Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains

By Patrick Cockburn and cross-posted from Counterpunch.org

Hundreds of foreign hospital workers in Saudi Arabia, unpaid for seven months, were on strike this week and were blocking a highway in Eastern Province in defiance of the ban on strikes and demonstrations in the Kingdom. The employees’ anger was deepened by the belief that the very same employer who has been holding back their salaries regularly offers massive fees to international singers who perform at his parties.

Things are not well in Saudi Arabia and this week there were two pieces of bad news. Hitherto, there have been protests like this by foreign employees suffering from the knock-on effects of cuts in state expenditure following the drop in the oil price. In work camps far out in the desert workers complain that, not only have they stopped receiving money owed to them, but they are no longer even receiving supplied of food and electricity.

But today the cuts are for the first time hitting public sector workers who are Saudi citizens, 70 per cent of whom work for the government. So far the austerity is limited with lower bonuses and overtime payments and a 20 per cent reduction in the salaries of ministers, though those close to political power are unlikely to be in actual need.

There are political dangers in this move. In the oil states of the Middle East there is a trade-off between the spectacular wealth of a corrupt and autocratic elite and an extensive patronage system through which much of the rest of the native population plugs into oil revenues. Some $120 billion, or half of government spending, went on salaries, wages and allowances in 2015.

With a Saudi budget deficit of $100 billion in 2015, this haemorrhage of cash may not be sustainable but will also be difficult to rein in. Great construction companies like Oger and Binladen are having serious difficulties getting paid by the government with Oger alone reportedly owed $8 billion. South Asian construction workers, who once saw Saudi Arabia as an El Dorado, are going home after waiting for months for pay cheques that never come

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