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How the other half live: Mandatory work experience for young Gulf nationals

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Tackling youth unemployment is a priority for all the Gulf governments. Mandatory work experience in jobs that are culturally undesirable can help. Overcoming the dependence on migrant workers for occupations like waiters and plumbers is critical to establishing a well-functioning labor market.

Gulf nationals have enjoyed some of the world’s cushiest jobs since 1960, many of which are white-collar public sector positions. They have salaries that far exceed the employee’s productivity, low hours, high job security, and require little effort.

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Unsurprisingly, the abundance of such jobs has made many Gulf nationals complacent, resulting in unrealistic job demands in terms of remuneration and hours. This is one reason why migrant workers dominate the private sector in all six GCC states.

The comfort of public sector jobs has also bred cultural aversion to certain job types, such as collecting refuse or pumping gas, which cannot be attributed to any religious edict. Gulf women are averse to certain occupations because they involve contact with men that violates certain religious-based norms, like working as a cleaner in a stranger’s house in the presence of men, but such considerations are irrelevant to explaining why Gulf men are reluctant to be janitors or street cleaners.

Ironically, prior to the oil revolutions, Gulf nationals were used to performing some of the world’s worst jobs, such as pearl diving.

The struggle to gather enough food and water to make it to the end of the week equipped people in the Gulf with supreme levels of mental and physical fortitude. Thus, sneering at certain jobs is a recent feature of the history of Gulf labor markets, and with the right policies, it can be a transient one, too.

Saudi men explore social media on their mobile devices as they sit at a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 24, 2016. (File photo: Reuters)
Saudi men explore social media on their mobile devices as they sit at a cafe in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 24, 2016. (File photo: Reuters)

Notably, overcoming these cultural barriers is nothing to do with moral rehabilitation – it is a matter of economic realism. In the absence of abundant natural resources, it is impossible to realize glamorous jobs for the entire population. And while the Gulf countries are rich in resources today, their citizens have already witnessed the end of guaranteed comfortable public sector jobs, affirming the need to develop new labor market attitudes.

Governments need not actively work on remedying the senseless labor market snobbery: they can wait for the need to get a job to force people to lower their standards. However, this process can be slow as young people use their parents’ economic support to delay accepting a job offer. Consequently, governments should consider accelerating the transition via mandatory work experience.

During their last two years of high school, Gulf citizens should be required to work unglamorous jobs for several weeks to help them realize that there is no shame in such pursuits. I have cleaned toilets and washed dishes for extended periods of time, albeit in western countries, and as a result, I would willingly perform such jobs if they were the best available ways of earning a living. Straight out of school, I definitely prefer being a well-compensated researcher to a poorly-compensated cleaner, but I surely prefer the latter to extended unemployment.

The current generation of Gulf teenagers may be shocked by the introduction of such a policy, and so to help them embrace it as an opportunity to grow, older members of society should join in, even if it is just for a day. Parents, school principals, CEOs and ministers should publicly wait tables and sweep streets alongside the mandated teenagers to help convince labor market entrants that there is no shame in such jobs. Setting an example can play a significant role in breaking cultural barriers.

The Gulf countries’ economic visions talk about the glamorous jobs of a knowledge economy, but the failure to mention supermarket shelf-stackers and trolley collectors does not mean that these jobs aren’t needed in the year 2030. Gulf policymakers and citizens alike must come to terms with the fact that unglamorous occupations remain an important part of the economy.

The cultural barriers that make Gulf citizens reluctant to perform such jobs are not only arbitrary – they are economically damaging. A well-designed program of mandatory work experience in such occupations can quickly rectify the Gulf countries’ labor market flaws, paving the way for a realistic future economy.

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