Why Saudis are now working at Starbucks and McDonald’s

Saudis working in service ­industry may be what Saudi Arabia needs as its economy struggles with falling oil prices


News Desk March 02, 2016
Abdullah al-Awaji folds clothes at a Lacoste outlet in a mall in Riyadh while his Saudi colleague works a cash register in February 2016. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Once unheard of, a growing number of Saudi citizens can now be seen working at McDonald’s, Starbucks, Gap and a number of fast-food and retail jobs in the oil-rich kingdom.

Although more than 90 per cent of Saudis hold government jobs and sneer at employment in the private sector, they have now started working in the service industry as the country’s economy struggles with falling oil prices.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to do these jobs,” said Mariam al-Harbi, 30, a college graduate who works at Starbucks on the women-only level of the Kingdom Center mall in Riyadh.

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Although it is a relatively low paying job, Harbi, speaking in rudimentary English and her native Arabic, enjoys her work, especially when it comes to making caramel macchiatos. “They’re so much fun to make! It’s like art!” she gushed.

The Saudi government has recently adopted stinging austerity measures that threaten its massive welfare programmes and bloated public sector. The government has also imposed hiring freezes that have made it harder for Saudis to find relatively rigor-free, well-paid employment with the government.

The change poses challenges for a conservative society in which two-thirds of the population of 28 million are younger than 30 and struggle with unemployment. However, Saudi officials have long been trying to get them out of government work and into the private sector.

“There just hasn’t been a comprehensive and effective strategy in place for Saudis to feel comfortable and secure in the private sector,” said Wahab Abu-Dahesh, an economist at Riyadh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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For decades, Saudi Arabia has been forced to rely on foreigners to power the private sector. Millions of people from countries such as Pakistan, the Philippines and war-torn Syria have been working in the service industry.

In neighbouring Qatar, citizens enjoy a spendthrift lifestyle of Range Rovers, Cartier watches and shopping excursions to Europe. Qataris work in the government and government-backed entities, earning an average annual income close to $100,000.

In Saudi Arabia, however, the welfare state has been stretched thin by rapid population growth. As a result, many Saudis are far too poor to afford an extravagant lifestyle. “In fact, many are focused on scratching out a living, which helps explain why a rising number are turning to private-sector employment,” said Abu-Dahesh said.

Harbi said tight finances at home helped persuade her husband, a government-employed security guard, to allow her to work at the coffee shop, where she earns a little more than $1,000 a month. The mall’s women-only level served to convince her husbandtoo as she could do away with the hassle of covering her head and face.

Another Saudi national, Abdullah al-Awaji, also took up a job at the mall’s Lacoste outlet two months ago, where he earns a monthly wage of just over $1,000. The 24-year-old has become the breadwinner for his sick father, eight sisters and six brothers.

“I have retirement and health benefits here,” he said during a lunch break.

This article originally appeared on Washington Post

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COMMENTS (5)

Pakvoice | 5 years ago | Reply hats off and full respect to these Saudis taking regular jobs. I wish them and their country nothing but the very best if we are indeed well and truly into a post-oil age.
Kac | 5 years ago | Reply We should start respecting our country, and stop finding the mythical land of opportunity elsewhere.
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