A team of young Saudis produced a short sarcastic comedy / drama film that combines both humor and tragedy, called Monopoly. Over 1 million people watched Monopoly on YouTube in its first week. This documentary film is a plea of help from our youth and it deals with an issue that has generated much heated debate over the past 2 decades.

Monopoly is about the empty privately owned lands that are not being used, even though the government has supplied these lands with essential services, such as roads, electricity, and water. Since the government does not demand zakat or taxes or any fees on these lands, owning lands and leaving them barren over time has become a safe investment. This practice has become so common in our culture that society believes in this popular saying: “Saudi land does not require food or drink and if it falls ill, it will not die, it simply grows day after day.”

Businessmen and real estate agents delay selling these empty lands until later dates to ensure enormous profits. The rapid increase in population led to higher demands on land and as a result, the prices of lands soared. Businessmen now sell only a small portion of their owned empty lands to get the cash flow they need. Large stretches of land remain barren and the society has entered a vicious cycle.

Economist and writer, Isam Al-Zamel, exposed some shocking facts in one of his reports. He wrote that in Riyadh, there is 5000 square kilometers of available lands but only 23% has been used. In other words, 77% of the lands that the government spent money on to provide with roads, electricity, and water are frozen and monopolized. And a similar picture exists in all of the Kingdom’s cities. These lands are sufficient and plenty enough to meet the needs of hundreds of Saudis. The empty lands have become waste lands because they are not utilized and the society has a right to them as the people’s money went into servicing these lands.

As lands continue to be monopolized and prices of lands continue to outrageously climb, buying a house has become an unattainable dream for the average Saudi, especially those from low income families. It is a disturbing dichotomy to find that the majority of young men in our wealthy country do not own a home. Studies show that with current land prices, only individuals with a monthly salary of 15,000 S.R. or above can afford to buy a home. Unfortunately, more than 90% of Saudi employees have a monthly income of less than 15,000 S.R.

In addition, the increase in land prices is directly related to the increase in apartment rents, and it is the average, hard working employee that suffers the most. The average person pays 30% of the annual income on residential rent, and it is expected that this number will reach 50% in the future. High prices of land have a domino effect, and raise the prices of office and shop rentals, which in turn will cause inflation.

The negative impact of an increase in land costs does not end here. It puts an additional financial burden on the government to adopt human developmental projects, such as building hospitals, schools, residential compounds, and community centers with youth programs. Private organizations will be discouraged from investing in such projects that will have immense ethical and societal benefits on the society at large.

These empty lands become a tool to preserve and multiply the wealth of a limited few while blocking the construction and investment in institutions that will enrich the lives of all members of the society. Financial security of wealthy businessmen should not come at the expense of the average Saudi national.

Those hit the hardest by the land monopoly are the young generation who are the most vital resource of any country and who make up the majority of the population in the Kingdom. The extreme cost of renting or buying a house delays marriages which has a host of damaging ramifications in the society. Owning a house is the backbone of building a stable, good, and peaceful family life.

Some important questions that need to be addressed are: 1. Why does the law penalize the monopoly of products, cosmetics, and foods but does not place any pressure on those who monopolize lands. For example, to protect the consumer, anyone who hoards an excess of iron to raise its price on the market is heavily penalized and admonished. 2. Why do we allow lands to sit for years when we know that building on them will open up jobs, improve living conditions, boost the economy, and provide community services? Land monopoly is far more damaging than the monopoly on any other product. Whereas commercial goods can be imported to balance supply and demand, lands cannot be imported. Nor can lands be manufactured or produced. Land is a limited national resource. The society must object to land monopolies because it leaves the fate of future generations in the hands of individuals who seek only financial gain.

Taxation would keep money moving, distribute the wealth, and improve the economy: all of which are some of the goals of Islamic financing. From 14 centuries ago, Islam prohibited monopolies which also extends to empty asset lands.

Even the renowned liberal economist, Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel prize in economics and is a strong supporter of free economy always objects to taxation of any kind, except when it comes to privately owned lands. Friedman attests to the great benefits incurred on the entire community as a result of demanding taxes on these lands, such as: fueling a liberal economy, maintaining cash flow, and distributing wealth.

Our teacher, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), withdrew monopolized lands and returned them to the Muslim Treasury. Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab set regulations to prevent land monopoly and announced, “None has the right to reserve an empty plot of land for more than 3 years.” After the mentioned time period, the land was handed to the Muslim Treasury to be rightfully used.

The control of land by an elite few is unfair to the hardworking low income family. The Kingdom can learn from the experience of neighboring countries. A new law was put in place to disallow companies from purchasing lands in residential areas. The law also extricates annual taxes on empty asset lands with a surface area that exceeds 5,000 square meters. This law succeeded in reducing land prices and curbing the monopoly of land.

There is no logical justification for freezing viable lands for the profit of landowners.  None has the right to control the earth’s natural resources, including land. The Shoura Council has advised and recommended imposing zakat or taxes on privately owned lands that are not utilized yet.

Isam Al-Zamel calculated that zakat paid on these would amount to 30 billion Riyals. Some landowners will be driven to sell their lands and that trend in itself would keep land prices in check. And the zakat money collected could fund housing projects or healthcare for the poor.

I disagree with the common saying: “Saudi land does not require food or drink and if it falls ill, it will not die, it simply grows day after day.”

The sad truth is that the empty lands do eat and drink; and the riches of our society is stored for decades to enrich only the landowner  and stores them for decades to enrich only the landowner and deprive the rest of society. In fact, land does die when it is not built and when the human’s purpose for creation is not fulfilled; which is building the Earth. Not only do these barren lands die, but they also kill the hopes and dreams of an entire generation.

The documentary Monopoly is the youth’s message and if they are not heard and helped, they may resort to less desirable venues to express their concerns, needs, frustration and complaints. Taxing empty asset lands may be the solution to creating social reform, aiding those in need, assisting marriages, starting up young families, preventing dissatisfaction and corruption. Can we put the interests of a few wealthy landowners before the interests of our future generations?