There has been a long-held belief that Saudis cannot engage in manual labor such as being car mechanics, cashiers in stores or even cleaners. While there has never been a law decreeing such a ban, during the oil boom years from the 1980s and onward, there became installed in the minds of many foreigners, and Saudis themselves, that manual labor was beneath the dignity of all Saudis. The reasoning was that these jobs often made the person hot and dirty, were unpleasant, and paid poorly.
The stereotype that reigned was that every Saudi male, whether he was qualified or not, wanted to be a “mudeer” (boss/manager) and get a fat salary for sitting behind a desk in some ministry, drinking lots of tea and working little. With our ever-expanding population Saudis who did not have a university degree, and especially Saudi women, began looking for more work opportunities, which led many to these less than managerial jobs out of sheer necessity to make ends meet and pay the bills. Soon we began seeing young Saudis working in fast-food restaurants and Saudi women hired as cashiers at a major supermarket chain. This was a pleasant development that all found needful and rightful.
With our ongoing Saudization program to get more Saudis into gainful employment, our government has forced certain sectors to only hire Saudis. The latest work sector to be affected by this program has been cellphone shops that had been staffed predominantly until now by expatriates. One area that had never before hired Saudis was the cleaning one. Recently a town in Baha caused a small controversy when one of its officials declared that Saudis could not be hired as cleaners. His words implied that cleaning jobs were beneath the dignity of Saudis. This caused uproar among foreign workers in the Kingdom who noted that it was ridiculous that any category of work should be forbidden to Saudis for being too dirty or allegedly humiliating.
The sad fact is that so many foreigners believe that we Saudis were all born in golden cradles and have never had to fight for anything in our lives. Many of the younger Saudi generations must also believe this, especially those born after the 1970s. But we must remember that before the oil boom we were a poor country that did not have much wealth. Who do you think cleaned bathrooms in this country in the 1950s until the 1970s? Saudis of course! We did not have enough resources before that to import labor to do tasks such as clean the streets or work in restaurants.
All honest work, whether physical or mental, should be honored. Most Saudis have finally realized that not everyone can be a director and get a large salary for little work. I think they realize that to get somewhere in life requires hard work, studying and determination. Without these they won’t get very far. We must stop acting so surprised when we see Saudis working in jobs that we never thought they would ever accept. Economic necessity is having a good effect in the sense that is opening the eyes of younger Saudis that everything will not continue to be given to them on a plate. They will have to struggle for what they want, and they have already started to do so.
The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.