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Islamabad: A Pakistani man who worked for years as a laborer in Saudi Arabia and is now the owner of a chain of fast food restaurants sees the kingdom as a “land of opportunity” and urges more people to seek employment there.

More than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates live in Saudi Arabia, working mostly as laborers and low-skilled laborers who send home the largest share of the South Asian country’s remittances. But some, like Abdul Kabir Shah, are now hitting it big.

Shah, 44, went to Saudi Arabia at the age of 21 in 2000 and worked for four years as an assistant to electricians and plumbers in Riyadh and Jeddah.

In 2004, he joined a chain of restaurants in Jeddah, and soon learned to make fast food items such as burgers and shawarma. After four years working there, one of Shah’s old Saudi clients, Dr. Abdullah Eid Salih al-Balawi, whom he 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: getting into the food business with him. As a partner in Jeddah.

And thus the food company The Taste, or Al-Ta’am in Arabic, was born.

Al-Balawi contributed to the initial capital investment in the restaurant and introduced Shah on a profit-sharing basis. Today, they are both co-owners of the food chain, which has eight subsidiaries.

“This was a turning point in my life. I became a food major from a laborer, and suddenly the monthly income increased exponentially,” Shah told Arab News in a recent interview at his luxurious home in Islamabad, where he was visiting family.

Before his fortunes turned to the kingdom, Shah, one of his eight siblings, lived in a small three-room house in Landi, Karachi, and left school in the eighth grade to help his father, who worked in a retail shop. .

But even as a teenager, Shah had an eye and passion for business.

“I developed a crush on the business while working with my dad in the retail store,” he said. Therefore, I have always wanted to create my own business to support my family.

Shah and his Saudi partner employ more than 100 workers in eight restaurants in Jeddah, where the main items on the menu are burgers, shawarma, grilled chicken and pomegranate juice. While the market is saturated with such foodstuffs, Shah said that what made their restaurants different was the use of Asian spices, which give the products everywhere a unique taste.

“The use of no less than 16 different Asian spices such as chili, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and turmeric in our food products makes them unique and delicious,” he said. “Our burgers and shawarmas are not only spicy but also have strong flavors and bold flavours, which our customers love the most.”

Al-Balawi, Shah’s partner, said the duo was planning to expand and open at least two more branches, one in the cities of Tabuk and Jeddah, by the end of the year.

“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 told Arab News in a phone interview.

The company also recently appointed a dedicated social media team to digitally market their business.

Al-Balawi added, “We have used all modern marketing tools and techniques to enhance our sales and profits with equal emphasis on the quality of our products.”

Eager to expand his business, Shah urged more Pakistanis to come to Saudi Arabia and work for companies and increase remittances back home. In 2022, Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia transferred $6.67 billion to Pakistan through official channels, according to central bank data, the largest source of remittances to the South Asian country.

Shah advised foreigners in the kingdom: “Do your jobs legally and transfer money to your country through legal channels.” “It will be beneficial for both the country and the people.”

In fact, the story of Shah himself and his transition from poverty to wealth and success is no small miracle. Today, he lives in a luxurious apartment in the Al Adl district of Jeddah and visits his parents in Pakistan at least three times a year.

He said: “First, I lived with other workers in a common room, and now I rent my own luxury apartment.”

In Pakistan, he bought a luxurious house in an elite neighborhood, where his parents live with his wife and five children.

“I could not study because of poverty, but I would like my children to get a good education to fulfill their dreams in life,” he said.

Commenting on Shah’s success, the head of the Pakistan-Saudi Business Council, Junaid Ismail Makda, said it was impressive, calling on governments in both countries to facilitate entrepreneurs in exploring and finding joint investment opportunities.

“Saudi Arabia offers huge investment opportunities to Pakistani businessmen in the food, industrial and agricultural sectors,” Makda told Arab News, adding that the kingdom provides raw materials and energy at competitive prices to facilitate such opportunities.

“Pakistani businessmen can remit precious foreign currency back home from the kingdom to help boost the economy besides creating jobs for the people there.”

Standing on the greens outside his huge home in Islamabad, Shah added:

“Saudi Arabia is a peaceful country and a land of opportunities for businessmen and investors from all over the world.”