Employment prospects


Saudi Arabia allows plenty of foreign workers into its territory, but almost exclusively on a temporary basis.

Expatriates aren’t generally allowed to become part of the permanent population. Foreign workers are dealt with in a fair but controlled way, paid and treated well, and at the end of their time in the region, thanked and rewarded for their efforts. On the other hand, the government is conscious of the need to provide decent jobs with career paths for their own young people, who are increasingly educated and aware of the attractions of the outside world – many attend universities in the USA or UK. Having made major investments in education and social welfare, they hope that eventually Saudi Arabia will become almost self-sufficient in terms of labour.

A majority of outside observers, however, believe that expatriates will have a substantial role to play for many years to come, and it seems likely that expatriates will continue to be important for the next two or three decades, although there will undoubtedly be changes in the number of people employed and the type of skills required. For example, the vast construction projects currently found throughout the region (e.g. road systems, airports, ports and trading zones) will become less numerous, with a resulting decline in the number of manual workers required. Commercial development, however, will lead to further building programmes as Saudi Arabia’s economy continues to grow. Managerial, professional and particularly technological experience will still be in strong demand for many years to come. But there will be none of the mass immigration and resulting demands for citizenship that have been experienced in western societies, or the current trend of economic refugees looking for a better way of life. Saudi Arabia will simply not allow it. Foreigners cannot become citizens or own land and property, although there appears to be some lessening of the restrictions, certainly as regards owning one’s own business.

There are other general issues to consider: you’re contemplating a move to a culture that’s almost certainly different to your own; will the way of life, and particularly the restrictions imposed on you, suit you? Will the relocation benefit your long-term career prospects? Will your family (especially any children) cope with and benefit from the move? What impact will it have on their education and employment prospects? If you aspire to be your own boss, as many people do, be aware that starting a business in the region can prove difficult and that you will almost always be required to have a local partner who has a majority holding. Is that acceptable to you?

The Middle East has been the scene of considerable conflict and unrest in recent decades, although the Gulf states are generally safe places to live and work. However, before travelling anywhere in the Middle East, it’s wise to obtain advice from your country’s foreign office. Note also that homosexuality is regarded as a criminal offence throughout the region.

You should ideally have a firm offer of employment before travelling to Saudi Arabia. Speculative visits are occasionally successful, but you need to be notably lucky and have high-grade qualifications and experience to stand any chance. In addition, you will almost certainly need knowledgeable local contacts and have done some research into the types of company which would most value your experience.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is recognised as the major influence on the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council. In addition to this, the religious significance that Saudi Arabia has as the geographical and spiritual centre of the Islamic world cannot be over-emphasised. Muslims regard Mecca ( Makkah in Arabic) as the birthplace of Islam, and the faith demands that every Muslim who can afford it make a pilgrimage to the holy sites. Saudis feel honoured that their country is the centre of the religion.

In the past, the Kingdom was financially dependent on the massive influx of visitors for the annual pilgrimage (Haj) to Mecca and the many other religious occasions that constitute the faithful’s duties in visiting the birthplace of the Islamic religion. However, increasingly since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has been a major oil producer, and it now dominates the sector. It’s estimated that around a quarter of the world’s oil and gas resources are situated in the Kingdom, and oil exports account for 90 per cent of its total earnings.

The 1970s and 1980s saw vast spending programmes incorporated into Soviet-style five-year plans. However, with the drop in oil prices in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s income was reduced and the country’s ambitious development programmes restricted. Spending cuts were introduced to some public sectors, although not to those that would radically affect people’s everyday lives, such as health and education. The Kingdom is currently finishing its sixth five-year plan, which called for expansion of private investment and industry, including the important financial sector. Recent oil price rises will increase revenue again but, because most of the numerous expansion projects have been completed and hordes of foreign workers have departed, the demand for imports has reduced.

One of the most notable government institutions, with part-private ownership, is Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which operates across a wide field of activities with many foreign companies. Its main ventures are the production of petrochemicals, plastics and fertilisers. Mining is also being actively developed in Saudi Arabia, whose wealth of natural resources includes phosphate, copper and gold ore, and it’s expected that in the future, mining might become the country’s second source of revenue, after oil. The Kingdom also produces iron, steel, cement and processed foods. Employment is concentrated in construction, industry, and consumer and government services, and major industrial expansion centres are located at Jubail in the eastern province and at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast.

As a result of industrial development, massive power generation has been needed, and this is provided by the Saudi Electric Company (SEC). Water is a vital resource, for human consumption and commercial use, and has always been in short supply, but the Kingdom’s needs are now met by numerous desalination plants on the coast.

The Saudi financial sector is important, and its banking industry is the largest in the region. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) controls and regulates finance in its role as the central bank, and many foreign banks operate in the country. The Saudi stock exchange is a leading new bourse.

Despite Saudi’s harsh climate, there has been an expansion in agri-business as the government has sought to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Large milk-producing farms supply much of the Kingdom’s needs. Wheat production originally allowed for some exports, but this has ceased, the high cost of irrigation having made it unviable. There’s an export market in fish, particularly to neighbouring Gulf states, but also to some parts of Europe.

Apart from religious pilgrims visiting the Kingdom’s holy sites, general tourism was, until recently, discouraged in Saudi Arabia. This is now slowly changing, partly for economic reasons. Although Saudi Arabia has vast tracts of empty desert, it also offers many places of great beauty, from mountains to lush fertile plains and a huge coastline. In recent years, European cruise ships have been calling at the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea, a previously unheard-of occurrence. However, a visit to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to suit the average fun-loving holidaymaker, and the annual pilgrimage ( Haj) to Mecca is still by far the country’s largest ‘tourist’ event. Quotas of visitors to Mecca are now allocated to each country in order to keep the crowds to manageable levels, and countries whose pilgrims have caused major disturbances have had their quotas reduced.

Further reading

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