Gulf States Try to Steer Jobs to Citizens

Young men walk through a shopping mall in Muscat, the capital of Oman. In that country, "Omanization squads" confront employers that hire foreigners.
Young men walk through a shopping mall in Muscat, the capital of Oman. In that country, "Omanization squads" confront employers that hire foreigners. (By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 25, 2008

MUSCAT, Oman -- Coffee shop manager Lalit Jadeja groaned as white-robed Omani officials swooped down on his Filipina cashier at one of the largest shopping malls in this Persian Gulf kingdom. It was the Omanization squad.

Why, the officials demanded, was a foreigner instead of an Omani citizen working the cash register?

The officials were enforcers of Oman's campaign to put its young citizens in jobs occupied mostly by cheaper foreign workers. Similar programs, costing millions of dollars, are being tested across the oil-rich Gulf region, where many are concerned that frustrated young people are susceptible to radical ideology.

But economists and other analysts say the programs have made little difference so far. In some cases, as in hiring quotas for citizens, government efforts have angered employers who say the campaigns have fostered a sense of job entitlement among local young people.

Their voices rising in the coffee shop, the Omani officials and Jadeja argued labor law and hiring quotas over a lighted display case of cinnamon buns and ni├žoise salads.

"It has to be fixed," Jadeja, one of millions of Indians who have come to the Gulf for jobs offered by its thriving oil economies, said later. "It will be an atom bomb one day."

The Middle East has the world's highest percentage of young people -- 30 percent of its population -- and the highest percentage of unemployed youths -- 25 percent. The trend is particularly pronounced in the Gulf region, where dependence on oil has stunted the growth of private sectors over the years. In Saudi Arabia, for example, about 30 percent of young people are unemployed.

The young people hired to meet the quotas "are often perceived as a burden, and companies consider the salaries paid to them as a form of tax," said Nabil Ali al-Yousuf, vice chairman and executive president of the Dubai School of Government, a public policy institute in the United Arab Emirates.

"I think we have a choice with these 100 million youths that are growing up now" in the Middle East, Yousuf said. "They can be 100 million opportunities or 100 million ticking time bombs."

Two of the main problems are schools that fail to prepare students for the needs of the labor market and societies that see public-sector jobs as the only ones with the prestige and security worth going for.

In Syria, a country not in the Gulf but representative of the Muslim Middle East overall, 60 percent of unemployed young people said they would rather remain jobless than take a job in the private sector, according to a survey cited by the Dubai center.

In the Gulf region, oil wealth has compounded the problem.

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