Saudi women shop at a mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The country is racing to attract more investment and overhaul its economy as low oil prices expose it to urgent domestic challenges. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Mariam al-Harbi is Saudi, and she works at Starbucks.

If you think a Saudi barista isn’t a big deal, just ask Harbi. In fact, just ask any of the small but growing number of Saudi citizens who flip burgers at McDonald’s, fold sweaters at Gap, or work any number of fast-food and retail jobs in this oil-rich kingdom.

They’ll probably tell you how most of their compatriots have cushy government jobs. And they’ll probably tell you how many, at least until recently, have sneered at employment in the private sector.

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

She certainly isn’t.

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. (Hugh Naylor/TWP)

On a recent day, Harbi hurried between the cash register and coffee maker to brew lattes and grab muffins and cookies. With laser focus, she took orders in rudimentary English and her native Arabic.

It’s relatively low-salary work, but Harbi beamed with enthusiasm, especially when it came to caramel macchiatos. “They’re so much fun to make! It’s like art!” she said.

Such keenness for service­industry employment may be exactly what Saudi Arabia needs as its economy struggles with falling oil prices.

The government’s overwhelming reliance on oil exports has recently forced it to adopt stinging austerity measures that threaten the country’s massive welfare programs and bloated public sector. As authorities cut subsidies and spending, they have 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.

But it could also be an opportunity for the country’s officials, who have long tried to get Saudis out of government work — where more than 90 percent are employed — 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.

For now, 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 deliver FedEx packages, take orders at Chili’s and greet guests at hotel lobbies.

The imbalance is even more pronounced in neighboring gulf Arab monarchies, where oil economies have produced spendthrift lifestyles of Range Rovers, Cartier watches and shopping excursions to Europe. Thanks to epic natural-gas exports, for instance, Qataris overwhelmingly work in 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 Porsches or to vacation in Paris. 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, who noted that the government lacks reliable statistics on the number of Saudis who work these jobs.

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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.

So, too, did the shop’s location on the mall’s women-only level. These men-free zones have been created to help religiously conservative women such as Harbi work without hassle or niqab, a face-concealing garment.

Money problems also persuaded Abdullah al-Awaji to take a job at the mall’s Lacoste outlet two months ago, where he also earns a monthly wage of just over $1,000. The rail-thin 24-year-old has become the breadwinner for his sick father, eight sisters and six brothers.

He had hoped for government work, but having only a high school education made it difficult to get a foot in the door. Awaji said his friend and now colleague at the clothing outlet, Ali, also a Saudi citizen, encouraged him to apply for a position.

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

Awaji also seemed to embrace his tasks, approaching customers wearing a light-blue polo shirt and a gleaming smile.

“How may I help you?” he said in Arabic, greeting a man who was browsing for dress shirts.

Sheikha Aldosary contributed to this report.

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