C&B Notes

Saudi Leaders Avoid Arab Spring

Saudi Leaders are using riyals distributed through a variety of programs to proactively quell any potential uprisings:

In a country of 28 million people, about 8.6 million are foreigners, who make up most of the labor force.  Just 4.3 million of the almost 19 million Saudis were in the workforce in 2009, according to the most-recent statistics agency data.

“Youth unemployment is a time bomb for Saudi Arabia,” says Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington.  King Abdullah responded by announcing in 2011 a $130 billion plan to create jobs, build subsidized housing and support the religious establishment that had backed the government’s ban on domestic protests.  Labor Minister Adel Faqih in May 2011 announced a program to reduce unemployment called Nitaqat, or Ranges, that for the first time rewards companies that employ a higher percentage of Saudis.  “What they’ve done to slow any reaction to the Arab Spring is to throw money at people, with some success,” Seznec says.

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Saudi Arabia is unlikely to have its own Arab Spring anytime soon, social activist Abdullah Hamidaddin says.  For one thing, he says, there isn’t a critical mass of people in economic pain, because strong family networks ensure financial support for the unemployed.  And the Saudi government’s largesse means that people have an interest in maintaining the status quo, he says.  For instance, the government is now paying 2,000 riyals ($530) a month to over one million unemployed Saudis for a year while helping to train them to find work.  “People here feel that the government is a cash cow that should be preserved,” Hamidaddin says.

An interesting side effect of this government income subsidization is actually helping to compound the problem of youth unemployment: these young Saudis remain comfortable enough that they won’t take just any job offer…

“Young Saudis feel that they are not getting their rightful share of the national wealth,” Warde says.  “They have been relatively pampered by a generous welfare system and will not take just any job.”  At the same time, he says, “Their anger is stoked by the fact that they are surrounded by wealth and all its manifestations.”

Some 90 percent of the private-sector workforce in Saudi Arabia is foreign.  It’s rare to find a laborer, waiter or construction worker who’s Saudi: They tend to prefer desk-bound managerial positions.  Mohammed al-Mushayqeh, one of the three former schoolmates in Riyadh, quit his job as an administrative assistant in a private company two years ago because his career wasn’t moving forward.  With only a high school degree, al-Mushayqeh, 25, was offered two positions at a government-organized job fair: cashier in a store or shelf stocker in a supermarket.  “They were silly offers,” he says. “I want something prestigious.”  Despite the embarrassment of being financially dependent on his parents, he’s holding out for a better offer.

So is Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, 27, who quit his job as a supervisor at a telecommunications company three years ago because he couldn’t put up with the 10-hour shifts.  “There wasn’t any time left to do anything else,” he says.  “Foreigners come here without their families just to work and make money.  But Saudis have family obligations.”  Abdullah, who has a high school diploma, says he has been offered “bad” jobs: as a waiter, security guard and cashier.  “In my previous job, I used to sit at a desk in my own office,” he says.  “I want the same standard of work.”

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