The Mighty Petrodollar

A column in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. For more than half a century Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have been awash in petrodollars. Yet they are still underdeveloped, in particular their human resources. The Gulf states have a wonderful infrastructure in term of roads and malls. The local population drive the latest model Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac cars. However, driving in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, for example, is an intrepid act. The locals drive recklessly. They do not respect basic traffic rules. (In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving.) Moreover, it's common to see locals throwing their soda cans and trash out of their car windows. Both roads and malls are cleaned by Bangladeshi men for $90 a month. The infrastructure has been built and is maintained by expatriate engineers and workers. Hospitals, banks and the oil industry are all run by expats. Apart from top professionals and managers most foreign workers are underpaid. Institutions run by locals are ill-managed. Ali Al Baghli, a columnist at Al Qabas newspaper in Kuwait wrote recently: "We Kuwaitis are spoilt. If our children are disciplined, we interpret this as harsh treatment and rush directly to the Minister of Education to complain. We are very good at making scandals of little incidents." Katharine Philip who used to teach at Al-Bayan school, a private Kuwaiti school, was not allowed to leave Kuwait for her summer vacation. Her "crime" was she "sentenced" the son of a rich Kuwaiti to three hours of detention after school for fighting with other pupils. The Gulf natives get what they want through wasta (connections). In Kuwait, for example, they meet in the evening in diwaniyas (guest houses) and exchange "favors." Most of these favors go against the law. A local, for instance, does not need to take a driving test; he gets the license delivered to his home. Over 90 percent of Kuwaitis are state employees. They rake in lavish salaries for doing almost nothing. Most of the real work is carried out by foreign laborers. Mohammad Al-Saleh, another Al-Qabas writer, queries in a recent column whether the government should not remove Kuwaitis from their jobs, since they simply hinder the work flow. In a savage indictment of the prevailing work ethic, he proposes that the Kuwaitis should stay home, draw their salaries, and not get in the way of expats doing the real work. Ahmed Al-Baghdadi, wonders in a recent column in the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Siyasa: "What do we actually produce? Our oil is produced and marketed by expats. The vegetables we produce in greenhouses are cultivated and looked after by expats. The Kuwaiti owners of these greenhouses get huge amounts of subsidies from the government for products, which, if we imported, would cost one-tenth of the price produced locally. We Kuwaitis are parasites. We produce nothing, we import everything, and we consume a lot." According to the most recent report of the U.N. Arab Development Program, the productivity of a Kuwaiti worker is not more than 15 minutes a day. Once appointed to a job, Kuwaitis cannot be dismissed. "That is why employers in the private sector hesitate a hundred times before they employ a Kuwaiti. They are right," Al-Saleh asserts. A recent law imposes fines on Kuwaiti employers, whose work force consists of less than 15 percent Kuwaitis. The Kuwaiti employers prefer paying the fine than employing a Kuwaiti. Among the local population you do not find one single man or woman who performs a manual job. The citizens depend completely on foreign laborers. Nevertheless, they abuse these workers, especially their maids and servants. They make them work for 24 hours, seven days a week for the meager monthly wage of $90. Many beat and rape their employees. Foreign investors are not allowed to establish their own businesses in the Gulf countries. They need a local business partner. These partners are usually members of big families, rich and influential, who dictate their own terms. These families have exclusive dealerships for Mercedes, BMW, MacDonald, Burger King and other trade marks. Members of the ruling families in the oil-rich Arab countries are awash in huge sums of petrodollars. They regard the wealth of their countries as their own and shovel it into their private accounts. They are plundering their countries. According to the latest report of the World Bank, Saudi Arabia has debts of around $1,400 billion. At the same time the private investments of members of the Saudi ruling families in the West amounts to over $2,000 billion. The writer, a commentator on Arab affairs, is a professor of sociology living in Germany. A column in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.