Leadership: The Curse Of Affluence In Arabia


December 30, 2012: In Saudi Arabia the labor minister recently remarked that 86 percent of the jobs done by the eight million foreign workers in the country are not suitable for Saudis. This includes many sanitation and personal service jobs. But that’s six million jobs and expatriates, especially those from the West, commented (among themselves, not to Saudis) that most of these jobs were done, in the West, by Westerners. Some of the expats noted that Westerners doing their own dirty work were usually well paid for it but in some countries legal or illegal migrants were let in to do the unpleasant jobs for lower wages. This is what the Saudis do, and they then take some of the money saved to pay for the generous unemployment benefits for Saudis who cannot find suitable work. The resulting high unemployment rate worries government officials, especially in the case of the foreigners doing highly technical jobs in the oil industry, defense, or handling finances. This has led to the Saudization program in the early 1980s. This program has had little success for several reasons. First, businesses are allowed to pay foreigners less than what Saudis will work for. Second, there are a lot of “dirty” jobs that Saudis will not or cannot (because they are women) take. Third, not a lot of Saudis are qualified for the high-skill jobs where the government is particularly anxious to replace foreigners with Saudis. The lack of skills has to do with the education system, which is largely controlled by Islamic conservatives. Technical subjects are downplayed and religious studies emphasized. Young Saudis are encouraged to concentrate in religious studies in college. Many students go along with this, in part because it’s a lot easier than majoring in science or engineering.

Then there’s the work ethnic, which is not nearly as good as seen in foreigners. This is in part a self-inflicted problem. Since all of the oil states in Arabia are monarchies, the rulers quickly found that the most effective way to remain in power was to keep their subjects pampered and happy. In other words, spread the oil money around and pay attention to public opinion. Most of the public backs the use of foreigners and the continued use of oil money to make life easy for the locals.

For example, foreign workers are brought in to handle most jobs (like training pilots and maintaining weapons) that require high skill levels, a lot of effort, and lots of experience. This importation of foreign experts for piloting warplanes and maintaining them is very common in the Arab oil nations because the locals tend to avoid heavy physical or mental labor. While many Arab men see being a fighter pilot as glamorous and worthy of some effort, the training required discourages most who attempt it. Some Gulf Arab states insist that Arabs occupy those fighter plane cockpits but foreign trainers and maintainers are ordered to do what has to be done to keep the pilots alive and the planes in one piece. Pilot skill and capability has a lower priority.

It’s not just Saudi Arabia that is having these problems. Last year, in the wake of the rebellion that overthrew the Kaddafi dictatorship, a lot of Libyans found themselves out of work. The unemployment rate was believed to be about 30 percent. Yet there are over a million foreign workers in Libya and a million government employees. The foreigners comprise 20 percent of the population and nearly half the workforce. There are plenty of jobs for Libyans but most of the jobs require work most Libyans will not do. As a result most of the jobs are held by foreigners, often illegal immigrants from Egypt and other African nations to the south. The revolution is unlikely to change this.

This is not an unusual situation in the Arab oil states. In Saudi Arabia the unemployment rate is 12 percent but many of those men are unemployed by choice. Arabs tend to have a very high opinion of themselves and most jobs available to poorly educated young men do not satisfy. Thus most Saudis, and Libyans, prefer a government job where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy 90 percent of the Saudi jobs are taken by foreigners. These foreigners comprise 27 percent of the Saudi population, mostly to staff all the non-government jobs. This means most young Saudi men have few challenges. One might say that many of them are desperate for some test of their worth and a job in the competitive civilian economy does not do it. Thus al Qaeda appealed to this by urging Saudi men to come to Iraq and fight for Islam. Since few of the volunteers had any fighting skills, most arrived and were talked into being suicide bombers.

The Saudi employment situation is not unique. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has foreigners occupying 99 percent of the non-government jobs. The unemployment rate is 23 percent but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. Kuwait is more entrepreneurial, with only 80 percent of the non-government jobs taken by foreigners. The other Gulf Arab states (which have less oil) have a similar situation.

This problem is recognized by Saudi leaders, who realize that the oil will eventually run out and if there are no other economic activities providing jobs, it will be a social and political disaster. The government is trying to change attitudes and change education policy but is running into a lot of resistance from Islamic conservatives and indolent young Saudis who do not want to give up the good life for hard work and responsibility. Many women would like to take some of those job opportunities but Saudi Arabia abides by relatively recent customs that prohibit women from working outside the home. Before the oil wealth became a factor 60 years ago, women were very active in the economy. Even the early growth of Islam was financed by a wealthy female merchant, who was also the wife of the prophet Mohammed. Despite all that, the conservative clergy insist that the women stay home.


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