Analysis: The Saudization of Saudi Arabia

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor  |  Sept. 10, 2004 at 6:48 AM
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia's royal family is taking a good hard look at unemployment and its youth -- two of the country's main grievances -- and potential sources of turmoil. Lack of jobs, uncertain futures and the absence of ways to let off steam have turned the kingdom's youth into a social-economic ticking time bomb.

The recent opening of an Ikea store in Jeddah attracted over 15,000 people after 50 vouchers each worth SR500 (approximately $133) were offered as a sales gimmick. The event turned into a wild stampede that left two people dead.

What is remarkable about this story is what attracted those crowds. It is not the money, wrote Abdurrahman Al-Shayyal in the Arab News. Five hundred riyals he says "would most probably buy you a lovely lamp or a shiny set of stainless steel spoons."

What attracted the crowds is the total lack of anything else to do. In a country with no social pressure valve allowing the young to let off steam, where the mutawa'a, -- the religious police -- will restrict the slightest form of social entertainment, the most trivial happening turns into a World Cup event.

Indeed, the Ikea store opening attracted more people than a soccer match would, drawing in both men and women by the thousands.

In its editorial the Arab News comments over "the total lack of activity in the lives of the teenagers who went, the bored housewives who sit at home memorizing the various options on their satellite dishes and the civil servants who felt that a challenge between friends over the vouchers would be more productive than going to work was the motive that propelled all those people to the IKEA store."

The newspaper points out that Saudi society has more than 50 percent spare time. "This is something that threatens the future of the country," wrote Al-Shayyal. In a country where cinemas are banned and mingling between the sexes is taboo, a chance for the "excitement" of a store opening seemed irresistible.

The threat to the country is very real. The large pool of idle youth has allowed Islamic fundamentalists to find easy recruits. Saudi sources say that many of the insurgents were in their early teens.

In unprecedented efforts to create jobs for tens of thousands of unemployed Saudis, the government has started an ambitious project daubed "Saudization." The aim of the project is to shrink the country's over-inflated expatriate workforce -- estimated at around 6 million -- eventually replacing it with Saudi nationals.

In principle the plan makes sense. It will create jobs for the country's youth -- who number close to 60 percent of the desert kingdom's population of 25 million -- most of whom are between the ages of 18-25. Among them are freshly graduated college students armed with degrees but not quite sure what to do next.

"You cannot have our youth going around without jobs," said Abdullah Aldubaikhi, president of AwalNet, a local telecommunication company.

Government estimates put the number of young people seeking to enter the job market at about 350,000 every year. Given that millions of jobs are taken up by expatriates, finding a job becomes even harder. Furthermore, until recently, Saudis shunned menial, lower-paying clerical jobs.

But with the government's Saudization project new avenues are opening up to Saudi job seekers. Labor Minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi issued a directive earlier this week stating that 80 percent of administrative, accounting and translation jobs in Customs and clearance offices would be Saudized. The remaining 20 percent, reports the Arab News, would be held back for "specialized jobs," though efforts would continue to eventually fully Saudize the service.

The change in Saudi Arabia's Customs is expected to produce 17,000 jobs for Saudi nationals in different parts of the country's 3,452 Customs offices, according to figures from the Saudi Press Agency. This is just one of many steps being mirrored across the kingdom.

Similar trends are underway in other parts of its economy. The one-time image of Saudi citizens enjoying cradle-to-grave financial security, economic incentives, free higher education, and other perks is no longer a given as Saudis awake to the realities of harsher economic times combined with the recent terror threat, one which has not totally dissipated. In this respect Saudi Arabia has joined the rest of the world.

Today, there is nothing unusual in finding Saudi nationals working the front desk in a hotel, wearing the uniform of a private security guard, or serving in a McDonald's, a KFC or any of the popular shops found in any American mall. Not too long ago this would have been unthinkable.

Until recently lower-paying jobs were reserved for Indians, Pakistanis, Baluchis, Filipinos, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs who make up the vast majority of the less-skilled expatriate work force living and working in Saudi.

Now Saudis have replaced expatriates in the gold souk -- previously the protected domain of Yemenis. And with Saudization, one now even finds Saudis working in Riyadh's vegetable market.

Abdullah thinks that this is going too far. "I don't believe that Saudis working in the vegetable market is profitable for the country. I believe in having Saudis work in fields such as information technology." But he adds, "You have to train them." His IT company employs a majority of Saudis, some who had to undergo more than a year of training.

"We don't have to be tough in applying it (Saudization); we have to be intelligent," he told United Press International.

Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal, president of al-Faisaliyah Group, agrees. "We should create value- added jobs," he tells UPI. Jobs, the prince explains, that will profit both the individuals and the economy.

Saudization, like any other major undertaking, comes with its own problems.

European helicopter technicians working just outside the capital, Riyadh, are also tasked with breaking in a new crop of Saudi technicians. The idea is that the Saudis will eventually replace them. "At least that is the theory," says one the technicians, speaking on background. "But it's not a given," he said. "The majority of the trainees show little or no interest."

The same dilemma faces the country's monolithic oil company, Saudi Aramco, which employs hundreds of foreign nationals. Many of them were frightened away by the recent spate of terrorism that killed more that 90 people since last May.

As gun battles between security forces and pro-al-Qaida militants erupted, many Westerners sent their dependents away to Europe, the United States, or even to closer, but safer, Arab Gulf countries. Hundreds of others chose to leave and never returned.

For foreigners, living in the kingdom has never been a simple task, and for many it's a love-hate relation. Asked how he liked living here after 17 years in the country, a Bangladeshi expatriate replied, "Nobody likes it here. But we are able to make some money."

And for Westerners life in Saudi Arabia became harder after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. "The lifestyle has not been attractive since 9/11," complained an American oil worker. The employee from Bangladesh laments over the recent violence, saying: "Al-Qaida has made trouble for everybody. The hotels are all empty."

But the European helicopter contractor disagrees. "Life in Arabia is very pleasant," he says. "I would renew my contract for another 10 years in a heartbeat."

Yet if Saudization proves to be successful, he may find himself replaced by one of the very technicians he trained.

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