Burger on wheels: The cook behind the sizzling hot grill is a Saudi

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Dishing out burgers and fries slathered with melted cheese, “One Way Burger” is like any other trendy food truck in Riyadh. But it offers something rare -- the cook behind the sizzling hot grill is a Saudi.

Saudis are now increasingly taking on such jobs.

“When I started this food truck two years ago many people said: ‘What? You will sell burgers and sandwiches in the street? You come from a big family and big tribe’,” said Bader Al-Ajmi, the 38-year-old owner of One Way Burger.

“People were surprised,” he added, as a Porsche pulled up at the side of his truck to place an order.

Since Ajmi started his business, dipping into his personal savings, owning a food truck has become the trend du jour and attained a level of respectability.

For the first time, a new crop of nationals are working as tea sellers and car mechanics.

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Last December, residents of eastern Al-Ahsa region feted a handful of young Saudis who were working at a gas station.

“There is no shame in this work,” a gas station customer said in a Snapchat video.

“Prophet Muhammad used to work as a shepherd.”

“Saudis are moving into jobs historically dominated by expatriate workers,” said Graham Griffiths, senior analyst at the consultancy Control Risks.

Cultural attitudes to work are changing.

Nearly two-thirds of all Saudis are employed by the government, and the public sector wage bill and allowances account for roughly half of all government expenditure.

Meanwhile, the government’s push to replace foreigners with Saudi workers -- a policy known as “Saudization” -- as well as a backbreaking expat levy are driving a huge exodus of expats, who hold 70 percent of all jobs.

Flipping sizzling slabs of meat inside his food truck, Ajmi said in the early days his business was a one-man show. He did everything from dicing vegetables to handling the countertop deep fryer.

He has since hired two more Saudis and two Indian workers.

A dazzlingly lit coffee and dessert food truck parked next to his is also owned by a Saudi.

Ajmi said his success, which also spotlights the Kingdom’s startup scene, prompted him recently to buy another food truck emblazoned with the “Mercedes Benz” logo -- which has added a new veneer of respectability to the job.

“Many people... were against the (food truck),” Ajmi said. “Now they say: ‘If you have a job, let me know.’

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