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Housing woes testing Saudi reform drive

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic megacity with promises of talking robots and flying taxis, but for hundreds of thousands like academic Abdullah a simple dream remains elusive – owning a home. Housing is a potential lightning rod for public discontent in a country where affordable dwellings are beyond the reach of many, posing a key challenge for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to overhaul the oil-reliant economy.

For decades, the once tax-free petro-state dished out interest-free housing loans. But Saudi Arabia is now pushing to boost mortgage lending in a contentious policy shift that is squeezing the middle-class as it chips away at its cradle-to-grave welfare in an era of low oil prices. For many like Abdullah, a 39-year-old father of three with a rented apartment in Riyadh, this has delayed the dream of building his own home on the city’s outskirts.

After more than a decade on a waiting list for an interest-free loan from the kingdom’s Real Estate Development Fund, Abdullah says it referred him to a commercial bank to take out a mortgage worth 445,000 riyals ($119,000). He used the money to start building a house on a 350,000 riyals parcel of land for which he took a separate bank loan, but construction had to be halted in May after he ran out of money.

Set up in 1974, the Fund is a government entity linked to the housing ministry, and covers about a quarter of Abdullah’s monthly mortgage payment. But Abdullah says he is still left struggling to pay off both loans that eat up roughly half his monthly income of 20,000 riyals ($5,300) amid rising living costs. “The (mortgage) system is destroying the middle class, it is suffocating us,” he told AFP outside his half-finished home, urging a return to the interest-free loans.

The strain is felt more acutely by 41-year-old government employee Majid, who earns only slightly more than the national average monthly income of 14,820 riyals ($3,950). Such lower middle-class citizens are already struggling as the government scales back subsidies, hiking water, electricity and gasoline prices and imposing a five percent value-added tax. He is among some 500,000 people said to remain on the Fund’s waiting list for interest-free loans, with a final decision expected by 2020. The Fund and the housing ministry did not respond to AFP’s requests for an interview.

“The key to addressing the Saudi housing crisis is… to stimulate private sector funding and cut the longstanding reliance on government subsidies,” Saudi expert Najah Al-Otaibi told AFP. But this is all a shock to many Saudis accustomed for decades to cheap loans and a tax-free lifestyle. It highlights the petro-state’s challenge in weaning citizens off government largesse amid a huge fiscal deficit, projected to reach $35 billion in 2019, or 4.2 percent of GDP.

“In Saudi Arabia, now there is a dual tension – first is to provide affordable housing for the younger generation feeling the pinch of higher costs of living, reduced subsidies, and less jobs,” Karen Young, from the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP. “Second is to broaden financial services to expand credit products, and hope to spur consumer growth. The latter has more chances of broader economic growth than returning to free government housing practices.” The world’s top oil exporter says it is seeking to partner with the private sector to stump up billions of dollars to build around 1.5 million affordable homes in the coming years.
Boosting home ownership is one of the key cornerstones of Prince Mohammad’s Vision 2030 reform program. Nearly half of the country’s 20.7 million Saudis owned their own home in 2017, with hopes of reaching 70 percent by 2030. The kingdom also wants to reduce the cost of an average home by 2020 to five times the average annual income, down from 10 times the yearly salary in 2015. Saudi Arabia has only a single digit mortgage penetration, one of the lowest among G20 countries, according to the Arab News daily.

The housing ministry, which has announced multiple housing schemes to alleviate the crisis, says it seeks to increase total mortgages to 502 billion riyals ($134 billion) by 2020, up from 290 billion riyals ($77 billion) in 2017. But some Saudis are pushing back, voicing resentment over continued state spending on grand projects like NEOM, a planned $500 billion mega city in the kingdom’s northwest, while many cannot afford homes. “Where is the 250 billion riyals?” has been a recent refrain on social media.

It refers to the $67 billion allocated to the housing ministry in 2011 by the then King Abdullah, apparently to address popular discontent as Arab Spring protests swept the region. For Majid, who waited for years for a loan from the Fund, the current scenario means he can only rent a small place rather than purchasing a house. “When my eight-year-old daughter has to change her clothes in front of her brothers, I feel ashamed I don’t have a bigger house of my own,” Majid told AFP, requesting that his real name be withheld. “It makes me angry.” – AFP

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