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The World of Work
as Viewed from Saudi Arabia

by

Laurence Shatkin
Proprietor of Verbal Media, LLC,
a consulting company that specializes in career information.

Former Development Scientist at Educational Testing Service.

Email: laurence@myself.com

Copyright © 2002 Laurence Shatkin. All rights reserved. Published here by permission.

September 2002

Since the events of last September 11, Americans have become intensely interested in the Islamic world. Books about Islam and the Middle East are selling out; PBS has rerun its documentary "Islam: Empire of Faith"; a traveling exhibit of Islamic glass has drawn crowds to museums; college students have crowded Arabic language classes. So far, I have seen almost nothing in print about Islamic attitudes toward work. As it happens, this is a matter where I have done some research, so now is probably a good time to convey what I have learned. But I should point out in advance that I feel I have only scratched the surface of this subject.

Over the past two years I have been involved in a project to develop a computer-based career information system for a university in Saudi Arabia. The all-male King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals is roughly the Saudi equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its progressive-minded Rector, Dr. Abdul-Aziz A. Al-Dukhayyil, is a psychologist who has encouraged several efforts to develop local equivalents of the assessments commonly used in the West. He recognized that career-related assessments and information are badly needed in Saudi Arabia. Career guidance as a formal activity undertaken outside the home is a new concept there. It is also a concept that has taken on some urgency as the oil-based Saudi economy has come down from the heights where it soared in previous decades, and as young people now face the unaccustomed prospect of competing for jobs or even possibly being unemployed. (Approximately half the population of the Kingdom is under 18.) Experience in several East Asian countries has shown that one cannot simply export an American resource and expect that it will work within the local culture. Therefore, as part of my development effort, I knew I would need to research Saudi students' attitudes toward work so I could gain an understanding of how to accomplish career guidance in their culture.

What I found from my research and development efforts was a culture going through some profound transitions.

My main topic of research was the work-related values of Saudi students. The reason I focused on values was that it was the one aspect of careers that was obviously not going to translate easily from America to Saudi Arabia. That is, I could easily describe occupations using the same set of skills used in America, the same set of working conditions, and almost the same set of academic interests (English Language had to be changed to Arabic Language); but I could not expect that Saudi students would be seeking the same work-related values that American students seek. Even within America, men and women tend to seek different work-related values.

As a starting point (collaborating with Lila Norris, who had been my boss for many years at Educational Testing Service), I took a subset of the work-related values that are used to describe the occupations in the Department of Labor's O*NET database, collapsing a few that were very similar. The resulting list consisted of Achievement, Activity, Advancement, Authority, Autonomy, Co-workers, Creativity, High Income, Moral Values, On-the-job Training, Security, Social Service, Social Status, Variety, and Working by Yourself. I submitted this list of 15 values, together with their definitions, to a committee of faculty and staff at the university. I asked them whether this set of values might cover all the important work-related values of the student body at KFUPM and at Saudi high schools. (I should note here that many of the members of this committee were non-Saudi Arabs; a few were non-Muslims.)

They felt that Autonomy and Working by Yourself overlapped too much, and later we decided to replace Autonomy with another value from the O*NET content model, Responsibility, that we felt would occupy a conceptual space more distant from Working by Yourself. They also suggested that there was a value missing that would be important to many in the student body. After some discussion we defined the value as "not being in situations that break with norms, customs, or traditions," and eventually we settled on the name "Conventionality." Later comments from this committee and from students caused me to add two more values — Recognition and Job Opportunity — the first of which is included in the O*NET content model, and the second of which is easily understood by Americans and (from what I read about the Saudi economy nowadays) is probably growing in importance in the Kingdom.

But Conventionality proved to be the most uniquely Saudi value — and also the center of the most controversy. In fact, the disputes over Conventionality revealed to me one of the fault lines that run through current Saudi culture — a fault line that doubtless runs through all traditional cultures in which religion is a powerful force.

