The young prince likes to play gourmet cook. When it comes time to sit down to dinner, though, the meal is served by not one but three Philippine maids. His guests are fetched by Pakistani drivers--one for home, a few more for the office.
Now, he frowns because the Saudi government has held up his request for visas to import more foreign help.
“I’ve been waiting two months for visas, and I’m a nephew of the king!” he exclaims. “I wrote to Prince Nayif (ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi interior minister), and you know what he said? ‘How many people are working for you? Why do you need more?’ ”
But he nods gravely. “This is good. Because all the foreigners here are subsidized. Taxi drivers have maids. Maids have maids! We have to think about this. Start making me pay through the nose for this! I have three maids, two nannies, three drivers. Make me pay for the extra maid $1,000, the next maid $4,000. We’ll stop getting maids!”
As Saudi Arabia’s fiscal crunch begins to be felt--from the ranks of unemployed university graduates all the way up through the royal family--the first battle lines are forming around the 4.5 million foreign workers who drive the kingdom’s cars, make its beds, serve its meals, diaper its children, maintain its equipment, program its computers, balance its bank books and sell its cosmetics.
There’s an easy answer to the nation’s lagging revenues, dwindling government employment opportunities, private-sector layoffs and burgeoning crime, Saudis have concluded: Export unemployment. Send the foreign workers home. Train Saudis to take on their jobs.
It is an idea that has been tried--with relatively little success--throughout the wealthy Persian Gulf, particularly since the Gulf War sent tens of thousands of well-trained Palestinians away.
But in Saudi Arabia, it will be an especially formidable undertaking, because foreign workers, most covered by work visas, make up more than a quarter of the kingdom’s population of 16 million. Each year, they send $17.1 billion in wages home to their families--roughly equivalent to Saudi Arabia’s 1993 defense budget.
Many Saudis are growing anxious about the large foreign population because they believe it is responsible for an alarming rise in crime. The public panic peaked in October, when three Filipinos broke into a billionaire banker’s home, killed his 2-year-old son and gravely injured his wife.
The incident has prompted Saudis to turn a new eye of suspicion on foreigners, most of whom were sponsored by employers but an increasing number of whom overstayed visas or arrived for the annual Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca and never went home.
At the same time, Saudi unemployment isn’t as nonexistent as the government asserts. Private commercial sources estimate there are 500,000 employable Saudis who have not found jobs.
In the past, no one ever gave much worry to the idea of unemployed Saudis. Sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves, why would Saudis want to work anyway? But the Gulf War’s $55-billion price tag, declining oil prices and massive defense equipment expenditures have cast a shadow on the kingdom’s days of careless luxury.
Now, Saudis are asking themselves if they really need the number of maids, nannies and drivers that have become household fixtures.
And the government is issuing decrees that will drastically reduce reliance on workers from abroad--most of whom are eligible for the same free health care and education that most Saudis enjoy (although new restrictions were imposed this year) and all of whom buy commodities like food and fuel at rock-bottom prices subsidized by the government.
Tens of thousands of legal workers already are being sent home as their contracts end in the face of a growing recession.
And beginning in November, the Interior Ministry cracked down on tens of thousands more working illegally, rounding them up in jails, airport detention centers and makeshift embassy campgrounds before dispatching them home.
A variety of programs also have been launched to train Saudis to work in areas such as retail sales, security and ice cream vending.
Officials admit they are bucking a cultural trend that inclines most Saudis toward cushy government jobs with big offices and lots of fax machines. Saudi employers, at the same time, have always been happier hiring foreigners, who didn’t come with the Saudi worker’s reputation for laziness and the inclination to hop from job to job as the mood and the paycheck struck.
But for the first time, enrollment is growing in employment training programs, and consultants say they are ready to provide a positive answer to the old question: Can a Saudi get a job?
The kingdom’s year-old experiment with democracy, the 60-member advisory council, has taken on “Saudi-zation” as an important goal for dealing with the kingdom’s budget troubles.
“It is not only economical--it is social and cultural, as well,” Abdullah Naseef, deputy chairman of the advisory council, said of changes in view here about Saudis and their foreign workers. “Now, everybody is enjoying their life with leisure. There are too many servants and drivers, and for all of them, we must pay subsidies. We have 4 million non-Saudis working in the kingdom, and, in society, they have a social influence. If you can get rid of 2 million, you are certainly making a step forward.”
Like many other Saudis, Naseef fears that the large numbers of foreign workers--many of whom are non-Muslims in a country that is among the most conservative in Islam--will have a bad influence on the kingdom’s attempts to keep its doors closed to outside social influences. Many of the thousands of Thai, Indian and Philippine workers who enter the kingdom to do routine jobs aren’t Muslim at all, while the large numbers of Pakistanis and Egyptians hail from a decidedly less conservative Muslim tradition.
Europeans and Americans imported for administrative and technical jobs often demand things like alcohol, pork and church services--that the kingdom would rather keep under wraps. By and large, they live in private company compounds, where they can keep women drivers, bathing suits and homemade wine outside of Saudi view.
The kingdom’s Third World workers often live in a social nether world in cheap staff housing with little or no life outside the job. Shopping malls are depressing havens for hundreds of bored, lonely Philippine, Egyptian and Pakistani men, who stand listlessly in the corridors on weekday evenings. Most see their families only every year or two and enjoy none of the boisterous social activities they were used to at home.
