Saudi Arabia’s problems are of its own making. Over the past decade, the public sector has been allowed to become bloated on the back of booming oil prices. Most school leavers expect to be able to walk into a well-paid and relatively unchallenging job in a government department or state entity. This has meant the kingdom’s education system has not needed to develop in step with the modern marketplace, so the emphasis remains on religious instruction and rote learning.
With annual entrants to the Saudi labour market averaging 220,000 between 2004 and 2009, the state sector is no longer able to absorb new jobseekers. As a result, unemployment is rising, particularly among the young. This is one of the chief reasons for the mounting discontent in the kingdom that has caused some to take to the streets in recent weeks.
Riyadh is keen for the private sector to grow and take on some of the burden. At present, just one in 10 employees in a Saudi private firm is a national, with the remainder comprising expatriate employees.
Contrary to the complaints of some, job opportunities do exist in the kingdom. The problem is that profit-driven companies are unable to match the salary expectations of locals, who also shy away from junior positions. Furthermore, the poor standard of education means graduates and school leavers frequently lack the skills demanded of them.
Unfortunately for Riyadh, as it nervously watches events unfolding around the region, there is no overnight solution to its problems. The education system needs to undergo whole-sale reform and a change in mindset is essential to develop a body of ambitious career-minded individuals. This will likely take a generation to achieve. In the meantime, the House of Saud will come under increasing pressure.