By Arab News
By Tala Al-Hejailan
Since the turn of the 21st century, the Saudi population has grown nearly 18 percent.
At present, it is estimated that Saudi Arabia’s population is expanding at a rate of 2.06 percent annually. A recent Saudi-based study shows that 34 percent of the Saudi population is under 15 years of age, while 56 percent are aged 20 and below. Citizens aged between 21 and 40 make up 30 percent of the population, and 14 percent are over 40 years old, which has undeniably serious repercussions on employment, education, housing and health. None of this is new information, but we need to take such information into consideration regularly. Needless to say, the urgency for social and economic development is crucial because of population growth.
One of Saudi Arabia’s challenges in this century is how to maintain its Islamic identity, which is also its national identity, while making the effort to meet the basic needs and demands of its citizens, specially the young generation. A major issue which is controversial to say the least is the fact that many Saudi families living under the poverty line are large in number (this includes families composed of only father and mother(s) and direct offspring). Men are marrying in threes and fours and having children in the dozens and more.
While there is no denial that in Islam, marrying more than one woman is allowed, there was a reason for this in the past. Men died in battles and women were left widowed with no one to care for them. At the time, polygamy was practical and even necessary. Islam also made it clear that marrying more than one woman is conditional on being able to equally provide for the wives and families. Poverty-stricken men hardly fulfill the latter requirement. The men who are marrying more than one woman can hardly make ends meet to support one child. These are the men who have to bring up dozens of offspring. Today, polygamy in the way that it is being practiced is becoming a national problem.
While visiting underprivileged areas in Saudi Arabia, many young volunteers are finding that families they seek to help are composed of an old sickly father, with three or four wives and more children than a normal classroom would have. The conditions these families live in are inexplicably unfit for human life. The father is too sick in addition to being too underqualified to work, and the wives are unable to afford transportation in order to commute to a job, in addition to always having a child too young to leave at home alone. This setup is unfortunately very common in certain areas of the Kingdom. It is without doubt that if contribution to the rapid population growth is due to the aforementioned scenario, we have a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
In today’s world it is hard enough for middle class people to have two or three children and providing them with quality education, health care and life opportunities, not to mention the right amount of mental and emotional care. Life is becoming more expensive and a lot more competitive. This being said, what chance of a decent life does a child of an unemployed, uneducated, oftentimes severely ill father of 9 or more have to succeed, or even live a barely decent life? The answer will most likely be, not very good.
The suggestion that there should be restrictions on how many women a man can marry in the Kingdom will inarguably be rejected, and perhaps even deemed outrageous. The latter being said, unless there is drastic change made to the educational system in Saudi Arabia, and fast, in order to reach out to the people who are making very poor life choices as seen above, our country is going to suffer socially, economically and poverty will become a major problem that will be very hard to solve.
It is clear that Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is a great supporter for development in all forms, including the challenge of unemployment. So, more attention needs to be given to the abuse of polygamy in Saudi Arabia which leads to the birth of a new generation that will not simply struggle to live, but live to struggle.
— Tala Al-Hejailan is legal consultant, DLA Piper Saudi Arabia. She can be reached at: [email protected]