Riyadh: The revelations made by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Social Affairs in April this year that there are about three million Saudis living below the poverty line piqued the interest of the public and media alike on efforts being taken to combat the problem.

The ministry, in the vanguard of the poverty eradication battle, is well aware of the task at hand with statistics showing that nearly 22 per cent of the population classifies as poor.

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, not without reason, chose Dr Yousuf Al Othaimeen, one of his most trusted aides, for the crucial portfolio. To his credit, Dr Al Othaimeen has shown a readiness to take a grass-roots approach to the problem, travelling the length and breadth of the country trying to assess the severity of the problem in urban and rural areas.

Many Saudi analysts and observers are of the view that the minister's outspokenness with regard to the number of the poor in the kingdom shows his resolve to address the problem.

Speaking to reporters, Dr Al Othaimeen said that his ministry values ideas rather than money to tackle the issue. He has spoken of setting up a food bank on the lines of similar initiatives in Sudan and Egypt to extend free food to the poor.

"A study in this regard has been presented to the concerned authorities as part of addressing the worst outcome of poverty, ie. hunger."

Experts say there are a host of underlying reasons for the increase in the number of poor including the inability of certain segments of society to take up viable employment, higher cost of living and personal factors such as the death of a spouse, imprisonment, or dismissal from jobs.

Dr Naif Al Mutairi, a social researcher, said poverty is more prevalent among certain segments of society like, for example, the aged, widows, divorcees, the illiterate and unskilled businessmen. "There are several people living below the poverty line in the so-called rich countries," he observed.

The government has already instituted a charity fund to address the problem, charting a national strategy and aiding social welfare organisations. There are more than 464 charitable societies spreading over various cities and regions. Charity housing projects have also been initiated.

Analyst Fayez Al Shamri believes keeping track of the number of people below the poverty line is vital to poverty alleviation efforts.

"There should be reviews of the factors determining the poverty line and necessary changes made from time to time. The poverty line could change from time to time and country to country. As for the International Monetary Fund, it has fixed it in terms of income in dollars and this can't be the criterion for Saudi Arabia."