Their jobs, from mechanic to waiter, are high paying by the standards of their home countries--where most mail their paychecks every month. But the cost is often the best years of their lives.
“For us, it is miserable, ma’am,” said one Hindu Indian limousine driver who has been working in Jidda for the past 11 years, leaving his wife and children behind. “As soon as I have saved enough money, I will go home.”
An Egyptian bellboy waits until the elevator doors close in a Riyadh luxury hotel. “I hate it here,” he says, almost without prompting. “I will leave as soon as I can.”
For the first time, Saudis are only too ready to accommodate such wishes.
“What’s really frightening us is the matter of relying on some other people’s help,” added another council member, Mohammed A. Rashid, a professor and businessman. “We don’t want it to continue. At one time, we had our own carpenters, our own electricians for our own people. But they’ve all disappeared. We want once again to bring these types of work to the attention of our people.”
But a look at the parking lot of King Abdulaziz University in Jidda shows just how daunting are the challenges confronting this kingdom: Here, 18-year-old Saudis, their red-and-white head scarves whipping in the wind, rush in behind the wheels of oversized Chryslers, Lincolns, Buicks and Mercedeses. They earn $250 a month pocket money from the government just for attending classes. Do these look like the ice cream vendors and car salesmen of tomorrow?
Mazen Balelah, director of a new job training program sponsored by the Jidda Chamber of Commerce, admits that he has his work cut out for him. Many Saudis don’t want the kind of jobs he is ready to train them for. And many employers would rather hire foreigners.
“Here, people with the culture, the overall society, think government jobs are more prestigious, more safe,” he said. “They don’t like their sons to work in the private sector because they think it is unstable.
“Also, we have found that when the government leaves everything completely to the private sector owners, it’s very difficult for them to accept Saudis,” he added. “Because also they complain about their instability. They (Saudis) leave whenever they find another job, or when they find the job a little bit difficult.”
Alan Dolan, a private British consultant who is administering the job training program, was more blunt: “The stereotype of the Saudi worker is irresponsible, lazy . . . not very motivated, and certainly someone who has not got the work ethic. . . . Saudis have always had this idea they’re going to be whizzed into a new office with a big desk and sit back and drink tea and make deals--though they’re not exactly sure what a deal is.
“We’re saying, ‘Yes, that exists,’ but there’s a great body of people who are highly motivated, and willing to work, and what we’re doing is giving you a potential to work with,” he added.
The government can employ only about a quarter of the graduates who stream out of the nation’s universities each year. Moreover, government workers haven’t had a raise in the past 10 years and promotions are largely frozen.
It is the private sector, in this time of budget crisis, that is the healthiest, still-growing part of the economy. Many private employers are turning to Saudi hiring lists, if reluctantly, fearing that the kingdom will soon begin making “Saudi-zation” mandatory, as it already has in several fields.
For three years, for example, all security guards in the kingdom must be Saudis, as must customs and immigration officials. Taxi drivers--almost 100% of whom are foreign now--must all be Saudi in the next three years.
“Most of the students from universities who used to think they could get into the government are now retraining themselves to get into the private sector,” said one prominent business owner in Jidda, the Red Sea port that is the country’s commercial hub. “Saudis are not losing their jobs. Saudis are working much harder as a work force. They’re getting far more productive.”
The Jidda Chamber of Commerce’s fledgling training program helps companies recruit Saudis into specialty jobs--cashiers, accountants, electrical and mechanical technicians, engineers and administrative workers.
It is also trying to qualify 3,000 Saudis in the next three years in an entry-to-work program, in which companies specify their hiring needs and pay $12,000 each to sponsor trainees in general job and technical skills. Classroom training is followed by on-the-job training; employees commit to staying on the job at least two years.
The program’s first recruiting attempt last year--one newspaper and two television advertisements--drew 700 applicants.
It was tough, though, to attract trainees for an employer who wanted ice cream vendors for beach stands, Balelah noted--until it was pointed out that the vendors would earn $850 a month, only about a third less than the $1,140 starting salary offered by the government. Twelve Saudis have been hired and nine more are in training.
A joint venture with Procter & Gamble is preparing 30 Saudis to sell cleaning products.
“My job will be a salesman, but I don’t know how to make relations with people,” said Khalid Abdullah Jizani, a 26-year-old Saudi who is training to join British Aerospace. “This training program . . . will make us ready to start.” His beginning salary, about $1,400 a month, will be supplemented with a car. “It will be good to build my future,” he said.
Ali Ghamdi, a 23-year-old accounting graduate, found he still wasn’t ready to enter the job market and is training for a job with the accounting department under the sponsorship of the British American Tobacco Co.
“I didn’t want to work for the government. I have good ambition, and maybe work for the government will kill this ambition,” Ghamdi said. “The private sector, they think Saudi young people don’t work hard, don’t come on time, and you know, this is the problem, the impression of the private sector. We will make changes, God willing.”
Balelah said the goal of “Saudi-zation” training programs is to persuade employers to hire Saudis “not because they are Saudis, but because they are the best. . . . We have told our trainees they should prepare to play a pioneer role, to be the heroes of Saudi Arabia’s work force.”