By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi made an impassioned plea to the private sector to create more opportunities and provide greater incentives for young Saudis.
Speaking on the last day of the highly successful Jeddah Economic Forum 2008, Al-Gosaibi said most young Saudis were talented and hard working. “The image that is projected by the media is wrong,” he said. “It focuses on a few bad examples. That is not the case with the large majority of our youngsters.”
Al-Gosaibi lambasted Saudi businessmen who criticize the Saudi work force. “Those who say that Saudi youth are not dependable, that they are not accountable, that they shun work, that they are not hard working, I ask them: ‘Where are they themselves from — Sweden or Norway? Did they not come from this same country? Is it not true that their fathers, mothers and sisters built this great Kingdom?’ If Saudis are not hard working, who built all these business empires — these big businesses that we see around us today?”
Al-Gosaibi specifically mentioned self-made Saudi financier Abdul Aziz Al-Rajhi. “He rose from being an ordinary man in a local market to a big businessman. Is he not a Saudi? Is he not one of us? There are lot Al-Rajhis out there looking for opportunities to grow,” he said. He went on to point out the recent case of a young Saudi who took a loan from Muhammad Jameel of ALJ Co. Ltd. and then parlayed it into a SR450 million contract.
Al-Gosaibi said the success of the economy rested with the private sector’s ability to motivate young Saudis — many who grew up in an era of luxury — to work.
“The private sector should facilitate their integration into the job market,” he said. “The kind of conditions now imposed on them makes things difficult for them at the workplace. In the past, Saudis worked only in the public sector. They would work four hours a day, five days a week, and God only knows if they worked at all. Now, you are asking them to work in the private sector. They are being told to work for 48 hours instead of 35 a week; they have to work not one shift, but two shifts. They are told that if they take leave other than the two-week annual leave, they will be fired... Nobody will accept these conditions.”
The labor minister emphasized there was no magic solution to the current problem. “If the private sector does not provide enough incentives to our youth then we will not succeed,” Al-Gosaibi said. “We have to close the gap between what the public sector provides and what the private sector provides in terms of job security, salaries, number of work hours, etc. If the private sector provides the same kind of incentives as the public sector, will our youth run away? No.”
Al-Gosaibi hailed Saudi Aramco and SABIC for their Saudization successes. “They stay there and grow there because they get the kind of incentives that are not available anywhere else,” the labor minister said of the young Saudis working in both companies. “Please don’t be critical of our youth. Don’t mistrust them. They want to lead a decent and honorable life. And when I am talking about youth, I mean both men and women.”
‘Look at the Silver Lining’
He said he was perplexed by the media and businesses focusing on failures rather than successes. “Why do we choose one or two young people who have neglected their work and focus on them? Only yesterday, we met 300-400 Saudi youngsters at a technical institute,” he said. “They were so passionate about their studies — working day and night. And they are proud of their work. This is the right image of our youth. I can see in the distance that on the horizon there are clouds. But why focus on them? Look at the silver lining. I see a bright future for Saudi youth.”
The minister said Saudis should remember their history as global leaders — and their faith. “First of all, we should believe in God Almighty and then we should have full trust and confidence in ourselves, in our nation, in our youth and in our daughters,” Al-Gosaibi said. “This is the region of the Two Holy Mosques. It is from here that thousands spread out to extend the message of Islam. We are their offspring; we are their children. Never forget our heritage. We are not a marginal civilization coming from the jungles of Amazon. We are a nation that has for more than 800 years led the world in everything — in intellect, in science and in technology. We have been through difficult times. There have been ups and downs but, by the grace of God, we have the capacity; we have the hope and the aspiration to return to our past glory — and we will.”
More Opportunities for Women
Al-Gosaibi said more opportunities are being created for women in the labor market, but successful social reforms will require dialogue and consensus.
“Slowly but surely, we are making progress,” he said. “In the past, the public sector absorbed 90 percent of the women, especially as school teachers and 10 percent as social advisers. When the public sector filled up... that is when the demand for opening the private sector to women came up. We are implementing these women-specific projects in stages, and we are achieving success. The issue of segregation will not change overnight. In fact, if we try to change things forcefully, then that may complicate matters. It is my wish that we work together and work within the system.”
Al-Gosaibi said there needed to be clear communication between the ministries and the private sector for Saudization to succeed. “The basic duty of ministers is to engage in dialogue with all members of society, but on many occasions this dialogue was between deaf people. We didn’t listen to each other. We, in the ministry, were talking about Saudization, and the other party would say ‘visas, visas.’ We didn’t listen to each other. That was not dialogue. Now when companies talk about Saudization, I tell them to talk about their plans and then we shall listen to their request for visas.”
Later, when fielding questions from the audience, a hearing-impaired man asked why special needs workers had it so rough, noting that employers were often unwilling to accommodate them, Al-Gosaibi announced from the podium that henceforth, employing one special-needs Saudi worker would count as four workers in Saudization targets. (Earlier, employing one special-needs worker would count as two.)
Citing 2007 employment figures, he said, “We brought 1.8 million expatriates into the country. This is the highest number in decades. Since I took over, there has been no increase in Saudization. Actually, we have reduced Saudization in most sectors.”
All Saudi businesses should consider the government’s expectations, he added. “My doors are open to businessmen. Come to me with your plans. I am only asking for 10 percent commission,” Al-Gosaibi said. “You want 500 visas for expatriates then 50 should be Saudis. One thousand visas - 100 Saudis, and that is all.”