Halah Alduhaylib strolls among the recruitment stands at a jobs fair in Riyadh where there are 10,000 positions available. Only Saudis need apply.
"This is my second fair this week, it's a great chance for me," said Alduhaylib, 28. With a masters in computing from Britain's Manchester Metropolitan University, she's well-placed to benefit from the kingdom's drive to reduce unemployment, a cause of unrest in many Middle Eastern countries, by forcing companies to hire more Saudis.
Nine out of ten non-government employees are foreigners. After deploying troops, money and religion to stave off protests in the world's top oil exporter, King Abdullah this month imposed quotas that may force employers to cut foreign staff.
While that's good news for Alduhaylib, it will raise costs for Saudi businesses and hurt poorer Arab countries which earn foreign currency from expatriate workers in the Gulf. "Saudi Arabia's ability to absorb labour from the region will be reduced," said Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank.
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"Oil-importing nations of the region have struggled at a time of rapid population growth to absorb people into productive employment." Kotilaine cited Egypt as an example. Another is Tunisia: Mohammad Bouazizi, the 26-year-old whose self-immolation helped trigger the regional revolution, was unemployed.
Egypt received $8.9 billion (Dh32.6 billion) of net private transfers, mostly from Egyptian workers abroad, in the nine months through March, according to the central bank. The Saudi contribution was $1 billion last year, John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, wrote in a June 14 report.
That's a problem for an Egyptian government seeking to repair finances after the revolt against Hosni Mubarak scared off tourists and shut down factories. Saudi Arabia cushioned the potential blow from lost remittances with $900 million of grants and loans.
Saudi Arabia is the second-biggest global supplier of worker remittances after the United States, sending $26 billion last year, Banque Saudi Fransi said. Neighbouring Yemen is another recipient.
"All foreign workers here in the showroom are worried about their jobs," said Mohammad Al Rashidi, 23, a Yemeni administrator at Saks Fifth Avenue in Riyadh. About one-third of Saudi adults have jobs, government figures show.
Meanwhile, almost 1 million work visas were issued to companies in 2009, more than double the 2005 number. "Saudi companies prefer the lower paid, better skilled foreign workers," said Paul Gamble, head of research at Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment Co. Now, "they will probably pay more for less productivity." Quotas for Saudi nationals range from 65 per cent at larger companies such as Saudi Investment Bank to 10 per cent for small retailers.
Companies falling short won't get permits for foreign workers. It's the first time the government has "explicitly linked visas to employing Saudis," Gamble said. At the Riyadh jobs fair, Ismail Abudawood Trading Co., the Saudi distributor for Procter & Gamble Co. and Quaker Oats Co., has openings for 35 women and 125 men.
"We are only looking for Saudis," said Mohammad Al Okaili, its human resources manager. Gender, as well as nationality, is an issue. One of the first questions asked by Shady Hanafy, who's recruiting for New Jersey-based construction manager Hill International Inc., is whether applicants would work with the opposite sex.
Responses varied. Saleh Al Freihi, seeking an interior design job for his daughter, said he wouldn't mind a "mixed environment". Abdullah Al Hussain, a 26-year-old Islamic law graduate, said he preferred separation though "would work with women in the right job."
Halah says she doesn't mind working with men and is willing to travel if King Abdullah's plan helps her land a position in information technology.