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Saudi youth not above starting from “zero”

The Vision 2030 plan that was announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016 is an ambitious package of economic and social reforms that seeks to effect structural changes to the economy by reducing Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil. This has entailed the implementation of dozens of new programs and initiatives that aim to reduce the size of the public sector — which still employs about 70 percent of the Saudi labor force — and provide incentives for the private sector to become the engine of the economy. Even prior to Vision 2030, Saudi labor officials devised a nationwide plan of “Saudization” that sought to create thousands of private sector jobs by replacing the estimated nine million expatriates who dominate the private sector with Saudis. 
The government has used both incentives and penalties to encourage Saudi businesses to hire more citizens. In addition, the Ministry of Labor has restricted certain jobs to Saudis. Last month, the ministry announced that, from the beginning of the next Hijri year — approximately in September of the Gregorian calendar — 12 types of job in the retail sector will also be restricted to Saudis. These include employees at stores or dealers selling clothing, appliances, electronics, furniture, watches, eye glasses, medical devices, pastries and cars. Saudi economists seem to differ on the number of jobs that could be created, but conservative estimates put the number at 200,000, while others project that number to exceed one million. 
As Saudization has moved forward, some business leaders, economists and outside observers have wondered whether Saudi men and women would be willing to fill some of the less lucrative, relatively low-paying, blue-collar jobs that have been performed primarily by non-Saudis for many years. Though most did not say it directly, the implication was that some Saudis have a “sense of entitlement” and did not believe that they needed to “start from zero.” Others framed it differently, claiming it was not so much a sense of entitlement but rather the notion that certain jobs were considered too “menial” or even “aaeb,” the Arabic word for “shameful.” That is clearly not the case. 

A growing number of young men and women are now publicly expressing their pride in starting their careers with modest roles and paying their dues, saying it fills them with a sense of honor.

Fahad Nazer

In recent years, the Saudi media, both in print and on television, has shined a spotlight on the willingness of Saudis of both genders to start their careers very modestly. In fact, a program called “From Zero” that aired on a Saudi satellite channel last Ramadan was a big hit, as it chronicled the journeys of successful Saudis who became pioneers in their field from very modest beginnings. Among the many who spoke proudly about their journey, former Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi stood out, as he has long spoken frankly about his rise up the ranks of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, and the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. 
One particular case demonstrates this reality in dramatic fashion. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s most famous fried chicken franchise, Al-Baik, decided to open its first branch outside of its base in the western region of Hejaz. When the first store opened in the city of Buraidah in the region of Al-Qassim, two things happened. One, given the popularity of the restaurant and the many years people outside of western Saudi Arabia had waited for Al-Baik to come to them, hundreds of people showed up at the grand opening, requiring the police to order the store to close early. More importantly, the all-Saudi staff at the restaurant was the featured story in a leading Saudi newspaper. Not only did the young staff speak with pride about their jobs, but they posed for a photograph dressed in caps and gowns, signifying the commencement of their careers. 
Vision 2030 makes it clear that, in order for it to succeed, it has to be a collective endeavor in which each citizen plays a role. It is also clear that young Saudi men and women have fully embraced a simple truth: There is nothing shameful in making an honest living. 
A growing number of young Saudis are now publicly expressing their pride in starting from “zero” and paying their dues, saying it fills them with a sense of honor. Whether it is car mechanics, Uber drivers, factory workers or women opening small coffee shops, Saudis are finding ways to compete and prosper in the private sector. That bodes well for Vision 2030 and the future of Saudi Arabia.
Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.
Twitter: @fanazer