Many of the world’s super-rich live in Muslim-majority countries with extremely wide income gaps. Where do we draw the line of “excessive”? By Fatimah Jackson-Best.
There are 78 billionaires in the Middle East, and some in the top 20 live in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, according to Forbes. The elite list is comprised of mainly men and a few women who enjoy levels of wealth that most others can only dream about. Many of these individuals made their fortunes through oil, construction and savvy business investments. As a result, they have made enough money to spend during several lifetimes. And spend they do – from opulent yachts to luxury cars and homes, there is no material thing that the super-rich cannot have.
Take for example Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Abu Dhabi. The Sheikh was recently lauded for beating out a Russian businessman for the title of the owner of the biggest and most expensive super-yacht.[i] His vessel (pictured above) is reported to have seven decks with an expansive salon, and cost around $600 million. Such extravagance isn’t confined to the Arab world. The Sultan of Brunei is said to live in an 1800-room palace which is just large enough to fit his 110 car garage, five swimming pools, and air-conditioned stables for his horses.[ii]
One could go on about the possessions of these wealthy people, and while it is fascinating to think about their luxurious lifestyles, it is also important to consider that many of these billionaires are Muslim and live in countries that enforce various interpretations of Islamic law. I also cannot help but remember the widening disparity between those with money and those without access to it. While these sheikhs and sultans comprise a tiny and privileged minority, there are far more people worldwide who live in abject poverty or are barely scraping by.
Saudi Arabia is a relevant place to consider using this perspective. This is an Islamically-run state that nets hundreds of billions of dollars through its oil industry, yet one quarter of the population lives in poverty.[iii] Up to four million native Saudis somehow survive on $17 a day; conversely King Abdullah’s personal net worth is said to be about $18 billion. The Kingdom has also become notorious for human rights exploitation and labour issues amongst foreign workers.
Many of these workers come from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa seeking to improve their quality of life and get a slice of the wealth that seems to abound. Instead men and women are worked for long hours and under dangerous conditions which no one should have to bear. These are glaring examples of the gap between rich and poor, and although zakat (charity) is enforced in the country and in other Islamic states, the disparity still exists and it is widening.
My social and moral compass knows that there is something inherently wrong with this situation. Perhaps it is my own naivety or maybe it’s because I do not have billions of dollars, but I don’t know if I could enjoy extreme wealth knowing that there is also extreme poverty. To be clear, I am also aware that I enjoy certain comforts in my own lifestyle that many others do not. This indicates that there are levels to wealth and privilege, and although I am not at the top I am also not at the bottom. Simply put, we are all involved in this hierarchy.
There is no step-by-step manual that tells us how to close the gap between the rich and the poor. Some countries have tried to implement social policies and plans to redistribute wealth, but it is difficult to name one clearly successful example of this today.
However, there is an excellent guide that can enable us to understand how we can use wealth, and that happens to be the Qur’an. While the book does not prevent people from earning a living and making money it does address sharing wealth, and it also cautions us from becoming ostentatious with spending. In Surah al-Isra it is said, “And give the relative his right, and [also] the poor and the traveler, and do not spend wastefully” (17:26). The verse makes a clear call for us to give part of what we have, and avoid spending on what may not be a necessity. Truly, there is wisdom in this for anyone – regardless of his or her income bracket.
[i] Miranda Bryant, ‘World’s biggest yacht title now belongs to Emirati royal family’, Evening Standard, 14 Aug 2014, available here
[ii] Julie Zeveloff, ‘The royals of Brunei lead lives of almost incomprehensible wealth’, Business Insider, 8 May 2014, available here
[iii] Kevin Sullivan, ‘Saudi Arabia’s riches conceal a growing problem of poverty’, The Guardian, 1 Jan 2013, available here