Saudi Crown Prince may have portrayed himself as a moderniser rolling back the country's stultifying social restrictions ” but he is struggling to turn the country's financial fortunes around, with the economy suffering a crisis of confidence.
Hit hard by the oil-price collapse, the kingdom is now experiencing a plunge in foreign investment and high levels of capital outflow as its de facto leader, MBS as he is commonly known, attempts to consolidate power and steer a new economic course.
The uncertainty caused by his ambitious, some would say unrealistic, plans to modernise the economy has been further stoked by Saudi Arabia's apparent struggle to fill private sector jobs vacated by a growing exodus of expats. As of April, more than 800,000 had left the country since late 2016, alarming domestic companies concerned that the foreigners cannot be easily replaced.
Their departure is part of MBS's attempt to wean the country off its dependence on oil through economic diversification, a significant element of which involves trying to persuade Saudis in undemanding state sector jobs ” which make up two-thirds of domestic employment ” and those out of work to take up the new vacancies. The authorities want to generate 450,000 openings for Saudis in the private sector by 2020.
MBS has sought to expedite the exodus of foreign workers, who constitute about a third of the population, by stepping up the process of so-called Saudisation ” essentially the creation of a more productive local workforce. He is hiking up levies on companies employing non-Saudis, requiring foreigners to pay fees for dependents, and restricting the sectors in which they can work, with employment in many areas of the retail and service industries now strictly confined to Saudis. The measures are said to be driving the expat exodus, evident in the marked downturn in the rental real estate market and empty shopping malls.
While among high-earning Western professionals Saudi Arabia has long been viewed as a hardship posting compensated by their tax-free status, the majority of foreigners in the country are from the Middle East and Asia, many employed in low-paid jobs in the sectors now earmarked for Saudis.
But Saudi business owners are having difficulty getting locals, accustomed to undemanding work in the state sector and generous unemployment benefits, to work for them. Reports suggest many Saudis are put off by what they regard as poorly paid, low-status jobs. The recruitment problems have seemingly sparked so much concern that they have been played out on the pages of the Saudi Gazette, the government's mouthpiece, which normally features anodyne stories about life in the kingdom.
In February, the publication reported that a number of heads of chambers of commerce and industry had called on the government to exempt the private sector from"100%" ” or full ” Saudisation, especially posts that are hard to fill, such as in construction, amid concerns that many businesses may close down. In May, an item revealed that over a three-month period over 5,000 fines were issued to businesses flouting Saudisation rules in sectors ranging from telecoms to hotels to car rental.
Many companies are reported to be circumventing the policy's local employee quota requirement by hiring Saudis and paying them small salaries for what are in effect bogus jobs ” a process termed"fake Saudisation" ” prompting some to call for the nationalisation of the jobs market to be reconsidered. In December, columnist Mohammad Bassnawi provided an intriguing insight into private sector concerns over the policy and its possible consequences.
"Employers say young Saudi men and women are lazy and are not interested in working and accuse Saudi youth of preferring to stay at home rather than to take a low-paying job that does not befit the social status of a Saudi job seeker," Bassnawi said, adding that fake Saudisation"could create a generation of young men and women who are not interested in finding a job and who prefer to get paid for doing nothing."
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