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Unemployment, booming population spur hidden poverty in Saudi Arabia

Prince Sultan bin Salman said the Saudi government was ‘‘three to five years’’ away from dramatically reducing poverty.

Kevin Rivoli/Associated Press

Prince Sultan bin Salman said the Saudi government was ‘‘three to five years’’ away from dramatically reducing poverty.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A few miles from the blinged-out shopping malls of Saudi Arabia’s capital, Souad al-Shamir lives in a concrete house on a trash-strewn alley, with no job, no money, five children under 14, and an unemployed husband who is laid up with chronic heart problems.

‘‘We are at the bottom,’’ she said, sobbing behind a black veil that left only her eyes visible. ‘‘My kids are crying and I can’t provide for them.’’

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Millions of Saudis live in poverty, struggling on the fringes of one of the world’s most powerful economies, where job growth and welfare programs have failed to keep pace with a booming population that has soared from 6 million in 1970 to 28 million today.

Under King Abdullah, the Saudi government has spent billions to help the growing numbers of poor people, estimated to be as much as a quarter of the native Saudi population.

But critics complain that those programs are inadequate, and that some royals seem more concerned with their wealth and the country’s image than with helping the needy. Last year, for example, three young Saudi video bloggers were arrested and jailed for two weeks after they produced an online video about poverty in Saudi Arabia.

‘‘The state hides the poor very well,’’ said Rosie Bsheer, a Saudi scholar who has written extensively on development and poverty. ‘‘The elite don’t see the suffering of the poor. People are hungry.’’

The Saudi government discloses little official data about its poorest citizens. But press reports and private estimates suggest that between 2 million and 4 million of the country’s native Saudis live on less than about $530 a month — about $17 a day — which analysts generally consider the poverty line in Saudi Arabia.

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The kingdom has a two-tiered economy made up of about 16 million Saudis, with most of the rest of the population consisting of foreign workers.

The poverty rate among Saudis continues to rise as youth unemployment skyrockets. More than two-thirds of Saudis are under 30, and nearly three-quarters of all unemployed Saudis are in their 20s, according to government statistics.

In just seven decades as a nation, Saudi Arabia has grown from an impoverished backwater of desert nomads to an economic powerhouse with an oil industry that brought in $300 billion last year.

Forbes magazine estimates King Abdullah’s personal fortune at $18 billion, making him the world’s third-richest royal, behind the rulers of Thailand and Brunei.

He has spent government funds freely on high-profile projects, most recently a nearly $70 billion plan to build four gleaming new ‘‘economic cities,’’ where government literature says ‘‘up to five million residents will live, work and play.’’

The king last year also announced plans to spend $37 billion on housing, wage increases, unemployment benefits, and other programs, which was widely seen as an effort to placate middle-class Saudis and head off any Arab Spring-style discontent. Abdullah and many of the royals are also famous for their extensive charitable giving.

For many years, image-conscious Saudi officials denied the existence of Saudi poverty. It was a taboo subject avoided by state-run media until 2002, when Abdullah, then the crown prince, visited a Riyadh slum. News coverage was the first time many Saudis saw poverty in their country.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, a son of Crown Prince Salman, said in an interview that the government has acknowledged the existence of poverty and is working to ‘‘meet its obligations to its own people.’’

Prince Sultan said the Saudi government was ‘‘three to five years’’ away from dramatically reducing poverty through economic development, micro-lending, job training, and creation of new jobs for the poor.

The Saudi government spends several billion dollars each year to provide free education and health care to all citizens, as well as a variety of social welfare programs — even free burials. The government also provides pensions, monthly benefits, and payments for food and utility bills to the poor, elderly, disabled, orphans, and workers who are injured on the job.

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