Sunday, February 13, 2011

Addressing The Needs Of 'Arab Street'

It's not just Egypt; other countries in the region may face similar stirrings if the common man's concerns are ignored.
By Tariq A. Al Maeena
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 13/02/2011
The regional events of recent times have given rise to the once dormant "Arab Street." Mocked in the past by western media for their silence and acquiescence to the whims of regional dictators, events in Tunisia and Egypt have finally broken the hold on such submission.
And it is not in just these two countries that the stirrings of the "Arab Street" have begun to be of notice. In countries such as Algeria, Yemen and Jordan there have been stirrings. Other countries may be forced to witness similar stirrings if the street remains ignored.
What exactly do the people on the street want? The same as people everywhere else! The cessation of state exploitation and corruption, the basic rights that are often quoted as democratic principles, the freedom of political expression without repression and torture and the right and opportunity to make an honourable and sustainable living.
Countries in the GCC have begun to take notice of the rising unemployment rates of their population. There have been several GCC forums on nationalisation. With current events unfolding as they have, it is imperative that programmes be implemented to absorb the local citizenry before they too become the people on the street. Such programmes, however, must not be hastily thought out simply to address this growing dilemma.
In Saudi Arabia, the previous Minister of Labour had stated that his ministry was looking at several more trades for Saudisation. They included barbers, tailors, plumbers and electricians. A committee was to be formed to study whether these categories could be quickly taken over by the locals.
It's going to take a while before any tangible methods are developed for a smooth transition of replacing foreign labour with the national pool. And before we hasten to put the cart before the horse, let us ponder over a few points of legitimate concern.
Do we have trade schools that produce barbers? Are there such institutions available that are churning out master Saudi snippers? Or do we, as usual, expect the Labour Ministry to hand out some sharp scissors to a bunch of hopefuls and expect them to refashion our head in a manner to behold?
The same argument would apply to the other trades mentioned. There are no such institutions that I know of other than a few vocational schools that produce individuals who can possibly tell the difference between 110 volts and 220 volts. And such individuals are likely to starve to death, waiting for the prospective Saudi customer.
The ambitious staff at the Labour Ministry often takes the minister's concerns immediately to heart and start implementing laws before such laws are even on paper.
Who could forget the raid on travel agencies recently? Or expatriate staff at supermarkets being bundled out and taken away.
Manpower adjustments
The Saudi Labour Ministry's proclamations often send shivers across the business establishments who would often have to consider massive manpower adjustments in very short time. And while the minister's intentions are worthwhile, the methods that his staff often employs are what worry most businessmen.
If I were a member of this study group, I would suggest the following: Weed out the professional expatriate barbers and members of the other trades who merit a high qualification. Offer them nationality on the condition that they become part of the teaching force. Open up institutions of training with such qualified individuals, and voila! You have produced a pool of fresh graduates in the different trades.
Let us use the experience of those among us to help us out, before venturing out and bringing in more teachers. Currently, we do not have the facilities to absorb the high number of locals waiting to be qualified in the various trades and join the labour pool effortlessly. Nor should we be quickly inclined to send our children en mass to vocational schools out of the country.
The transfer of knowledge from these willing expats (now Saudis) would fill the market with a labour pool worthy of employment. This is a big country and can easily absorb the few thousand individuals who choose to remain on this condition.
The biggest impediment today to hiring most Saudis currently is their lack of experience and discipline. Through such masters, some would be reformed and turned into hopeful professionals. Be they tailors, plumbers, barbers, or electricians, we all could use such help. And how smoothly we get it is important.
A hungry man has nothing to lose. And the ‘Arab Street' is out there waiting.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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