Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Art of Hanging Around
What do you do if your job is to make tea? You make tea of course. What if you are a tea boy in an office where there are only six people? Let’s say they get through six cups of tea in a working day. That’s 36 cups of tea, right? So if you include simultaneous multiple requests for tea, theoretically your job consists of maybe sixteen tea-making sessions over ten hours, if that.
You do have a few other tasks: sweeping the floor in the morning and emptying the dustbins in the evening. Plus running minor errands for the boss, such as fetching lunch.
You are expected to sit in an accessible area, waiting for a task. You’re not allowed to read or use a computer (and anyway you’re not computer literate). Your English and Arabic are marginal. Your native language is Nepali, which nobody else in the office can speak.
Now imagine you’re a polar bear in a zoo. You spend all day and every day in a caged area being watched by humans. You wander around inspecting every inch of your minuscule domain, sniffing the air in the vain hope that some new and interesting aroma other than ice cream will waft over. You get fed – the same bloody stuff every day. You are bored stupid. No seals to hunt. No holes in the ice to dive through so you can swim around the gloomy waters looking for prey. No waterfalls with leaping salmon you can pick off with a deft flick of your paw. No mate with whom to frolic and make baby polar bears.
Eventually you develop compulsive tics. You keep shaking your head, or you bang it repeatedly against the railings that confine you. And you do that until you die of “natural” causes, or until some kindly vet puts you out of your misery because your boredom is so palpable that it’s distressing for the customers to watch.
Which life would you prefer? You’d probably opt for the tea boy’s, on the basis that after work you can at least do your own thing – go out with your friends, wander the malls even if you can’t afford to buy anything. And live for the leave you’re entitled to after two years – a couple of golden months in Kathmandu.
This is the lot of tea boys all over the Middle East. Some have more to do than in my example, but basically the routine is much the same. Wait to be told what to do. Perhaps eighty to ninety percent of your day is spent waiting. Doing nothing.
Now let’s look at the guy who works in the breakfast area of the serviced apartment hotel I stayed at in Riyadh for a couple of days recently. He’s a bit further up the greasy pole than the tea boy. His job is to lay the breakfast out on a table, pre-boil the eggs and replenish the three-day old bread from the nearby supermarket. The breakfast is included in the apartment price, but if you want coffee it will cost you $1.50. Water costs 90 cents. Nobody I saw asked for coffee. Certainly not me, because I came equipped to look after myself in the apartment.
Beyond that, the guy does nothing until it’s time to wash up and clear away the breakfast stuff. At least he can read a book, or listen to the TV blaring out inanities in a language he doesn’t understand. Now you might think that an enterprising owner would make more use of his time and earn extra revenue by getting him to offer customers some variety of eggs. A fresh omelette maybe, or fried eggs. Serve ten of these every morning at $3 a shot, and you have maybe $800 a month, which is more than the cost of employing him.
Or maybe you give him the chance to make some money for himself by up-selling. Give the customer a menu of extras that he or she can pre-order the night before, and let the employee take a small cut of the additional revenue. Or maybe use him as a concierge to go out and buy stuff for customers to eat in their rooms – again for a small cut of the profit.
Better surely than having a bored employee hanging around doing nothing. That’s the westerner’s outlook. Productivity, right?
Unfortunately, there must be thousands of people in the cities of Saudi Arabia who basically hang around. I see them every time I visit the country. Not just lowly-paid expatriates either. Saudis who sit in offices reading newspapers, surfing the web or chatting on WhatsApp. There because they’re there. Perhaps because their employer has a quota of Saudis he must hire if he is to get visas for the foreigners who do the real work. Perhaps because he sees it as de rigeur to have a team of acolytes ready to do his bidding. Perhaps because he doesn’t have a clue how to develop people, or is so remote from his business that he doesn’t know how unproductive his people are. Or perhaps he knows he has more people than he needs,and is too kind-hearted to let them go.
I once did a job that involved hanging around. Actually it was more than hanging around, but 90% of the time I was required to do nothing. On my college summer holidays, I got a job at a local chocolate factory. Basically, I was required to sit and watch a machine that automatically put individual chocolates in bags. The only intervention expected of me was to change the drum of joined-up plastic bags when it ran out. And if the machine broke down, which it rarely did, I was to call the fitter. That was it. Twelve hours a night, four nights a week.
So all I could do was think. Dream. Do mental exercises. Create plots for novels I never subsequently wrote. Fine for a while, but if you had told me that that was to be my job for the next thirty years I think I would have drowned myself in one of the vats of molten chocolate that came trundling past from time to time. Or else I would have started banging my head against the wall. But unlike the polar bear, at least I had some powers of imagination. And I guess the guys who are paid to hang around in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam do also. At least I hope so.
But perhaps things are about to change. The price of oil has tanked. The government is running at a massive deficit and is burning its reserves to make up the gap. And under a younger generation of technocrats led by the Deputy Crown Prince, the watchword is productivity.
That’s bad news of course for the foreign hangers around who depend on their salaries to feed their families in Manila, Kathmandu and Dacca. But in the long run it’s good news for Saudi Arabia, because there’s so much scope for improvement. Always provided that the hangers around who are being roused from their involuntary torpor have not been institutionalised beyond the point where they can do anything useful any more.
I’m pretty sure that in the government sector, which is by far the biggest employer of Saudis, the emphasis will be on turning the polar bears into worker bees. Many of them don’t bother to hang around. Stories of government employees arriving mid-morning and going home mid-afternoon are rife. Not a month goes by without some irate citizen writing to the media to complain of desks in government front offices unattended, of officials unavailable on the phone. It’s a known problem.
But I suspect that the emphasis will be on personal productivity rather than downsizing. With several hundred thousand school leavers becoming available for work every year – and many of them unable to find a cushy government job – a sense of frustration within the working-age population would only be compounded if large numbers of current government staff were laid off because there’s nothing for them to do.
Early retirement and generous pensions help. Many government workers retire in their fifties, and then go on to start their own small businesses, thus making way for youth to join the ranks. But Saudi Arabia has also for some years been rolling out e-government initiatives which reduce the need both for front and back office staff. Which means less jobs for new entrants.
So I imagine that as the new initiatives of the energetic Prince Mohammed bin Salman send chill winds through the corridors of government, there will be much uneasy shuffling about by people anxious to justify their employment. And hanging around will no longer be an option. Or at least not obviously so.
In the private sector, strapped by the downturn in government contracts, CEOs will also be looking to make economies. Are they focusing on getting more out of the hangers around or weeding them out?
My money’s on the latter, because it’s much harder to reorganise people’s jobs to get bang for the buck than simply to get rid of them. If you’re going to reassign people or expand their responsibilities, the chances are that you will have to re-train them. And that costs money, with no guarantee of success. Then there’s the cost of expensive consultants to advise on the reorganisation. Also, since these companies are under pressure to hire more Saudis, it will be very tempting just to wipe out expatriate-dominated departments and start again. Or shut down operations completely.
So in these testing times, the outlook is bleak for the hangers around. But there’s surely an upside.
Boredom and underemployment corrodes the soul. Fortunately we are not polar bears. We have the means to save ourselves from a lifetime of brain-addling hanging around. For some people, being forced to gird up their loins and find something useful to do might turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.
After all, who wants to go to their Maker and admit to Him that after receiving the gift of life, for most of it “I hung around”?