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A Few Choice Words on a Hot Topic - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Touching upon any hot topic is like standing in the eye of a storm, but here I intend to comment upon the wide-ranging campaign in Saudi Arabia to address the country’s labor, residence, and sponsorship systems. This is an intensive, focused, and unprecedented campaign that is undoubtedly justified on many valid grounds. The size of the Kingdom’s “irregular” labor force is considerable and needs to be rectified, and there are also pressing security—as well as economic—reasons to deal with this situation urgently. However, chronic problems cannot be cured by instant solutions; they can only be resolved in the long term.

In order to identify the cause of the growing crisis that this campaign is seeking to address, we must examine the origins of the problem. One cannot focus purely on some symptoms and neglect the origin of the disease, and the situation in Saudi Arabia in particular is complex.

The problem as a whole cannot be blamed on Saudi businessmen, for they are citizens and an essential part of the Kingdom. Although the arbitrary dispersal of work visas has created something of a polluted quagmire in the economic arena, one cannot clean up this pollution without paying attention to the water source in the first place, for this would be only half a cure and thus only half a solution.

The same applies to placing blame on foreign expats, who have “usurped” the expertise of the Saudis and “stolen” their livelihoods. This is a naïve portrayal of a much more significant and deeper problem. These foreign workers were officially invited to Saudi Arabia and came over because of the pricing structure of the professional market. In this domain, major contract bidders rely on the cheapest price for labor, even if this ultimately has a more expensive social cost. From an economic perspective, cheap labor has been the most addictive drug in Gulf markets over the past years and the issue has since turned into a destructive scourge.

Major decisions need to be taken in order to change this culture of pricing and hiring people. There also needs to be a sizable investment in vocational training, because we cannot purely rely on university graduates in a market sector where there is no room for them, but instead there is a tremendous thirst for vocational professionals—the majority of whom are imported from abroad. The same applies to the issue of domestic workers, especially chauffeurs, and here, the issue of public transport is not merely an option but an urgent necessity. Saudi rulers must listen to the desires of the people and the wisdom of the economists.

Reforming the employment situation in Saudi Arabia is a thorny and complex issue; it is mainly an economic one but it also has legal and social aspects. Any solution must take all these factors into account in order to be effective, and actions must be well executed so that justice is achieved. The talent is already here in Saudi Arabia, and we need it to play an important role. However, a policy of restructuring the labor force must be well thought out so that it is actually feasible. This is everyone’s responsibility; all parties must be involved in this great goal without one side serving as the punch bag for others to take out their anger.

A balanced and responsible restricting of the labor force, in which everyone participates and is held accountable, is what is desired by Saudi society. We can only ask God for this.

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi is a businessman and prominent columnist. Mr. Shobokshi hosts the weekly current affairs program Al-Takreer on Al-Arabiya, and in 1995 he was chosen as one of the "Global Leaders for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum. He received his BA in Political Science and Management from the University of Tulsa.

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