The fate of a Saudi man who wants to escape poverty
The Saudi labor market is distorted, occupied by millions of expatriates
Saudi Arabia faces many external challenges. However, its internal problems are no less distressing and difficult, most notably those related to poverty and unemployment.
Using black humor, Saudi artist Nasser al-Qasabi exposes in his famous sketch comedy show, “Selfie,” the life of poverty and misery of a Saudi security guard. The episode ends with the poor citizen bursting out in anger and shouting at wealthy businessmen who barely know who he is despite the fact that he had always worked for them. After all doors to get out of poverty were shut in his face, he lost his temper and rebelled against his employers in an unintentional outburst of anger.
Back to the not-so-humorous reality, getting out of poverty in the kingdom is very difficult despite the country’s wealth and a compassionate government which allocates billions of dollars to social security aid. All these measures might provide the poor with the minimal necessary standards of living but will not get them out of the poverty circle. Why is that?
The Saudi labor market is distorted, occupied by millions of expatriates who are working in various jobs and landing all the low and mid-level positionsJamal Khashoggi
It is because the Saudi labor market is distorted, occupied by millions of expatriates who are working in various jobs and landing all the low and mid-level positions. The same jobs that are supposed to provide sufficiency to the poor and earn them a suitable position in a large “middle class” that constitutes the basis for any normal society. Perhaps, later on, some will find a way to reach the top and even get rich.
Will he succeed?
If the uneducated security guard from the “Selfie” show had saved money or borrowed it and decided to try his luck in retail and sales just as his ancestors had done before, thus forming the Saudi middle class, will he succeed in doing so?
At first, he will start working like others in traditional projects; grocery stores, sweets stores, deliveries and building materials. Our friend will then discover that the market is occupied by foreigners who were there before him and therefore have better experience and knowledge. The latter have established a knowledge and services network among themselves. They are not citizens or members of his tribe or his city who will share their experience and give him advice or even lend him money like our ancestors used to do. They can’t even associate with him as he cannot speak their language and knows nothing of their culture and traditions. He has become a stranger in his own country.
I can imagine Nasser al-Qasabi playing the role of the security guard and wandering in Al-Batha in Riyadh with only fifty thousand riyals in his pocket, searching for a shop to rent or merchandises to buy at wholesale prices. He is completely alone and does not know the language of his interlocutors as if he was in Lahore or Dhaka. The camera moves away gradually to show the neighborhood then the city of Riyadh with its two famous skyscrapers, Al-Faisaliya and the Kingdom. The camera zooms in to one of the offices where some Saudis hold prestigious jobs. Those are the bilingual children of the elite. They have pursued their studies in foreign countries and hold advanced diplomas. The camera goes back to Nasser al-Qasabi who is now looking with lost eyes at Asians doing business with Saudis and foreigners, loading and unloading merchandise, signing contracts and exchanging money. Broken and defeated, he realizes that there is no place for him and he looks away toward the distant towers filled with businessmen as if to say: “What can I do if didn’t have the opportunity of education? Am I predestined to remain a security guard, getting paid very little without prospects of a real career growth? My raise does not exceed two hundred riyals every year or two. Is it time for me to start begging for a tip from any man or woman I open the door for?”
No. It is time for us to liberate the entire Saudi retail market so that Saudis can turn to it when they have financial trouble or haven’t completed their studies. We must bear every frustration resulting from this measure for the next few years and stand by our Saudi sons and brothers while they acquire or regain the necessary experience. This applies to all the countries of the world and this is how the Saudi market should be.
We will see then the security guard in “Selfie” smiling as he takes his son with him to his shop and shout at him saying: “Take good care of the shop, kid. I am going to meet with your Uncle Sadaqa to talk about the new merchandise. Do you understand, son?”
This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 4, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi