It is true that Saudi Arabia is facing many foreign challenges, but its problems at home, mainly unemployment and poverty, are no less intense or morose.
The Saudi artist Nasser al-Qasabi explains in his famous black comedy series “Selfie” the state of poverty and misery closing in on a citizen who works as a security guard. The episode ends with a fit of anger the miserly citizen breaks into. He shouts at rich businessmen he had always served but who barely remember him. He loses his temper and lashes out at them in a moment of unexpected rage, after having lost all hope of breaking free from the poverty he lives in.
Comedy aside, breaking free from the chains of poverty in the kingdom is not easy, despite its richness and the compassion of its government, which dedicates billions to social security subsidies. Although these subsidies might provide the poor with the minimum means of living, they wouldn’t free him from poverty. Why is that?
The Saudi job market is messed up. It is occupied by millions of incomers from other places who work in various fields and take over small and medium tasks, which would normally satisfy the poor and promote them to the wider “middle-class” level that constitutes the base of many societies. It is only then that some of them might be able to climb up the ladder and become rich.
The barely educated security guard, which most Saudis watched in "Selfie," gathered some money or borrowed it from an initiative-supporting fund. He decided to enter the retail market in the hope of trying his luck in sales and purchase, like his ancestors before him who made up the Saudi middle class. Will he succeed in his endeavor?
Like any other person, he begins with traditional projects, such as working in groceries, selling sweets, delivering orders and selling construction material. This is how the best traders started off, and this is what every entrepreneur and ambitious person does in any country in the world. But, our friend realizes that the market is swamped with foreigners who beat him to it and gained experience and the secrets of the trade. They formed a network of contacts and services. They are not his compatriots, tribal fellows or citizens, and therefore, they wouldn’t share their experience or advice with him or lend him money like his ancestors did before him. They are not willing to sit with him. He does not know their language or customs. He is a stranger in his own country.
I imagine Qasabi playing the role of the security guard who roams the streets of Riyadh, with 50,000 riyals [$13,332] in his pocket, which is all he has. He searches for a shop to rent out or for merchandise to buy as a wholesale deal. He is wandering alone, and nobody knows him. He is not familiar with the language of his interlocutors. It is as though he is in Lahore or Dakka. The camera moves farther away gradually, then the neighborhood appears. After that, the city of Riyadh comes into focus with the Faisaliah Tower and the Kingdom Centre. The camera enters an office where Saudis having high-ranking jobs work. These are the citizens who studied abroad and received high education degrees. They hail from well-off families and are bilingual. The camera then focuses on Qasabi again, who looks with wandering eyes at the Asian faces selling to and buying from Saudis and foreigners. They load merchandise and unload others. They sign contracts and exchange money. The camera then focuses on Qasabi, who looks defeated. He realized that he does not have a place here. He looks at the businessmen’s ivory towers in the far distance and seems to say, “Is it my fault that I am not educated? Is it my fate to remain a security guard earning little money without any potential for real professional growth? Is a raise of 200 riyals [$53] every year or two all I deserve? Is it time to beg every man and woman whose car door I open for a tip?
No, it is time to free the Saudi retail market so that each citizen who did not continue his education or who cannot find ways to make ends meet can return to the market.
The time has come to start tolerating some slackening or dysfunction in the economy for a few years to help our fellow citizens while they gain experiences. This is the situation in all the countries in the world, and this is how the Saudi market should be. Only then will the guard in the "Selfie" episodes smile, after taking his son to his shop and telling him: “Look after the shop. I am leaving for a bit to discuss a new trade deal. I will be back. All right?”
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