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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – Getting Employers to Face Up to an Awful Truth

December 7, 2014

job fair

A recent story in the Arab News about a job fair in Riyadh where 44 employers were offering 1,947 jobs and only had 811 takers has caused a bit of a debate both among Saudis and foreigners.

Was this further evidence in support of the oft-repeated canard about Saudis being work-shy – content to sit at home while an army of foreigners do all the work, and if they happen to be in jobs, doing the least that they can get away with?

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, a columnist for the paper, issues a stinging rebuttal of that view in an article published today: We aren’t a nation of lazy, spoiled brats! It’s well worth a read.

He pinpoints a number of issues that contribute to the perception. Many Saudis prefer to work in the civil service because they see government jobs as being more secure and prestigious than work in the private sector. But the government can’t accommodate all the school leavers in a country that – like many others in the Middle East – has a huge youth bulge. He goes on to comment:

I think there are many reasons behind the reluctance of more Saudis entering the private sector. And I seriously doubt that the majority of those who remain unemployed or underemployed are happy, and don’t want a shot at a stimulating job. There is no massive government scheme that I know of that pays young Saudis to stay at home and do nothing, and as far as I know most of these unemployed Saudis are from middle and working class families. For sure the educational system is partly to blame in that it is producing Saudis who are incapable of analyzing situations on their own and taking decisions when needed. With its emphasis on rote memorization has unfortunately resulted in young Saudis not being ready for today’s competitive job market. The extended family system that most Saudis are born into also tends not to encourage independence in actions, as we know that there will always be some relative there ready to help us financially when the need arises and a maid to clean up after us. Saudi families should start raising their children to be more independent and responsible. They should start with small things such as helping set the table for lunch and dinner; helping clear the table; washing the dishes occasionally; learning how to wash and iron clothes; vacuum the house and clean their own bedrooms. This teaches discipline and self-reliance. Instead of always expecting the maid or your mother/sister/aunt to clean up after you, why not do these things yourself?

Well said. The education system, the extended family and the reliance on domestic help are all factors that fashion attitudes among the young.

His take on the job fair  – born out by friends – is that perhaps a number of the job specifications set the bar too high in terms of experience required.

I can believe that. I was discussing the event with a couple of Saudi friends this afternoon. One of them commented that there is a wide mistrust of job fairs, because they tend to talk up the jobs with the highest salaries. When young hopefuls turn up, they are disappointed to find that only a small fraction of the jobs on offer are at the upper level, and that these roles demand a level of experience that they don’t have. Thus highly qualified high school or university graduates find themselves being offered low-paying jobs, or not offered jobs at all.

The other friend told the story of a large fast food chain that put signs in every outlet offering jobs at SR8,500 a month – more than twice the minimum wage. Thinking that this was a pretty good deal for youngsters, he got talking to one of the Saudis who was working there about the offer. The employee told him that actually he was on a wage of SR3,500 a month, and pointed out the very small print at the bottom of the poster. It said that the higher wage was for assistant managers.

This kind of misleading hype is not confined to the job market. In Jeddah recently several well-known stores have been hauled over the coals by trading standards officials for advertising discounts that don’t exist.

All these practices lead to a sense of cynicism, not to say distrust, of advertising claims across the board.

What about the young people who do find jobs in the private sector? I learned this afternoon that in retail particularly, most young Saudis leave their jobs within three and six months. Why then would an employer invest in training and development if the people they train are out of the door in a relative instant? Well, it doesn’t help that these kids, who have no experience of work, no career guidance at school and no idea of what is expected of them, find themselves thrown into jobs with little supervision, no idea of any career path and no training or mentoring. In other words, they are left to sink or swim. And most swim away at the first opportunity, either back home to wallow in disillusionment or, if they’re lucky, to what they see as better jobs in banking, telecommunications and so forth.

In construction, which in Saudi Arabia is a particularly dog-eat-dog industry, foreign hiring managers apparently actively resist taking on young Saudi engineers, preferring to recruit from within their own ethnic groups. Very discouraging for people who have studied for years, and graduate with the expectation that they will easily find jobs in the most dynamic sector in the economy.

So this leads to a question that needs to be posed to owners of private sector businesses who moan about the poor work ethic of their fellow nationals. If you treat your Saudi employees as expensive burdens, only to be taken on because you are required to do so by increasingly aggressive government regulations, if you do nothing to train, motivate and encourage them, and if you recruit them with all the finesse of a cattle market trader, isn’t it pretty obvious that your concerns about their work ethic will be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I agree with Rasheed – there are plenty of motivated, hard-working Saudis in all walks of life. When I visit the Kingdom, I see them, interact with them and talk to them every day. But the ones I don’t see so often are those who don’t have jobs. These are the ones who need to be cared about as well. And if employers don’t care for the young people they recruit, encourage them, introduce them into workplaces where even if the first job isn’t ideal it’s still a fun place to be, give them goals, show them where they can go, help them to achieve dreams and ambitions, there are others waiting on the internet or north of the border who will be only too pleased to give these impressionable kids ideals, dreams and ambitions. The trouble is, the kind of dreams on offer will be extremely bad for business in the long run.

As Rasheed says:

The government has for many years been trying to convince Saudi business owners that while training and employing Saudis may be more expensive in the short term, in the long term it is a much needed investment in the future well-being of our country.

I would go further. These owners have benefited from the extraordinary good fortune of being born in a country whose government has for decades bent over backwards to help them, and thanks to the Kingdom’s abundant resources, they have prospered. Now it’s time to give something back, however painful that may be in the short term. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous, not only for their businesses but for the country as a whole.

And those owners who don’t get the point should be prepared to see their businesses wither on the vine. The sooner the better.

  1. I don’t agree with the generalization that most of Male Saudis are lazy. There are few who are really dedicated and will prove their worth if given opportunity by their bosses and the company. However, based on experience, the female Saudis are the laziest of the bunch. They don’t report to work on time, they don’t care about their attendance. If they have assignments, it’d still be re delegated to their expat co workers because chances are they won’t do it or they think that it’s beyond them. They also boss around their expat co workers and act like the managers. You don’t see the Male Saudis do that.

    • Interesting perspective – thanks! I would be wary about generalisations in respect of either gender. I’ve seen some very hard-working Saudi women in their workplaces. I think that to identify the causes of laziness wherever you find it, you need to look at what motivates and de-motivates people. And that’s another – very long – story! Steve

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