Saudis forced to work as burger flippers as austerity bites

Saudis forced to work as mechanics, tea-sellers and burger flippers for first time as austerity bites

  • Saudis used to high-end white collar jobs now taking up low-skilled employment
  • Nearly 800,000 foreign workers forced out of the oil-rich kingdom since 2017
  • Citizens may soon become street sweepers as they find work as Uber drivers
  • Rising gas prices and sluggish economy blamed for ‘new age of austerity’  

Saudi nationals used to luxury living in the oil-rich state are now finding more work as burger flippers and tea merchants.

Government cuts to oil-funded subsidies and high unemployment has lead to locals being prepared to do more manual work for extra cash.

Blue-collar occupations are usually occupied by expats from Africa or Southeast Asia, but they are leaving the Saudi kingdom in droves.

More Saudi nationals in Riyadh, such as Bader al-Ajmi (pictured), are taking up blue-collar occupations usually filled by foreign workers 

High rates of unemployment due to a swelling of expat labourers has forced citizens to find work as burger flippers, tea-sellers, cleaners and Uber drivers

AFP reports the once tax-free petro-state long offered its citizens cradle-to-grave welfare.

Cooking, cleaning and working at gas stations have largely been the preserve of foreign workers, who far outnumber Saudis. 

But Saudis are increasingly taking on such ‘low status’ jobs in a new age of austerity when gas is no longer cheaper than water. 

People were surprised when Bader al-Ajmi, 38, opened a burger enterprise. 

‘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.

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‘Many people were against the (food truck),’ Ajmi said. 

‘Now they say: ‘If you have a job, let me know.” 

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

Posh Lexus-owners work as Uber drivers for spare cash.

‘Will Saudis ever work as street cleaners?’ columnist Abdulhadi al-Saadi recently asked in the daily Saudi Gazette.

Last December, residents of eastern Al-Ahsa region feted a handful of young Saudis who swallowed their pride to do another job long deemed dishonourable — working at a gas station.

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

‘Prophet Mohammed used to work as a shepherd.’

Saudis are growing more accustomed to being served by their own people as part of a re-structuring effort to tackle unemployment 

It remains unclear how many nationals have moved into blue-collar jobs but the trend defies a popular maxim among Saudis: 

‘They (expats) work for us, we don’t work for us.’

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

‘The social stigma surrounding certain types of manual or service-based labour has been strong, but economic necessity is pushing many to take such jobs regardless of their social status.’

Cultural attitudes to work are changing amid a major retooling of Saudi Arabia’s lagging economy.

The country is seeking to wean citizens off government largesse as it prepares for a post-oil era.

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.

Saudi economist Abdullah al-Maghlouth said the new economy will push more Saudis to become plumbers, carpenters and tailors, jobs that were acceptable decades ago in the pre-oil boom era.

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.

Official statistics show nearly 800,000 foreign workers have left the kingdom since the beginning of 2017, creating what business owners call a ‘hiring crisis’.

An Indian diner said it was in trouble, unable to secure work permits for its South Asian chefs, leaving its expansion plans in limbo.

The exodus has sent the rental property market plummeting and cities like Riyadh are dotted with empty storefronts and shopping malls amid slack customer demand.

Some businesses implementing ‘Saudization’ also complain of a high rate of attrition and a displaced sense of entitlement among more expensive Saudi workers accustomed to different economic realities.

A manager at a refrigerator manufacturing plant that recently hired dozens of Saudi assemblers and technicians said a handful of them were found ‘sleeping in their cars during working hours’.

Many companies are reported to be circumventing the policy by paying Saudi workers small salaries to sit at home, effectively creating bogus jobs in a malpractice termed ‘fake Saudization’.

The contentious policy is not driving down joblessness among nationals. Unemployment among Saudis rose to nearly 13 percent in the first quarter of this year.

The challenge, observers say, is not just to create more jobs for Saudis but also to convince citizens to take them.

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, but recruiting Saudis willing to do the late-night job — from 9:00 pm until midnight — remains a challenge.

A dazzlingly lit coffee and dessert food truck parked next to his is also owned by a Saudi, but the workers inside are all Filipinos.

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