simultaneously it is a nation fighting an increasing pauperisation of broad strata of its society. This situation makes Saudi Arabia exceptional and paradigmatic among the Arab countries of the Middle East. In this climate the booming trend of wealthy private charities that engage to help the poor in the country appears symptomatic of the socio-economic paradox. Charity (‘amal khairī) as a social phenomenon bears a unique constellation: When benefactors engage with the poor, the most diverse social settings, actors, lifestyles and perspectives meet. Thus this paper suggests that looking at Saudi (civil) society through the lense of local, institutionalzd forms of charity (jam‘iyat khairiyya, mu’assasat khairiyya, CSR) – which are one of the very few legally accepted forms of ‘private association’ in today’s Kingdom and strongly supported by religious norms and values – can help to understand the paradox exceptionalism of the Saudi state. Against a discourse analysis of poverty in the Kingdom, case studies of ‚benevolent’ (action) groups, such as Muwatana, the Young Initiative Group and Bin Majid Society, question the emergence of the “individual-citizen”. Thereby it asks, whether in the shadow of the ‘Arab Spring’, Saudi Arabia, too, is witnessing a change in the fundamental relations between the individual, society and the body politic as the emerging muwatana-discourse makes believe. This research is based on textual production in the charity field, (participant) observation of volunteering initiatives and interviews, amongst others with Saudi benefactors and benevolent activists, which I am currently conducting and collecting while based as a visiting fellow at Effat University in Jeddah for the academic year 2012-13.