Addressing Unemployment among Saudi Youth

Tariq A. Al-Maeena

Among the oil rich GCC countries, Saudi Arabia has the largest native population and a high citizen to expatriate ratio.  A fast growing population and falling oil prices can be a volatile combination if there are a significant number of unemployed people in the population pool.  This potential source of worry is what the country has been seeking to address.

The late King Abdullah launched the Hafiz program which provides a monthly subsidy of SR 2,000 to support and encourage serious jobseekers. Some 2.6 million people, 14 percent male and 86 percent female, have benefited from the program. In order to qualify for the allowance, jobseekers have to show that they are seriously looking for a job. The basic objective of this financial allowance is to help jobseekers get permanent and stable employment and not rely on government subsidies as a source of income.

The program was one of a group of incentives and schemes ordered by the late King to support those searching for employment. A massive higher education assistance boost through the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program in Saudi Arabia which runs until 2020 has benefited more than 160,000 students who were funded by this program to pursue higher studies in reputable universities worldwide.

To support local employment, the government has deported hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreign workers. The country’s labor ministry has tightened rules for employing foreign labor in companies insisting that these businesses look to the domestic market first.  With the assistance of the Ministry of Education, job fairs have been organized in the Kingdom with major domestic and international companies offering employment opportunities to Saudi graduates.  Applicants with higher credentials are quickly picked up by major petrochemical firms, but many others complain of being offered jobs far below their expectations.

Many reasons are given as to why young Saudis remain unemployed or are unemployable. While there is an range of job openings in the country, many young Saudi jobseekers lack the required qualifications and skills specified by employers. HR professionals blame an education system that has failed to realize the needs of the job market.

Historically, the private sector has not been able to match the salaries and benefits which first-time job hunters hope to receive if employed by the government. Private sector jobs are seen to offer low salaries, shaky job security and unattractive packages while requiring a commitment of long working hours. Saudi workers in private companies also accuse their employers of not taking into consideration the social and economic pressures that employees bring with them to their work environment.  A recent study conducted by the Human Resources Development Fund indicated that 45 percent of young Saudis refuse to work for private companies because of the attitude of employers.

The government cannot be in the business of absorbing all Saudi jobseekers, so it has turned to the private sector for help.  Some business leaders have responded to the call.  Dr. Abdulrahman Hayjan, a member of the Saudi Shoura (legislative) Council, said that unemployment should be treated in an innovative way “as the Kingdom is not an impoverished country that is facing budget problems”. He said: “Our labor market needs to be regulated in a way that ends this problem permanently. The number of expatriate workers in our market makes one wonder whether we have a real unemployment problem like other countries or the problem lies in the fact that we have plenty of jobs but our youth think they aren’t appropriate for them in terms of the nature of work and salary.”

An economist believes that the problem of the Saudi market is twofold.  “First, most Saudis rely on the government sector to create jobs for them while the private sector does not play any role in that. The problem is obvious and the results could be catastrophic in the future if the private sector does not start offering more opportunities for Saudis,” he explained.

There can be no better time than now to call on the leaders of private industry to utilize this increasing pool of young and hungry Saudis.  “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” and in a region brimming with conflicts, we certainly do not need to manufacture a new one.

— The author can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena



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