Two young Saudi bloggers were sent to jail for fifteen days after uploading a ten-minute documentary on poverty in Riyadh, the capital of one of the richest petro-states in the Gulf.
Firas Buqna and Hussam Al-Darwish posted the video on YouTube on October 10. The fifth episode of their Web TV show “Mal’oub Alen” (“we’re being duped” in Arabic) touched on the living conditions of people in the poor neighbourhood of Al Jaradiya, on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Video posted on YouTube.
In the report, Buqna is shocked by the relative poverty of the neighbourhood, where he comes across children “who are barefoot and don’t own any shoes.” Of the three neighbourhood residents that Buqna interviews, one “earns only 1,300 dollars (945 euros) to support his two wives and 11 children. Another resident supports 20 people with just 666 dollars (484 euros) a month.
Buqna and Al-Darwish denounce the stereotype of the wealthy, SUV-driving Saudi, explaining that 89% of the country’s citizens live in debt. The bloggers question why residents of such a wealthy country are slipping through the net and living in poverty. They point out that over the past 27 years Saudi Arabia has donated 56 billion euros to developing countries, while 22% the the country's own citizens were reportedly living in relative poverty in 2009 (local media put the number at 30% in 2008).
The young bloggers’ video did not go down well with authorities. Six days after they posted the video online, Buqna and Al-Darwish were arrested and interrogated by the police. They were released two weeks later, on October 31. The exact reasons behind their arrest remain unclear.
However, the controversy generated by their arrest has drawn over a million viewers to their online video.
“Poverty is an open secret in Saudi Arabia”
Rachid M. (not his real name) is a blogger; he lives in eastern Saudi Arabia.
There are more and more poor people in Saudi Arabia, and the middle class has all but disappeared. It’s an open secret in the kingdom.
I don’t live in Riyadh and have never visited the neighbourhood of Al Jaradiya, but in the east of the country where I live, there are far poorer neighbourhoods than what Firas Buqna showed in his video. The fact that there are a lot of oil wells in the area changes nothing. Comparing the poorest areas of Saudi Arabia with Somalia, as Buqna does at the beginning of his documentary, makes sense. There are people who live in terrible conditions, on the streets or under makeshift tents.
Poverty was officially recognised for the first time during a visit by Ali Al-Namia, the former minister of social affairs, in the neighbourhood of Al Shamishi in Riyadh in November 2002. He went with King Abdullah, who was still crown prince at the time. The footage was aired on state television. At the time, authorities decided to create a national solidarity fund. But that wasn’t enough to stop poverty from spreading. Wealth is very badly distributed in our country, and corruption is also rife [in 2010, Saudi Arabia ranked 50th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index list].
Official media outlets have addressed the problem in a very superficial way. They present poverty as if it affected only an isolated few and not entire swaths of the population, in one of the richest oil nations of the world.
Poor families do get government aid, but they receive symbolic amounts which absolutely don’t allow these people to meet all their needs. Not to mention the maze of bureaucratic red tape they have to go through to receive this aid. What’s more, this aid is granted only to people who have no other source of income. Low-income working families aren’t entitled to it.
“We think they were arrested because they caricatured a commonly-used phrase that honours the King”
There are several reasons for which the two bloggers may have been arrested. According to another famous blogger, nicknamed Saudi Jeans, authorities may not have liked the fact that their video was picked up by a foreign-based opposition TV network. Others think authorities were angered by the videos’ direct, defiant tone. But most people think that what got them into trouble was the fact that they caricatured a commonly-used phrase that honours the King (‘We are fine, we hope you are too’ in Arabic). The beginning of the video shows several wealthy Saudis in a large, elegant car saying ‘We are fine ,’ then a small boy from the neighbourhood of Al Jaradiya saying ‘We are not fine’.
Others think the motive of their arrest was to scare young Saudis, who increasingly use social media and new technologies to express themselves and voice criticism of the government and the country, sometimes beyond the limits imposed by authorities.”