The controversy came down to whether Conventionality and Moral Values are the same value or two different values. Conventionality, as I said earlier, is defined as "not being in situations that break with norms, customs, or traditions." Moral Values, which I derived directly from O*NET, is defined as "not being pressured to do things that go against your sense of right and wrong."

After some vigorous discussion, the faculty committee decided to translate "right" and "wrong" in the definition of Moral Values by using the distinctly religious words "hallal" and "haram." Non-Muslims may be familiar with the word "hallal" in the context of hallal meat, which is permissible (the equivalent of "kosher"). "Haram" is the source of the English word "harem," but it is first and foremost a religious term meaning "forbidden." In English we are able to use the words "right" and "wrong," even in the context of a person's "sense of right and wrong," without an exclusively religious connotation to the words. In a culture that emphasizes religion this is difficult or impossible. The faculty committee could not agree on any suitable non-religious words that would convey these concepts to the students properly.

With Moral Values thus placed firmly into a religious context, I expected that Conventionality would find a conceptual space somewhere closer to the realm of social behavior, and this in fact is how most of the faculty committee perceived the difference between the two values. They regarded Conventionality more as a matter of public behavior and Moral Values more as a matter of personal belief. On the other hand, a minority of the faculty argued that students would not perceive this distinction and would want to collapse the two values.

This prediction proved true for some students. In almost every classroom where I asked high school and college students (all male) to comment on the set of values, one or more students expressed the opinion that these two values overlap to the point of redundancy, and nobody spoke up to argue that there is a distinction. (In fairness, I should note that the students, unlike the faculty committee, did not engage in debate about any other values either.) When I asked students to give examples of occupations that they would avoid because the occupations did not fulfill these values, they mentioned working in the banking industry (which means associating with firms that charge interest, something forbidden by Islam), or working in occupations where they would come into a lot of contact with women. To some of the students, anything that went against their traditions also went against their moral code.

I should point out that my research in the classrooms was qualitative rather than quantitative — that is, I did not attempt to learn how many students felt the two values should be collapsed. However, I received the impression that this was not the majority viewpoint.

The next phase of my research was quantitative, consisting of a questionnaire in both English and Arabic asking students to weight the original 15 values, plus Conventionality, on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) to indicate their importance. The questionnaire was administered to 103 students. Of these students, 65 were in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades of KFUPM High School, and 38 were in the orientation year at KFUPM. The two groups differed somewhat, in that the high school students were the children of faculty and staff, and though they were primarily Saudi, several of them had spent some time in the West. The orientation-year students, on the other hand, were graduates of high schools from all over the Kingdom, and although they were high academic achievers (or else they would not have been admitted to this prestigious university), they did not all come from the very high-powered academic home environment of the high school students. The KFUPM High School also has an exceptionally strong program in English language, and the students from that group probably were more influenced by the English text in the questionnaire than were the other students.

Because of these differences, it is worthwhile to divide the students' responses into the two groups. The following table summarizes the responses of the high school students (rankings are based on mean weight given to the third decimal place, but are reported here only to the first decimal place):

 

Value

Mean Weight

Standard Deviation1

1
Social Status
4.8
1.0
2
Achievement
4.7
1.0
3
Advancement
4.6
0.9
4
High Income
4.6
0.8
5
Moral Values
4.5
1.2
6
Security
4.5
1.0
7
Co-workers
4.2
1.2
8
Creativity
4.1
1.3
9
Social Service
4.1
1.5
10
Conventionality
4.1
1.6
11
Working Conditions
4.0
1.7
12
On-the-job Training
4.0
1.8
13
Autonomy
3.6
2.0
14
Authority
3.5
2.3
15
Activity
3.4
2.3
16
Variety
3.3
2.5
17
Working by Yourself
2.2
2.9

The following table summarizes the responses of the orientation-year students:

