Poverty Is a Matter of Place

"We'll use our brains and then we will all eat and drink," exhorts the new slogan in bright colors that the government of Egypt has been putting up throughout the country. This is a seemingly trivial slogan, but for the citizens of Egypt, the message hiding behind it is clear: Fewer children, more food.

The advertising campaign is part of a new initiative to reduce the birthrate that President Hosni Mubarak embarked upon last month, and which is already arousing opposition on the part of clerics and citizens, especially villagers.

However, when the population of Egypt is rapidly approaching 80 million and the prices of basic foodstuffs are soaring, the immediate solution is to reduce the number of mouths. Even after the wage hikes that Mubarak has ordered, large gaps remain between the minimum wage (about $100 a month), the poverty line ($31 per month per capita), and the cost of living.

Mubarak's initiative and the scary data on the Egyptian economy provided the satellite television network Al Arabiya with a reason to examine poverty not in the poorer but rather in the wealthiest of the countries of the Middle East. Here once again the difference between relative and absolute came to the fore: the difference between an Egyptian's inability to buy bread and basic foodstuffs, and the burden of payments on a Kuwaiti citizen who has purchased a new BMW or is waiting for government aid to have his wedding.

The minimum wage in Kuwait is impressive: more than $3,000 a month for citizens of the country (foreign workers have a different wage), or 30 times the minimum wage in Egypt. In contrast with the Egyptians, the Kuwaitis do not pay for water, electricity and health services. The Kuwaiti government subsidizes basic foodstuffs and employs about 130,000 citizens in its ministries - even if it does not need them - thus ensuring their social and pension rights.

It appears that in this way corruption is rife in the government services. A foreign businessman who returned recently from Kuwait told how he had to devote three days to meet with an official at the Housing Ministry there. According to the guest, the official simply did not come to work, and not because of an illness or a family event. The entire ministry was empty, he added, with desks equipped with the latest communications technology covered in dust.

The minimum wage paid to a government employee of medium rank in the United States is creating new problems of "poverty." In Kuwait, families have encountered economic distress because of large financial commitments they have taken upon themselves to purchase furniture, cars, private lessons for their children, or trips abroad. In this oil state there is a common saying: "You are not a Kuwaiti if you haven't got a debt."

Many people in the country - there are no precise figures - rely therefore on charitable organizations. Under Kuwaiti law, every company has to donate part of its profits to charity. However, data published in Kuwait show that only 12 percent of this charitable deduction, about $300,000 annually, is actually transferred to charitable organizations.

Nevertheless, there is no need to worry about those who are not managing to obtain support from the organizations. The Kuwaiti banks give long-term loans on easy terms, and in many cases where the borrower cannot pay off his debts, the state compensates the bank in his stead.

If this is the case, in which of the Gulf states is it best to be poor? The answer to this is complex. In Kuwait, hundreds of thousands of poor people are reported, both citizens and foreign workers, who also enjoy government aid in case of economic difficulties. However, in Qatar there are only 3,300 poor people, according to the reports of charity organizations quoted by the Al Arabiya network. In this small country, where its 200,000 citizens enjoy one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, it is hard to sink into real poverty.

The government gives a grant to every citizen who gets married, from $2,500 to astronomical sums, in accordance with income level. A young Qatari man will also receive a plot of land worth $200,000, $150,000 to build his home, and of course $15,000 to buy furniture.

If the money does not suffice, that same citizen can receive a loan of another $150,000 at low interest. As in Kuwait, in Qatar too they do not pay for electricity, water or a land-line telephone. Widows, orphans and divorced people receive generous aid from the state, and higher education is given for free. All that remains is to buy food - some of which is subsidized - and clothing. How is it possible to measure poverty in such conditions?

In Saudi Arabia the poor people are "simpler." This is the largest state in the Gulf region, with about 28 million inhabitants, of whom more than 5 million are foreigners. Until 2002, mention of the very idea that there is poverty in Saudi Arabia was considered an insult to the state. However, in that year the crown prince - now King Abdullah - visited centers of poverty and made a historic declaration to the effect that "there are poor people in this country." Thus began an official effort to contain poverty, which included the establishment of a "National Foundation for Citizens' Welfare," a kind of welfare ministry to improve the condition of the needy.

However, as in the neighboring countries, it is hard to know how many poor people there are in Saudi Arabia and what the poverty line is. From time to time pictures of women and children begging are published in the Saudi press, but it is not clear whether these are citizens or foreign workers from Arab countries.

Until recently there was also a sharp dispute between the welfare minister who resigned - he claimed that since 2006 there has been no poverty in Saudi Arabia that makes it impossible to buy basic foodstuffs - and the economics minister, who believes that this poverty will not be contained before 2008. As in other cases, the dispute is not over poverty but rather over who is right and who has been negligent, and over which minister has carried out the king's vision and which has betrayed his trust.

Since the king has decided that there are poor people, the question arises as to why citizens in one of the wealthiest countries in the world are not benefiting from the wealth.

Here too, part of the answer lies in the willingness to work. Thus, for example, about 150,000 foreign chauffeurs are employed in the kingdom. Why aren't these jobs given to Saudis? Simply because Saudis are in no hurry to take jobs that are considered demeaning, like driving or cleaning the streets. Saudi women would be glad to drive themselves in their cars, but the law forbids women to drive and therefore they need foreigners.

The result is that every year foreign workers send more than $70 billion out of Saudi Arabia, to their own countries. Thus the poor Saudis will continue to receive stipends from the state - stipends that any member of the Egyptian middle class would be happy to receive, and which would elevate any poor Egyptian into the middle class, and perhaps even higher.