Cat and Mouse Game or National Goal?

Molouk Y. Ba-Isa • Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Fri, 2003-08-08 03:00

Recently I met with an American who, over a decade, has held various jobs in the Kingdom. The gentleman told me how distressed he was that he had been moved to a junior position at work. It turned out that the leadership position he had previously held, had been lost to Saudization. The American was assigned to a job he had done years ago. A few questions later it became clear that while the American had been demoted in responsibility, his hefty salary remained the same. He had been returned to his old job because the Saudis he had instructed in the new unit were ready to function as their own team.

The American was not pleased that the Saudis had learned so well. He was angry that he was no longer the team leader. He listed all the work he had done to create the team, from equipment procurement to task management.

The American ranted on, his tirade liberally sprinkled with words such as “me, mine and I.” Sadly, the man before me had absolutely no idea how Saudization was supposed to work. Even worse, he did not consider a salary three times higher than his Saudi colleagues’ to be sufficient compensation for the skill transfer he had provided.

“People have short memories and it has largely been forgotten that until the 1970s there was no issue in the Kingdom called Saudization,” Muhammad Ali Shah, CEO Servitra, said. “Until the 1970s most of the jobs, especially the best jobs, in Saudi Arabia were held by Saudis. It was only during the boom, that so many expatriates came to work here.”

Shah returned to the Kingdom 10 months ago to “give something back” to a nation his immediate family has called home for more than 40 years. After graduation from secondary school, Shah spent about a decade outside the Kingdom, eventually making a name for himself in human resources management.

Last year he started the UK-based human resources firm, Servitra ( The mission of Servitra is to produce productive, professional employees - guaranteed. What does guaranteed mean?

“When a company hires a job candidate through Servitra, we are so confident in these individuals that if the candidate causes any loss, we will cover it,” explained Shah. “Servitra is not a traditional employment agency. Neither are we a training facility. What we do is offer human resources consulting to job candidates and employers, to help both improve so they are ready for success in the workplace.”

During his months in the Kingdom, Shah has discovered that complaints about Saudization come from both sides of the employer-employee relationship. Saudi companies tend to run in a very top down, edict driven style. Personnel departments only inform employees about policies and procedures. Few companies have emphasis on personal growth in the workplace. Consequently, employees don’t feel like they are a part of the life-blood of the company. In such an employment situation the individual’s entire focus is on compensation. Doing the least work possible while gaining the maximum compensation becomes the goal. Dissatisfaction from both employer and employee is inevitable.

Job candidates too must take some responsibility for the lack of success in Saudization. Shah pointed out that most Saudis come on to the job market with nothing more than basic education. They have no industry certifications. They lack language skills. Many are even deficient in dress and grooming. Plus, there is also a mistaken view that funding personal skill enhancement is the responsibility of the employer and not the individual.

“There has been no career counseling in Saudi Arabia,” said Shah. “Students do not understand that the job market is not receptive to those who have nothing to offer but a basic education. Many young people do not know what sort of career path is suitable for their talents, skills and goals. Ask any young man what he wants from a job and he’ll talk about salary first. Young Saudis have lack realistic expectations when they start out in the job market because no one has given them good advice on career development.”

Servitra has successfully tested its human resources systems and methodologies with individuals and selected companies in the Kingdom. Shah is now looking to bring more resources into the company to enable an expansion of Servitra’s services. Currently the counseling and consultation offered by Servitra is on a cost basis. Shah is hoping to gain government support for Servitra’s effort so that Saudis lacking resources can also be served. Shah also believes that while individuals must work harder to adapt to market forces, government policies must change to make Saudization a desirable evolution and not a cat and mouse game.

“In most advanced nations, due to minimum wage requirements, an employee’s compensation is not based on nationality. Plus, work visas are issued only for certain skilled workers, after much consideration In Saudi Arabia, businesses are currently profiting at the expense of human beings and that profit is enabled by government policies,” Shah stated. “Saudization requires the re-evaluation of corporate and social values. It is obvious that the current business model based on labor importation is of little long-term benefit to this nation. After years of adherence to such a model, Saudi Arabia is a growing consumer of technology and goods. The required skills have never been developed for this nation to be a producing economy, where ideas and investment thrive.”

Despite the benefits of Saudization for the Kingdom, Shah knows this concept has never been welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s expatriate workforce. It is his opinion that a reduction in the number of expatriates in the Kingdom is one of the best ways to allow local talents and national pride to flourish.

“Where did this myth that Saudis do not want to work arise?” asked Shah. “I have seen many Saudi youngsters defeated by the workplace’s lack of enthusiasm at their employment. Don’t forget that millions of foreigners depend on their jobs in the Kingdom for a better lifestyle than they would have back home. Also, many nations have been enriched from foreign exchange remittances from overseas workers and the sales of goods to the Kingdom. To those nations and their citizens, Saudization will always be a threat, not an opportunity.

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