By Aya Batrawy
JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA: Saudi Arabia is quietly planning to raze slums in one of its largest cities to make way for newer, restored neighborhoods as part of a wider plan to keep up with soaring demand for affordable housing.
A gap between what is available on the market and what many Saudis can afford has left people frustrated and accusing the government of corruption. A shortage of low- and middle-income housing means millions of Saudis cannot afford to buy a home.
Young Saudis are especially affected since it takes years of saving before many can afford to buy a home, often a precursor to marriage.
To address the housing shortage and public grumbling, the Red Sea city of Jiddah is a testing ground for a plan that includes getting rid of most of its roughly 50 unplanned settlements, which comprise a third of its built-up area, according to municipality figures.
In their place, the city plans to build subsidized housing complexes for Saudis.
If this new model for revamping the kingdom’s second-largest city succeeds, it would be replicated throughout Saudi Arabia in areas where aging infrastructure needs an overhaul.
The project is revolutionary for a country where speaking openly about poverty is taboo and can lead to arrest. There are no official government figures on poverty levels in Saudi Arabia and several Saudi-based research analysts say there are no mechanisms in place to permit studies on it.
In 2011, Saudi blogger Feras Bugnah was detained for several days with his crew for making a video on poverty that showed slum housing in the capital, Riyadh. Bugnah’s video said 70 percent of Saudis do not own their own homes.
Discussion of poverty can lead to uneasy questions about the long-held social pact in Saudi Arabia, whereby citizens give their loyalty to the ruling Al Saud family in exchange for entitlements and benefits from the state.