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Putting Saudis to Work
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LEFT: Aloosh Alshammar, 26, a Saudi who is an operator at Al Faisaliah hotel in Riyadh, says his father does not like his working at a hotel. RIGHT: A worker from Bangladesh serves tea to guests of the editor at the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah. As oil revenues have plunged, the goverment is seeking to replace foreign workers with Saudis.

To stem a high jobless rate, the government wants to replace foreign workers with Saudis. But many employers think Saudis are lazy and want too much money for little effort.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2002


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Call the Al Faisaliah, one of the city's luxury hotels, and the voice on the other end of the line might be that of Aloosh Alshammar.

Alshammar, 26, is fluent in English and works as a telephone operator. There is nothing unusual about that except for one thing: Alshammar is a Saudi.

At the peak of the oil boom in the early '80s, young Saudis didn't have to take jobs like this and even though the boom is over, most Saudis still don't want them. Alshammar's father doesn't like that his son works in a hotel, where Saudis are more used to being waited upon than catering to others.

"He had this idea I was a servant," Alshammar says.

The discovery of oil in 1938 sent Saudi Arabia on a whirlwind of development that drew millions of foreigners to build roads and refineries, staff hotels and hospitals, and work for rich Saudis as cooks, maids and drivers.

In the past few years, though, oil revenues have plunged and per capita income is less than half what it was in the '80s, meaning more and more Saudis need to find jobs. Yet almost a third of the country's 22-million residents are foreign workers at a time when the jobless rate among Saudis is 30 percent.

"It doesn't make sense to have high unemployment for Saudis when half the work force is not Saudi," says Fahad Almubarak, a financial consultant.

The government agrees and is pushing "Saudization" -- the policy of replacing foreigners with Saudis in all but the most specialized or unattractive jobs.

There has been some progress.

At Saudi Arabian Airlines, most pilots and male flight attendants are now Saudis. In the emergency room of the King Fahad National Guard Hospital, the number of Saudi doctors has gone from zero to nine in the past few years, and the number of Saudi paramedics from zero to 18.

Still, there is only one Saudi nurse among dozens. "Nursing-wise we really have a long way to go," says Dr. Raed Jijaz, head of the trauma unit. "We will need 10 to 15 years to Saudize that."

In general, Saudization has been a long, slow slog.

For one thing, there is a strong perception that Saudis are lazy. A recent study of Saudis in office jobs found that 21 percent made zero contribution to the work place. Many failed to stay in the office more than two hours a day.

Even Saudi newspapers are critical. Writing in the Saudi Gazette, a columnist noted that while he was glad to see young Saudis manning checkout counters at his local supermarket, he couldn't help but observe that they were surly and slow while the foreign clerks were friendly and fast.

"Now here is the dilemma," the columnist wrote. "Do I live up to my stated principles and patronize the local checkout guys? They're Saudis, they're doing a job and so, in theory at least, are contributing to the national economy.

"Or do I avoid them like the plague and pass through the till where the cheerful little man from Dhaka asks us how we are doing, bags the groceries efficiently and sends us off with a smile in two minutes flat? It's not a difficult decision to make, is it?"

Some say the problem is less laziness than a lack of discipline.

Almubarak, the consultant, recalls the young Saudi college graduate who applied for a job as an administrative assistant. He showed up late for the interview and slouched in his seat even as they were talking.

Almubarak sent him packing. But the man called back, begging for another chance. This time Almubarak kept him waiting an hour and a half only to find the young man sitting bolt upright. He got the job and has worked out fine.

'Why did you act like that the first time you came in?" Almubarak later asked.

"I didn't know it would matter," came the reply.

Almubarak says many Saudi college graduates drag their feet about finding jobs until their parents, who have younger children to support, finally kick them out of the house.

"The work ethic is there, they lack discipline," he says. "They were from the oil boom, and they have been brought up in a generation that has been spoon-fed. Some of the young Saudis don't find the income to be attractive enough. They keep waiting for the huge job that gives money with no hard work."

The pay can be a problem. Even Saudi-owned companies often prefer to hire foreigners, especially from poor countries, because they are willing to work for much less. An accountant from India might settle for 2,500 Saudi riyals a month -- about $667 -- while a Saudi would demand 7,000 or 8,000 riyals.

There are also cultural factors that can make Saudis less attractive to employers. Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and two of those prayer times fall during normal business hours. The noon prayer is sometimes followed by a leisurely lunch.

And the fact that Saudi women aren't allowed to drive can cut into their husbands' productivity.

"Every time she has an appointment, he gets to leave work and drive her," says Lorraine Novotnak, a Tampa nurse who has spent the past several months working with Saudis at a hospital in Khobar.

Despite the perception Saudis aren't eager to toil, competition for jobs can be fierce. Some 10,000 men applied for 300 positions in the National Guard academy. And when the King Fahad hospital advertised that it would be testing applicants for its new nursing school, 10 times as many women called as had been expected.

Still, many Saudis try to hold out for cushy office jobs in government agencies. Saudis have traditionally held most of the jobs in government, while foreigners still hold 90 percent of the jobs in the private sector.

Government work "is easy -- there's one shift, two days off and a high salary," says Alshammar, the hotel operator. "But some people have the ambition to look higher."

Like other employees of the Al Faisaliah, Alshammar works 81/2 hours a day, six days a week. The appeal, he says, is the chance to rise in a hotel chain that includes such storied properties as Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek and New York's Carlyle rather than being stuck forever in a boring bureaucratic job.

In just two years, the percentage of Saudi workers in the Al Faisaliah has grown from less than 10 percent to 22 percent. Saudis now hold such plum jobs as human resources director.

But the government wants the hotel industry 30 percent Saudized in the next five years, and to that end it pays half the salaries of Saudi trainees and first-year employees. This summer the Al Faisaliah has several interns, including a Saudi prince whose job includes working in the kitchen and making pastries.

The hotel's foreign employees get frustrated at times with their young Saudi colleagues, acknowledges the chain's regional vice president, Alphy Johnson. He remembers one Saudi who was chronically late until Johnson compared his attitude to that of a lackadaisical football player.

"I explained that this is very much a team effort and it's hard to contribute your part to the team if you show up 15 minutes late for the game. For this person who had not worked before and was not used to discipline, I had to put it in terms -- football -- that he understood."

The employee shaped up. "There's no question they're very open and accepting of the work ethic," Johnson says of the Saudis. "It all depends on what they're used to."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.