Working in Saudi Arabia

I met Abu Jihad at his home in Muzari' al-Nubani, a village north of Ramallah. I was there to talk about land registration, but as often happened the conversation moved elsewhere. At some point he was telling me about his life, a good part of which was spent in Saudi Arabia. His story is memorable to me, not only because he was a very good story-teller – I don't think I ever had to really re-write the notes I took during our conversation since he never doubled back or included details that fell outside the flow of the narrative – but also because I found what he was able to do rather extraordinary. 

Abu Jihad is in his early 60s, and has 5 sons and 3 daughters and 2 wives. He began working on the land was he was 12 or 13 years old. This was 1968, and there was nothing else to do.

In the 1970s, he works "a bit" in Israel, in the building trade. What this amounted to was 3 - 5 months there, and then returning to the land in the harvest season. They don't seem to have much land, some 50 dunums (I think) shared between his 2 brothers and 7 sisters. In the 70s and 80s, their biggest market was Hebron and Gaza. There was only a single merchant in the village that would bring oil there to sell, and otherwise merchants from that area would come to buy. Not great relationships between the Nablus merchants and the villages, and sometimes when they collected on their debts, some people were left without olive oil. The paradoxical effect of labor in Israel was that by the early 1970s, when people started to have cash, they broke this monopoly. People made money, he said, but they lost the land. 

In 1986, he moved to Saudi Arabia. The reason was that his niece, the oldest girl in her family, wanted to go and work to support her family. The state had put out a call for teachers in Jordan, but she couldn't go herself. She asked if he would go with her. He agreed, and she ended up getting a job in the city of al-Shuqauiq. 

His first job, when he got there, was selling vegetables. He bought a van, took out the seats, and would drive 250 km to Khamis Mushait. The idea was that there were lots of foreign teachers from Egypt, Palsetine, Lebanon and Syria that all had meals they liked to cook, but the vegetables really were not available. So his market at first were these teachers, and he went to twice a week to buy vegetables that were imported from these different countries into the he market at Khamis Mushait. This was in the beginning. He had a wife back in Palestine, but it became too difficult to be apart, so he married again, a Palestinian teacher who was from the '48, but had fled to Gaza in after the Nakba and then to Jordan after 1967. This was his second wife.

In 1990, Yemen supported Sadam in the Gulf War, and Yeminis were expelled from Saudi Arabia as a result. So he ended up renting this bakery, which had been owned by a Yemini. It was located in the back of a supermarket. With a partner, they baked bread for the store and also long sandwich bread for the schools that were distributed to the cafeteria. This was his second job, and he worked the bakery and nights and the shop during the day. I asked why, he said he had to, to support his first wife and kids back in Palestine and his second wife there.

But the bakery was far from the vegetable shop, so he rented a room, or an apartment (I think it was the apartment next to this guy's home) from a judge who worked in Mecca and would come back once a week. He got to know this guy. This guy also owned a car repair shop, and employed Philipino mechanics. (Saudis, Abu Jihad said, can't even cook a meal, they bring people from everywhere to do work.) Basically, Abu Jihad helped the guy to collect the money from the workers, record how much they made and then lock it up in a safe at the end of the day. Apparently he was very good at this, and the guy who had done it prior was skimming from the daily earnings. So, at the end of the month, Abu Jihad has collected all the money. He distributes the paychecks to the workers, 1,500 riyals, and then gives the remainder to the judge, some 9,000. He is shocked, says that usually he had to pay the the paychecks from his own pocket. Basically, the point Abu Jihad makes is that since he was honest, the judge took him in and gave him responsibility of the shop. He sort of became a caretaker and, as a result, no longer had to pay rent.

This brings us to his fourth job. He started bringing cars that were in need of repairs, buying them, and bringing them to the shop owned by the judge. When the mechanics had extra time, they would fix the engines, repaint, get rid of dents, all of that, and resell the cars for more. 

This was until the Palestine Authority was set up in the West Bank. In 1996, he decided to return. The judge was sorry to see him go and said that he should come back every six months, to visit and to renew his residency so he wouldn't lose it. Abu Jihad left and didn't come back. Unable to find different work, he worked for awhile here on the land, and also as a taxi driver (he only retired from the latter a few years ago). To this day, he regrets the decision to return.  

There is a lot of talk about entrepreneurship in Ramallah. Every NGO promotes it, there are conferences and hack-a-thons and all that, and everyone from the founders of hopeful start-ups to the kids who have been bequeathed a company by their fathers claim the mantle. Most of it strikes me as a passing trend without much substance. But I remember thinking about all of it when I was listening to Abu Jihad and thinking damn, this guys blows all of them out of the water.