A Pakistani man who once worked as a laborer in Saudi Arabia and is now the owner of a fast food chain in the country says that the Kingdom is a “land of opportunities” and encourages others to go there in search of economic success.
Over 2.5 million Pakistanis have made their way to Saudi Arabia in search of work. These people are primarily unskilled laborers who send home the lion’s share of Pakistan’s remittances. And yet, others, like Abdul Kabeer Shah, are also finding success.
In 2000, at the age of 21, Shah left for Saudi Arabia, where he spent the next four years working as an assistant for electricians and plumbers in the cities of Riyadh and Jeddah.
He started working at a Jeddah food chain in 2004, where he rapidly became proficient in the preparation of burgers and shawarmas. After four years, a Saudi customer named Dr. Abdullah Eid Saleh Al-Balawi, whom Shah had befriended on the job and who was impressed by the Pakistani man’s cooking skills and work ethic, offered him the chance of a lifetime: to go into the food business with him as a partner in Jeddah.
This resulted in the launch of The Taste, or Al-Ta’am in Arabic, a new restaurant delivery service.
Since Al-Balawi provided the restaurant’s initial funding, he and Shah work together on a profit-sharing basis. At present, they are equal partners in the eight-restaurant chain’s operations.
It was a defining moment for me. I went from being a laborer to a food entrepreneur, and my monthly income shot up dramatically,” Shah told Arab News in a recent interview at his opulent home in Islamabad.
Shah, the seventh of eight children, dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help out at his father’s retail shop in Landhi, Karachi. This was before his life took a dramatic turn for the better in the Kingdom.
Nonetheless, Shah had an entrepreneurial spirit even as a young man.
Working with my dad in the store was where I first realized I enjoyed business, he said. “Therefore, I’ve always envisioned starting my own company to provide for my family.”
Over a hundred people are employed by the eight restaurants owned by Shah and his Saudi business partner in Jeddah, which specialize in serving burgers, shawarmas, roasted chicken, and pomegranate juice. Even though the market is flooded with such products, what sets Shah’s restaurants apart is their use of Asian spices to give the common foods a distinctive flavor.
He boasted that “our food products are unique and tasty” due to the use of “at least 16 different Asian spices” such as chili, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. In addition to being spicy, “our customers like our burgers and shawarmas the most because they have intense aromas and bold flavors.”
Until the end of the year, Shah and his business partner Al-Balawi plan to open at least two more locations, one in Tabuk and one in Jeddah.
“We are also working on adding more food items in our menu to increase our sales and create additional job opportunities for skilled workers from Pakistan and other nationalities,” he said in a phone interview with Arab News.
To better promote itself online, the company has also assembled a social media team.
To increase sales and profits without sacrificing product quality, “we have been using all modern marketing tools and techniques,” Al-Balawi said.
Shah was so enthusiastic about growing his company that he encouraged other Pakistanis to relocate to Saudi Arabia to work in the private sector and send money home to their families. According to central bank data, Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia sent home $6.67 billion to their home country through official channels in 2022.
Foreigners should “do your jobs legally and remit money to your country through legitimate channels,” Shah told them in the Kingdom. It’s good for the country and good for the people.
Shah’s own story of overcoming extreme adversity to become a wealthy and successful businessman is remarkable. He now has a nice apartment in Jeddah’s Al-Adel district and travels to Pakistan to see his family at least three times a year.
“At first, I was living in a shared room with other laborers, and now I have rented my very own luxury apartment,” he explained.
His parents, his wife, and their five children all reside in the mansion he bought for them in Pakistan’s most prestigious neighborhood.
Because of financial constraints, he was unable to further his education, but he expressed a desire for his children to have the same opportunities he had.
Junaid Esmail Makda, chairman of the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia Business Council, praised Shah’s achievements and urged policymakers in both countries to make it easier for business owners to pursue and establish joint investments.
Makda told Arab News that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers raw materials and energy at competitive rates, creating a favorable environment for Pakistani businessmen to invest in the food, industry, and agriculture sectors.
In addition to providing employment for locals, “Pakistani businessmen can remit the precious foreign exchange back home from the Kingdom to help boost the economy.”
As he stood on the fairways outside his opulent Islamabad mansion, Shah continued:
For businessmen and investors around the world, peaceful Saudi Arabia is a land of opportunity.