In 2012, Saudi society was briefly scandalised when a local newspaper reported that Saudi women were now employed as domestic workers.

To many, this broached important taboos. Leave aside the widely-held view that Saudi nationals should not be forced into menial jobs in the first place, the idea that women might be employed in private households with men who are not family members proved a shock to the wider public.

It was not the only example of societal changes to affront conservative Saudi mores. In September last year, social media platform Twitter went into a frenzy in the kingdom when a photo circulated showing a local woman sweeping a clothes shop floor under direction of a non-Saudi shopkeeper. Comments predictably tended towards the sexist and the xenophobic.

Demographic challenge

These instances allude to the growing anxiety over poverty and unemployment that has forced some Saudi nationals to consider the previously unthinkable and take on low-paid jobs.  While some may see the advent of Saudi maids as a welcome sign of modernisation of the workforce, others view it as a humiliation.

Key fact

Saudi Arabia needs to create an estimated 4 million jobs over the next five years to absorb new market entrants

Source: Chatham House

None of this suggests Saudi Arabia will lessen its dependence on the 1 million-plus Filipino and Indonesian housemaids working in the kingdom presently. But few Saudi policymakers can deny there is a deeper demographic challenge they must confront, and one that is less amenable to sweeping under the carpet with generous handouts of cash – the time-honoured means of buying off dissent.

With two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, and 37 per cent of this section aged 14 or younger, according to a study from the Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, the kingdom’s youth bulge is nowhere near peaking. That means the economy will have to accommodate increasing numbers of jobseekers in coming years. As a workshop by UK think-tank Chatham House found in early 2015, Saudi Arabia needs to create an estimated 4 million jobs over the next five years to absorb new labour-market entrants.

Saudi unemployment

Currently, the private sector employs little more than 1 million Saudi nationals, leaving a substantial chunk of the local population outside the job market.  Figures from the government’s Central Department of Statistics & Information (CDSI) show that almost 8 million Saudi nationals are outside the workforce, of which nearly 5.6 million are female. The Saudi unemployment rate is estimated at 11.7 per cent. The female unemployment rate last year was estimated at 33 per cent. 

With record numbers of Saudi women being educated… social change is seeping into the national fabric

Equally troubling is that almost half of unemployed nationals hold bachelor’s or higher degrees. Data from the Washington-based IMF shows that unemployment in the kingdom is heavily concentrated among highly educated women and less-educated men.

Government efforts to address the employment crisis have failed to have much effect, despite data from the Labour Ministry pointing to an increase in the private sector Saudisation rate from 10.9 per cent in 2011 to 15.2 per cent in 2013. The CDSI figures show that overall youth unemployment (20-29 years old) stayed unchanged at 27.8 per cent in 2013-14.

Public jobs

Even when new jobs have been created, they are mainly in the government sector. Although Saudi Arabia has created more than 2.7 million new jobs since 2008, of which 1 million were filled by Saudi citizens, the IMF points out that most of those taken by nationals were in the public sector. Most of the new employment was concentrated in the administrative, education and health sectors.

Meanwhile, the issue of women’s participation in the workforce is rising up the agenda. With record numbers of Saudi women being educated – and outperforming their male counterparts – social change is seeping into the national fabric. The Saudi female participation rate climbed from 12 per cent in 2009 to 17.6 per cent in the first half of 2014, according to the local Jadwa Investment.

Jobless graduates

More than 130,000 nationals, 20 per cent of them women, go abroad to study each year. This annual exodus is creating significant economic side-effects. As Saudi graduates return from their overseas stints, they soon find there are few jobs that match their newly acquired skillsets. 

Top concerns affecting young Saudis
 Concerns Percentage of respondents surveyed for top 3 concerns
Cost of living 59
Availability of affordable housing 55
Crime 54
Education 36
Career opportunities 26
Source: Boston Consulting Group

It is an issue that affects women more than men. In Saudi Arabia, 64 per cent of university undergraduates in the past 10 years have been female, says a Chatham House report called Future Trends in the Gulf, issued in February 2015.

The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been widely praised for placing girls’ schooling at the centre of his reform strategy, and spending more on women’s education than men’s. But, as one Saudi female academic told a recent forum, the education reforms have suffered from poor implementation.

“There needs to be better coordination between the labour and higher education ministries to provide jobs for the thousands of Saudi overseas students when they come back to the country,” she said.

The need to find gainful employment for the increasing numbers of educated nationals is only one manifestion of a youth bulge that is feeding a growing disconnect between young people and an elderly ruling elite. Youngsters are more exposed through social media to the outside world and their life expectations are changing as a result.

Social media

Having been a late starter, Saudi Arabia now has one of the highest rates of internet access, with fixed-line broadband penetration rising from 1 per cent of the population in 2008 to 46 per cent in 2014. Two-thirds of nationals have access to broadband via mobile phone. They are the most active YouTube watchers globally, and the kingdom also boasts the highest Twitter penetration in the world, at an estimated 40 per cent of internet users.

The explosion in social media has left its mark in informing a public discourse that is beyond the control of the conservative clerical establishment. Satirical current affairs shows such as Eysh Elly and La Yekthar have won a large audience among young people, who do not share the same deference as their elders.

Authorities must take on board the younger generation’s demands for employment and more freedom

Social media has even afforded changes in legislation. A Saudi Facebook campaign launched in 2008 that called for local shops to employ more women to avoid the embarrassment of having men sell women underwear led to a royal decree four years later requiring shops that sell products to women to hire female employees.

Social media’s influence has not gone unnoticed by the ulema (Islamic scholars). As Chatham House notes, the top four Twitter accounts in Saudi Arabia in terms of followers belong to religious figures. Young Saudis appeal to religious authorities daily for advice and guidance on Islamic issues via Twitter and Facebook groups.

In this sense, social media can also help to reinforce conservative societal attitudes. And those with a more radical message – such as jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) – have shown they can be as savvy as any liberal blogger in reaching out to disaffected youth. Jihadists’ slickly packaged messages will remain popular so long as the social pressures persist. Unemployment – and its associated boredom and poverty – is one driver of resentment, but there are others.

Research suggests Saudi youngsters are particularly exercised by the high cost of living. According to the US’ Boston Consulting Group, nearly 60 per cent rank this as one of their top three concerns. Focus group research found many young Saudi nationals expressed fear that the high cost of living would limit their ability to marry and have children. 

Threat to stability

Such indicators cannot be easily ignored. If Riyadh is no longer able to meet its side of the social contract that has stitched the country together so well over the decades, it will have damaging repercussions for the kingdom’s long-term stability.  

According to Boston Consulting Group, as the “youth bulge” moves through its life cycle, the pressure will intensify to improve the education system, create jobs that pay well, provide affordable housing, and offer effective social services. The authorities must take on board the message that the younger generation’s demands for employment and more freedom must be accommodated, with about 1.9 million youngsters due to enter the workforce in the next 10 years.

Economic and social change will also require a fuller recalibration of the link between citizen and state. The alarming rise of Isis provides a warning of the consequences of failing to renew the ruling bargain with the population. Riyadh’s traditional methods of consultation and patronage will need to be rethought if the government is to find a way of accommodating the concerns of a younger generation that is more independent-minded and pugnacious than its elders.

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