Friday, May 05, 2006

Between Poverty and Destruction

Recently, there was a report on an international newspaper on a number of Saudi youth who drank alcohol-based cologne to ease out their ‘misery’. But instead of becoming ‘high’, they died due to the deadly type of alcohol found in it. This recent incident was a repeat of similar incident occurred four year before. 17 youth throughout the kingdom has been reportedly died while several others who drank it are now under the medical treatment for blood poisoning. It is not known how far this deadly habit has taken victim.

What drove these youth to take this deadly action? The report said that an urge to achieve instant relief from misery due to poverty and the lack of parental supervision have driven these youth to take this action. Besides, the lack of knowledge on the drinkable alcohol seen by these youth on international television programs widely accessible through satellite discs across the Kingdom also contributed to this incident. Some young people made the mistake thinking that anything that says alcohol is consumable. They are wrong.

In liquors, the alcohol used is known as ethyl alcohol, which is safe and consumable. In cologne products, a different type of alcohol called methyl alcohol is used as the main substance. The later type of alcohol is a deadly poison and is never intended for use as a beverage in any culture. The ignorant Saudi youth thought that the alcohol found in cologne products is safe and consumable thus they drank it and died because of it. To avoid any further incident, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry withdrew all the cologne from the market where ethyl alcohol exceeded 90 percent and methyl alcohol exceeded 50 percent.

One interesting point that I wanted to raise here is not about the legality or illegality of consuming alcohol in Islam or the correct type of alcohol which is consumable but instead it is about the statement by an expert of Islamic studies in this Kingdom, Dr. Saleh Awad Al-Garni, regarding this incident. He said that, “…Claiming unemployment or poverty are the reasons for it is nonsense. Since when was poverty the road that leads to destruction? Being unemployed does not mean killing ourselves.”

This statement seems to be true in a rich kingdom like Saudi Arabia where poverty and unemployment seems to be foreign vocabularies. True that unemployed does not mean killing ourselves. And to prove how true this statement is, more elaborate studies are needed. However, a paper by Afshin Molavi called Young and Restless published in Smithsonian Magazine, April 1, 2006, gave a different picture of Saudi Arabia at present. To quote,

“… The boomers, however, did not grow into fantastic wealth. In 1981, the kingdom’s per capita income was $28,000, making it one of the richest countries on earth. But by 1993, … the kingdom was recovering from both a long recession (oil prices had dwindled) and a war on its border (the Persian Gulf war of 1991). Per capita income was declining rapidly, and boomers were straining the finances of a largely welfare-driven state. Government jobs and scholarships for foreign study grew scarce. (In 2001, per capita income was a quarter of what it had been in 1981.)”

Clearly, the paper showed the changes that occur in the Saudi society, especially the distribution of wealth from the petrodollar. It is no wonder then that poverty and unemployment start to surface. Furthermore, with some 75 percent of the population under 30 and 60 percent under 21; more than one in three Saudis is under 14, the kingdom is a young nation ruled by old generation who has quite different approach to the reality. And even though the recently installed monarch, King Abdullah, has done his part to reform the society, but it is still not enough. More works still need to be done and more reform should be introduced to avoid any clash between the old generation and the young one.

On the contrary, in India where there has been recent surge in its economic growth, with a steady economic growth of 8 per cent, and increasing employment opportunities, suicide and indulgence in alcoholic drinks by poor people, especially farmers in the drought-hit regions, and unemployed seem to be an avoidable phenomenon. This is the contradiction of the two India: urban India and rural (real) India.

The urban India enjoys the fruit of economic growth and greater employment opportunities while the rural India still lags behind with its underdevelopment and lack of employment opportunities. The imbalance between the two India resulted in the almost everyday report in Indian national newspaper on suicide by Indians in the rural India who decide to take their lives due to severe poverty and mounting debt traps.

This is totally the opposite of the view given by Al-Garni. In India, poverty surely leads the road to destruction.

In conclusion, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the recent incident is, I believe, just a tip of an iceberg of a much bigger problem faced by the Kingdom. The reform by the new administration is still far from being a success. A lot more efforts still need to be done to create jobs and employment opportunities for the young generation. With the growing competition from its neighbors and the shrinking world due to globalization, the new administration has to create a new approach suitable to accommodate with the new challenges.

Similarly, in India, the suicide by farmers in rural India can be understood as wake up call for the government, both the state and the central government, to give more attention to the rural India, the real India. It is time for the government to balance the development program between rural and the urban India. Poverty should be eradicated at all cost and all efforts should be mustered to achieve it. Agriculture should become the main focus of the administration. A second green revolution should be started at the earliest possible so that the Gharibi Hatao is not only just a meaningless slogan to gain votes and instead the slogan should really be applied and practiced by the government to eradicate poverty for the welfare of the people.

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