The late politician, poet and novelist Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, who served briefly as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Health in 1984, mentions in one of his books about how he managed the ministry during a time when the Kingdom was not sure of how to address the issue of poor medical services. He wrote that when he assumed the post he was shocked by the poor state of the ministry.
It seems that the situation has not changed. The Ministry of Health is a difficult institution to lead, despite the slew of ministers who have headed it in the intervening years. According to Gosaibi, the problem lay within the ministry itself, in its procedures and its inability to implement policy. The healthcare crisis caused by the MERS coronavirus has exposed its failure to improve.
The priorities of most citizens are employment and healthcare, and the latter is often the service people use to judge their government’s competence and interest in their well-being.
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia—including the ministry, the public and private healthcare systems, the training of health workers and research and development—does not operate under a comprehensive and integrated strategy. The different arms of the healthcare system operate as separate entities under several governmental bodies, including the civil government, the military and as private businesses.
The health ministry’s budget is huge, as much as 20 billion US dollars a year. Half of this amount is used to pay salaries and one quarter is spent on operational needs. Around 60 percent of healthcare spending is concentrated in 150 towns and cities nationwide.
Despite growing fears of MERS, if you walk into private healthcare centers in Riyadh, neither the medical staff or the patients are wearing face masks—despite the fact that 10 percent of those recorded as having the condition are health workers.
In his article in the daily Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah, Dr. Abdullah Al-Huqayel highlighted some aspects of the problem and discussed the spread of the virus and the failure to treat it properly. He said it was, and still is, possible to control the spread of the MERS coronavirus before it becomes an epidemic. This is an international issue, not a purely national one, as the cooperation of international agencies and other countries is needed to prevent it becoming an epidemic.
Saudi Arabia is a vast country—half of its residents are from across the world. In addition, millions of pilgrims visit the country every year to perform their religious duties of Umrah and Hajj. Healthcare is thus a major public and private service, the management of which must be developed into an integrated system. It is the sector that hires the least number of citizens, as they require long and costly training. This is now a good opportunity to expand the scope of education and training.
The spread of the MERS-coronavirus has embarrassed the government and spread fear. It should prompt the country to reconsider and develop its healthcare sector.