181222 saudi work force
Image Credit: Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s booming population is taken into consideration when national targets are set. When Vision 2030 was first announced back in 2016, one of its key aims was to contribute to job creation through various programmes. Initiatives were to be set in motion to create more than 450,000 jobs in the non-government sector by the year 2020 for Saudi nationals of both genders, thereby contributing to the Vision’s goal of providing opportunities for all.

Such programmes towards national concern are also being implemented in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As a step towards Emiratisation, the government in Abu Dhabi earlier this year announced a new economic stimulus package that would accelerate the local economy and through economic diversification build a positive future for Emirati citizens.

While these countries are to be lauded for their concerns towards the nationals, are the nationals paying back that goodwill and trust in spirit? As nationals’ stream into the workforce previously dominated by expatriates, there are bound to be some issues that hopefully with time will cease to be a concern. But such irks do exist today in some areas.

I was out recently shopping at the largest retail home furnishings store in the kingdom. A large two-storied massive outlet for home and kitchen furnishings and appliances, the place had an adequate workforce of sales assistants, of which most were young Saudi children.

It didn’t take me very long to get extremely perturbed. The service offered by some of the sales assistants was below expectation. I found it offensive to be kept waiting by a young sales assistant while he chose to answer his mobile phone and carry on with a conversation on a football player — apparently expecting me to wait while he concluded his call. Glaring at him, I left in a huff.

Further down the furniture hall, after asking for directions to a specific item, another young Saudi nonchalantly waved his hand in a direction without even looking up — he too was engrossed in his phone. Apparently, he wanted to catch up on the latest news.

There were plenty of sales assistants, but from what I observed, assistance was least on their mind. In one corner, I noticed four of these youths chatting away as customers wandered, looking for help. Further down, two of these young men were seated on a display couch, busy with some idle chatter. It didn’t faze them one bit as I paused momentarily to stare at them. They ignored my presence as they had apparently done with others.

The lack of supervision was very evident and I can honestly state that with a few exceptions, most of the services being provided were by expatriates from an African and Asian backgrounds. Even as the place filled up with early shoppers following the evening prayers, I noticed no real attempt on the part of most of the young Saudi salesmen to be more accommodating to their customers. As a matter of fact, the opposite seemed to hold true. The more queries that came their way from curious customers it only appeared to increase their annoyance at being ‘disturbed’!

Now I recollect the days when this store had opened in Jeddah some 20 years ago. Primarily staffed by Eritrean, Somali, Indian and a sprinkling of Filipinos and Sudanese sales personnel, it was the epitome of customer service. Those sales personnel were very patient and forthcoming with customer concerns. They were helpful in guiding their clients through the maze of this giant superstore of furnishings and often would leave their individual stations to guide their customers to their requirements.

So, what has happened since then?

In the name of Saudiisation, the store management has failed to make the grade and will lose customers fast if the present trend continues. Thanks to new and competitive entries in this market, the store will find its patrons moving somewhere else with their business.

Are the Saudi sales assistants to blame? While they should share some of the honours, I believe the flaw lies in the recruitment and training process. Employing any Saudi for the sake of Saudiisation or padding up the number of nationals in the workforce to appease the Ministry of Labour doesn’t make sense. While there is indeed a shortage of skilled Saudi workers in the service industry, focus on effective selection and proper training of the freshly recruited Saudi workforce is severely lacking.

Most new recruits have never worked anywhere else and thus possess no professional experience. By leaving them out on the floor to face their clients — without proper training, supervision, guidance and follow-up — is a recipe for failure in the process of Saudiisation.

Targets without qualified grass-roots training and supervision can stumble and fail.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena