- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The kingdom is taking a hard look at unemployment and young people — two of the country’s main potential sources of turmoil. Lack of jobs, uncertain futures and the absence of ways to let off steam have turned Saudi youths into a ticking time bomb.

The recent opening of an Ikea store in Jidda attracted more than 15,000 people after 50 vouchers each worth 500 Saudi riyals — about $133 — were distributed. The event turned into a stampede that left two persons dead.

What is remarkable is what drew the crowds. It was not the money, Abdurrahman Al-Shayyal wrote in the Arab News. Five hundred riyals, he said, “would most probably buy you a lovely lamp, or a shiny set of stainless-steel spoons.”

What attracted the thousands is the lack of anything else to do. In a country with no social outlets for the young to let off steam, where the religious police restrict all forms of social entertainment, the most trivial event seems like a World Cup match.

Indeed, the Ikea store opening attracted more people than a soccer match would.

In its editorial, the Arab News said: “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, were the motives that propelled all those people to the Ikea store.”

The paper pointed out that Saudi society spends more than half its time with nothing particular to do. “This is something that threatens the future of the country,” Mr. Al-Shayyal wrote.

In a country where cinemas are banned and mingling between the sexes is taboo, the “excitement” of a store opening seemed irresistible.

The threat to the kingdom is real. The large pool of idle youths provides Islamic fundamentalists easy access to recruits. Saudi sources say many “holy warriors” are in their early teens.

Seeking to create jobs for tens of thousands of unemployed Saudis, the government has undertaken an ambitious project called “Saudization.” Its aim is to shrink the country’s inflated foreign work force — estimated at about 6 million — and eventually replace it with Saudi workers.

In principle, the plan will create jobs for Saudis ages 18 to 25, who number close to 60 percent of the desert kingdom’s population of 25 million. Among them are recent college graduates not sure what to do next.

“You cannot have our youths going around without jobs,” said Abdullah Aldubaikhi, president of AwalNet, a telecommunications company.

Government estimates put the number of young Saudis ready to enter the job market at about 350,000 per year. Because foreigners eagerly accept millions of jobs, finding work becomes harder. Moreover, until recently, Saudis shunned menial and low-paying clerical jobs.

But with “Saudization,” new avenues are opening for Saudi job seekers. Labor Minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi issued a directive this month specifying 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” more likely to require skilled foreigners, though efforts would continue to Saudize the service fully.

The change in Saudi Arabia’s customs agency is expected to produce 17,000 jobs for Saudis in the agency’s 3,452 scattered offices, the Saudi Press Agency reports. This step is one of many across the kingdom. Similar efforts are under way in other parts of the economy.

The previous situation in which Saudi citizens enjoyed cradle-to-grave financial security, economic incentives, free higher education and other perks are no longer a given as the kingdom awakens to harsher economic times and the growing terrorist threat. In this respect, Saudi Arabia is just now joining the rest of the world.

Today, it is not unusual to find Saudis working the front desk in a hotel, wearing the uniform of a private security guard, or serving at a McDonald’s or KFC restaurant, or any of the popular shops found most everywhere. Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable.

Until recently, low-paying jobs were reserved for Indians, Pakistanis, Baluchis, Filipinos, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs who make up the foreign work force living and working in Saudi Arabia.

Saudis have replaced expatriates in the gold souk — a retail market that was formerly the domain of Yemenis. With Saudization, one even finds the kingdom’s subjects working in Riyadh’s vegetable market.

Mr. Aldubaikhi, the telecom president, 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 areas like information technology.”

But, he added: “You have to train them.” His IT company employs mainly Saudis, some who had to undergo more than a year’s training.

“We don’t have to be tough in applying [Saudization]; we have to be intelligent,” he said.

Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal, president of Al Faisaliah Group, agrees. “We should create value-added jobs,” he said — jobs that will benefit both the worker and the economy.

Saudization, like any other major undertaking, creates problems.

European helicopter technicians working just outside Riyadh are breaking in a crop of Saudi technicians. The idea is that the Saudis eventually will replace them.

“At least that is the theory,” said one technician who declined to be identified. “But it’s not a given,” he said. “The majority of the trainees show little or no interest.”

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

As gunbattles erupted between security forces and al Qaeda allies, many Westerners sent their dependents to Europe, the United States, or to closer but safer Arab countries. Hundreds of others chose simply to leave, and haven’t returned.

For foreigners, living in the kingdom has never been easy and for many it’s a love-hate relationship.

Asked how he liked it after 17 years in Saudi Arabia, a Bangladeshi replied, “Nobody likes it here, but we are able to make some money.”

For Westerners, life in Saudi Arabia became harder after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

“The lifestyle has not been attractive since 9/11,” an American oil worker said. The employee from Bangladesh, lamenting the recent violence, said: “Al Qaeda has made trouble for everybody. The hotels are all empty.”

But the European helicopter contractor disagrees.

“Life in Arabia is very pleasant,” he said. “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 technicians he is training.

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