Jobs, jobs, jobs . . . and too few Saudis to fill them
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — At the new Al Azizia A&P in Riyadh, the clerks are Filipino, the management American, and most of the customers European. In the brightly lighted parking lot outside, Pakistanis equipped with castoff cans and old rags hustle car-washing jobs during their off hours from the physical drudgery of digging ditches and hauling cement at the multitude of construction sites.
While on the street, the orange and white No. 8 bus is driven by a Korean driver. It is packed with Yemeni, Egyptian, Thai, and Sudanese workmen on their way to the night shift for maintenance crews.
Increasingly Saudi Arabia functions on the backs of its foreign labor force. Conservative estimates say 2 million foreigners are needed to keep the kingdom running. That is the equivalent of the entire adult male population of the country.
During the late 1970s, the government lived with the illusion that a large foreign presence was a temporary measure. As soon as education expanded, Saudis would enter the work force and ''Saudization,'' as the third five-year economic development plan termed it, would occur.
No one believes in Saudization anymore.
A small population and a cultural aversion to manual labor mean the foreign work force is here to stay.
And with the foreign workers has come a major dilemma harboring profound social and political implications for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are trapped between their desire for the physical comforts derived from their imported labor force and the fear of the changes its presence imposes on an insular, traditional society.
Although everyone mutters about the dangerous tidal wave of workers, no one is ready to come to grips with life without the foreign servants. Instead demand continues to escalate.
Labor pools have been tapped in almost every corner of the world with the possible exception of Latin America. Until recently, the Saudis depended largely on labor from neighboring Arab countries.
North and South Yemen, beneficiaries of a long common border, provide the largest pool of unskilled labor. Any Yemeni can avoid the formal immigration process by driving his Toyota pickup truck due north across the trackless desert , leaving no record of his entry or whereabouts. It is believed that as many as 500,000 Yemenis are always in the kingdom. This is a nightmare for Saudi Arabia's hard-pressed internal security forces.
The House of Saud is acutely aware that if Marxist South Yemen ever decided to undertake subversion in the kingdom, the Yemeni workers are a perfect cover. Though there have been no reports of political activity among the Yemenis, the Saudis periodically round up and deport some Yemenis.
Few Arabs aside from the Yemenis employed in Saudi Arabia do manual labor. Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, many of whom have been in Saudi Arabia for years, hold important positions in business, education, and the bureaucracy. Most, including the Palestinians, are concerned enough about their high-paying positions to avoid politics. Apolitical or not, they still do not fill the role of worker bees that the Saudis so desperately need.
For the last several years, the Saudis have eagerly recruited skilled and semi-skilled labor from Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines to repair their streets, install their air conditioners, and keep their cars running. Oriental laborers are preferred because they work hard, have no interest in Arab politics , and joyfully leave the kingdom when their two-year contracts expire.
To its dismay, Saudi Arabia is finding that the oriental labor market is not inexhaustible. Labor is, therefore, increasingly falling to immigrants from poverty-ridden, overpopulated countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India. At present there are 700,000 Pakistanis alone in Saudi Arabia, most doing jobs no one else wants. Sri Lankans have come to Saudi Arabia for as little as $100 to $130 per month plus housing and food, often substandard.
The major exploiters in the labor market are more often contractors and private recruiting firms in supply countries than the Saudis themselves.
In an attempt to protect its reputation, particularly with Muslim countries, the Saudi government is supporting a system of minimum wages set by the countries that supply the workers. Wage scales range from $145 per month for workers from Sri Lanka to $218 per month for workers from Bangladesh. Nevertheless thousands of men are willing to come at any price because once in the kingdom, work is available at wages far beyond anything they know at home.
But ironically, it is not this mass of impoverished workers desperate for petrodollars that the House of Saud sees as its greatest political threat. It is the highly paid Westerners who are seen by Muslim fundamentalists as an evil, corrupting force within Saudi society.
The government goes to great lengths to keep the Western presence and its heretical values as hidden as possible. Women are legally banned from working or driving, Christian religious services have to be conducted underground, living accommodations are usually inside the walls of compounds, and women are expected to honor the Saudi dress code by wearing long dresses and covering their hair.
No one knows how many unskilled workers, armed with ink pots and brushes, are employed painting out the images of unveiled Western women in the magazines and daily newspapers imported into the country.
Even United States military bases whose sole function would be to provide security have been opposed by the government in an attempt to prevent an even more obvious Western presence in the country.
According to William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, the Saudi government believes it has less to fear from external invasion than an internal invasion by its US protector.
But regardless of the diligence of the religious element, the signs of Westernization are everywhere. Video technology allows Saudis to see Western films, banned in public, in the privacy of their homes. Saudi women hide Dior couture under their head-to-toe black veils. And alcohol is generously consumed in private, especially by the Western-educated younger generation.
It is this gap between public morality, rigidly enforced by the religious authorities, and private behavior, sharply influenced by Western standards, that permeates Saudi Arabia with hypocrisy. But perhaps it is an honest hypocrisy simply because the Saudis themselves have not defined what they really want from their new society.
Even Saudis who have lived in the West are hostile about the erosion of their proud desert heritage by what they regard as inferior cultures. Yet they cannot resist the tinsel that the West provides for them and a servant class to maintain it.
The physical transformation of Saudi Arabia has been accomplished. King Fahd must now wrestle with the result - Saudi dependence on foreign labor and the accompanying hostility to its presence by the Saudi population. Much of the political stability of the House of Saud depends on Fahd's ability to provide material comforts for his people while preserving their spiritual heritage. It is not an easy task, especially for a man regarded by many of his own people as a captive of the evil West. Next: The Saudis walk an Islamic tightrope between tradition and modernization