1

Moral Values

4.6

0.9
2
Achievement
4.6
0.8
3
Social Status
4.6
0.9
4
Security
4.5
0.9
5
Creativity
4.4
0.9
6
Advancement
4.4
1.1
7
High Income
4.3
1.0
8
On-the-job Training
4.0
1.0
8
Working Conditions
4.0
1.4
10
Conventionality
3.9
1.3
11
Social Service
3.8
1.2
12
Autonomy
3.7
1.4
13
Co-workers
3.6
1.3
14
Authority
3.6
1.4
15
Activity
3.4
1.1
16
Variety
3.2
1.4
17
Working by Yourself
1.9
1.0

Although the results for the two groups differ somewhat, certain overall preferences are shared by both. For example, the four lowest-weighted values are identical for the two groups: Authority, Activity, Variety, and Working by Yourself. For both groups, Working Conditions, Conventionality, and Social Service received weights that put them in the middle, with Creativity slightly higher. Achievement and Social Status obviously are very important to both groups, although the orientation-year students placed Moral Values still higher. For me, one of the most interesting results is the separation between Moral Values and Conventionality that may be observed in the responses of both groups. Although there certainly were individual students who weighted them identically, as a group the students perceived them with sufficient distinction to consider one more important than the other.

It is also interesting to contrast my findings with a study of the values of American college students conducted by Christy Coleman, a graduate fellow at Educational Testing Service in 19962. Comparisons between the studies must be qualified by the understanding that the American sample included many community college students who were older than the Saudi students addressed by my questionnaire, and the American survey covered a set of eight values that was not identical to the set of 17 that I used. Nevertheless, I believe there is probably some cultural significance to the differences I found, which were considerable. For example, High Income was weighted highest of all eight values by the American males, but came in much lower among the Saudis — fourth out of 19 among high school students, and seventh among the orientation-year students. At the bottom of the American males' weightings was Contribution to Society, whereas the similar Social Service did quite a lot better (ninth and eleventh of 19) among the Saudis. The sixth-place (among eight) showing of Prestige among the American males contrasted sharply with the first- and second-place showing of Social Status among the Saudis. (In the chart below I also include the responses of the American females in Coleman's study.)


I would actually be very surprised to find American students responding the way the Saudi students did, given the nature of the American economy and social system. For example, in the United States most occupations offering high prestige and achievement also have a high amount of autonomy, authority, and variety — in fact, securing these rewards (plus high income) in one's work is almost synonymous with prestige and achievement. Yet these two clusters of values placed at opposite ends of the Saudis' weightings.

Are the Saudi students being unrealistic about work, or are they actually being realistic for their culture? I admit that I do not know enough about the Saudi society to answer authoritatively, but my impression is that their profile of preferences is based largely on a kind of job that is rapidly disappearing in the Saudi economy — the well-paid, not-very-demanding job of a government functionary.

In fairness, I should point out that there is reason to believe that students everywhere are like generals who expect to fight the previous war — that is, they are not fully realistic about their prospects for work because they are better informed about past norms than about emerging trends. Observe how the American students weighted Security as their most important value (females) and second most important value (males). By 1996, when Coleman's research was done, job security in the U.S. was already greatly diminished from the norms of previous decades. It is helpful to remember that students by definition are still in the midst of a learning process; one can only hope that by the time they are ready to enter the workforce, they will have had access to resources that can make them better informed about the world of work.

It is a tribute to the progressive attitude of KFUPM that they are encouraging greater career awareness among their students. As Saudi students learn more about the world of work that is emerging in their country, their expectations are likely to change.

I hope that in future I have the opportunity to study this matter more rigorously and can gain deeper insight into the Saudi culture, especially students' attitudes and expectations. Any snapshot of a culture has some blurring because the subject is in motion, but I have the impression that the Saudi culture is moving faster than most, and perhaps in several directions at once.

Notes

1"Standard deviation" is a statistical measure of variability in a collection of measurements. The larger the number, the more the scores or measurements tend to vary or differ from one another, on the average. For example, the group of numbers "4, 12, 49, 60." would have a larger standard deviation than the group of numbers "1,3, 6, 8."

2Coleman, C. L. Job-related values of ethnically diverse college students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, 2000.

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