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Saudis Fight Militancy With Jobs

Private Posts Formerly Held by Foreigners Are Offered to Locals

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A01

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 30 -- The government of Saudi Arabia is drawing on a multibillion-dollar oil windfall to place hundreds of thousands of young Saudis in jobs traditionally held by foreigners, betting that greater economic opportunities in the kingdom will counter the rising Islamic militancy challenging the royal family.

Millions of dollars are flowing into job-training, technical schools and cash incentives for Saudi companies to hire local citizens. In a process known as "Saudization," some of the foreigners who have long been the backbone of the kingdom's private-sector labor force are returning home.

Fahad Amri, a 34-year-old Saudi, greets shoppers at the new Azizia Mall. Such service jobs have traditionally been held by foreign workers. (Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)

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The new approach was on display this week at the grand opening of the Azizia Mall in downtown Riyadh, where Saudi men in head scarves and black-cloaked women were strolling along cool marble aisles, holding cups from Seattle's Best Coffee and wandering past a McDonald's, sporting goods stores and boutiques.

In former days, a Filipino, Indian or Pakistani might have greeted these patrons at the mall's information kiosk. But at this mall, it was Hamad Anazi, a 27-year-old Saudi wearing the customary floor-length white tunic and red-checked head scarf, offering a quick smile and a glossy map of the new mall.

With a university degree in computer science and ambitions to match, Anazi is among the 350,000 Saudis entering the job market each year, many of them concerned about their prospects. He holds this job, which he hopes will lead to one in computers, in part because the government pays half of his $1,200 monthly salary as an incentive to his employer to hire Saudi nationals.

Starting with the oil boom in the 1970s, income from foreign energy sales provided cradle-to-grave security for Saudi citizens, mostly in the form of government jobs and lavish education and health benefits.

But those days have ended, as the kingdom's population has grown faster than its ability to provide public-sector jobs and other entitlements enjoyed by the previous generation.

"Saudi guys right now are angry, frustrated because many have training but no place to work," said Anazi, whose father retired from a police career on a comfortable government pension. "If you don't have a friend who can help you, you have to take whatever you can."

A Matter of Security

Across the Middle East, millions of young Arabs are struggling to break into stagnant job markets. Political analysts say this mismatch is starting to generate pressure that could bring governments down if they're unwilling to reform economies hobbled by cronyism, Byzantine regulation and rigid state control.

The problem is particularly acute in this resource-rich country of more than 25 million people, where many have long viewed work as something done by others. The government is struggling to provide economic possibilities for the 60 percent of the population under 18 years old.

After bombings and shootouts this year that have killed about 50 people in the kingdom, the Saudi government has come to view putting more of its people to work as a matter of national security. With oil prices hovering near a two-decade peak, it is putting some of the new income into a languishing campaign to recast the labor market with a Saudi face.

"I believe that not being able to get a job for young Saudis will lead to disaster, whether in security or moral terms," said Saleh A. Aboreshaid, the development director at the government's General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training, whose budget is blooming.

Economists estimate that the Saudi government, which receives 80 percent of its revenue from oil sales, will post a $35 billion surplus this year, almost all of it due to higher oil prices. Next year, much of that money will be used to pay down the government's domestic debt, repair roads and schools that were built during the last oil boom, purchase U.S. Treasury bonds, and finance the rising cost of defending the royal family's rule from armed Islamic radicals.

But Saudi officials say a healthy portion of the money will also go to the Human Resource Development Fund, which subsidizes the salaries of as many as 30,000 Saudis each year as an incentive for companies to hire them. Technical and vocational-training institutes will build 59 new campuses, doubling the number of annual graduates in fields such as cosmetology, computer programming, meat cutting and plumbing to 200,000. Nearly all jobs in those fields are currently held by foreigners.

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