Saudi Housing Minister Warns Owners of White Lands: “Build Or Sell”

Urban land left undeveloped could be confiscated by the government for use in housing projects. Saudi Minister of Housing Shuwaish al-Dhuwaihi said during a TV interview on Friday that owners of vacant plots inside cities, known as “white lands,” might lose their properties if they don’t develop them soon.

These land owners has to either “build or sell,” the Minister said.

King Abdullah ordered the building of half a million housing units in 2011, but that effort has been hampered by the lack of suitable land in major cities. Experts estimate that as much as half of the country’s 70,000 acres of prime, undeveloped urban land are being held off the market by people known as “hawameer al aradhi” or “land whales.” As Ellen Knickmeyer explains, these people are:

the rich and well-connected Saudis who for generations have snapped up and held on to vast tracts of land in the vicinity of the kingdom’s cities, some of it originally given by Saudi kings to their powerful followers. The land whales view their holdings as a long-term investment, to be passed on to sons and grandsons, and have proved reluctant to release it for development, Saudi and international economists say.

Housing Minister said the fact that 70 percent of the lands in the cities are vacant “threatens the social stability,” according to Arab News. “The expropriation of properties for the public interest is done around the world,” al-Dhuwaihi said. “We might do it in a limited way.”

The housing crisis has been years in the making, but it was not until recently that the issue has come to occupy the center of media and government attention. The Ministry of Housing was only established in March 2011, and there is skepticism that it can achieve meaningful solutions the crisis.

“I think every citizen’s biggest fear is that after waiting several years, the Ministry of Housing will come out and say that it is unable to fulfill its tasks,” famous novelist Abdo Khal wrote in Okaz, wondering if we will ever reach the needed housing target. “Merely changing ownership of land to the Ministry of Housing is not enough unless concrete measures are taken to address the bureaucracy that plagues our administrative system.”