A negative stereotype of Saudi youth has been circulating in the public discourse; supposedly, Saudi nationals are not willing to fill skilled-labour jobs. In the past couple of years, however, a significant change has occurred in Saudi Arabia amid waves of economic reform and shifting societal dynamics.
Traditionally, in Saudi Arabia, shop owners, restaurant waiters and hotel receptionists have been non-Saudis of Asian or Arab ethnicity, but this has become a rare sight today. Over the past couple of years, young Saudis who are seeking to make money through part-time jobs or to build their careers from the bottom up (due to the increasingly competitive job market) have gradually replaced non-Saudis in these jobs.
Several factors, such as the government’s effort to nationalize jobs, have driven some sectors to begin to hire more Saudis; this includes the retail, health, tourism and telecom sectors. One field remains stubborn, however: construction.
Construction and contracting companies remain reluctant to hire Saudis despite the Kingdom’s heavy reliance on infrastructure projects. According to the US–Saudi Arabian Business Council, 22 per cent of the Kingdom’s foreign residents are engaged in the construction industry, yet only 15 per cent of the engineers in the sector are Saudi nationals.
The Saudi Ministry of Labour launched a new policy this year to boost nationalization among construction firms that employ a minimum of 500 workers. These firms are expected to move toward employing 100 per cent Saudis, as opposed to the previous figure of 16 per cent.
These companies face numerous obstacles to increasing this rate, including the lack of skilled Saudi labourers and competition with foreigners in the sector. Another undocumented challenge is Saudi society’s negative perception towards hard-labour jobs.
The majority of construction positions require skills such as bricklaying, plastering, plumbing, pipe-laying, electrical wiring, painting, load carrying and transporting construction materials. The few Saudis in the sector, however, prefer to stay in office or IT jobs.
According to economists, the construction industry is not attractive to young graduates because it does not promise job security and is prone to unpredictability and fluctuation. In comparison, government jobs are secure, so they are more attractive to average Saudis.
Although foreign contractors routinely handle building construction, interior design and renovation projects, one diligent young Saudi man has taken it upon himself to develop his talents in contracting and to encourage other Saudis to join in nationalizing this sector.
His knack for renovating his own home inspired him to make a living in the field.
“Corporate life wasn’t for me,” says 28-year-old Abdulaziz Bader Alshuaibi, who lives in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and who previously held a desk job in the private sector. “No matter how much I worked, I couldn’t advance in the organization. I found contracting work more enjoyable, and it matched my abilities. I decided to make it my full-time job to support myself.”
He began learning as an apprentice under an Arab construction worker, getting paid on a daily basis, before he began working independently. He then formed a team of seven Saudi labourers, one of whom eventually became a partner in his company.
He adds, “It was an enriching experience, as I pushed myself to learn the trade until I was able to make a name for myself in the business.”
He says his past experience in the military also helped him discover his natural leadership abilities, which he utilizes in contracting today.
A Voice in the Media
Abdulaziz shares his knowledge on social media, and he has launched a campaign to encourage youths to work hard and improve their country.
He has documented his projects in before-and-after posts and explained their technical aspects on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.
Thousands of young Saudis from around the country regularly send him messages of support and positive reinforcement; they see him a source of pride for their country.
“Social media helped tremendously in raising awareness about contracting and changed the perception about hard labour,” he says. “The stereotype was that it was shameful to be working outdoors in the scorching heat.”
He adds, “The previous generations believed any work was important and that there is no shame in any field. Our country was built by our grandparents and earlier generations. Today, there are lots of graduates with engineering diplomas, but none of them are willing to start from the bottom.”
After successfully starting his own company, Abdulaziz Bader Al-Shuaibi Est., last year, he thanked his followers for their support along the way.
Training Is the Best Way to Nationalize
Abdulaziz dreams of a fully Saudi-employed contracting sector and has vowed to work on this goal as part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 program, which is an ambitious economic reform plan that seeks to diversify revenues beyond oil.
“There’s still a long way to go to nationalise the contracting sector,” he says. “It’s going to be a gradual process. There need to be training programs in skills such as painting, flooring, panels, among others.”
The Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) is a government institution that provides technical and vocational training to increase the number of skilled labourers across the Kingdom, but it does not cover all the skills needed for the contracting field.
Abdulaziz’s team is working with the TVTC to prepare a training program in construction and interior design.
A Role Model for the Youth
Despite having made several appearances on major television networks to get his message across, Abdulaziz wants to continue to spread his message. His involvement in the media will not stop with his social media campaign. His future plans include a YouTube show and a theatrical play in which he and other influencers will raise awareness among Saudi families.
With the conviction that people should find work that benefits their communities, he says, “My aim is to support the Saudi government in every step in its development.”
Layan Damanhouri is a Saudi journalist based in Jeddah.