3 Ways Philanthropy Could Help Saudi Youth

As Saudi Arabian leaders detail their goals for the country’s future, the results of a rare survey of Saudi youth can help to inform how the country’s young philanthropic sector could bolster the government’s plans to move the country toward a knowledge economy.

In the foreword of Vision 2030, Mohammad bin Salman writes, “our real wealth lies in the ambition of our people and the potential of our younger generation.”

During 2008 and 2009, my colleagues developed a questionnaire, “Bridging the Gap,” to capture perspectives of 4,400 students and recent graduates from universities across Saudi Arabia. (The mean age for respondents was 20.9 years.) Results regarding gender roles, presented in the report Empowered but not Equal, offer insight into dreams, hopes and ambitions of women and men now early in their post-graduation lives. Many of those surveyed expressed confidence, courage and strength, assets for achieving personal and national goals. Eighty-four percent of women felt confident in their ability to overcome obstacles encountered while working, and 87 percent felt they had the strength to promote women in society.

A majority of men, 65 percent, believed they could help women with the challenges they face in the workplace and when they are promoting women in society. Findings from the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018 echo these findings for women and men aged 18 to 24 across 16 Arab states and territories, including Saudi Arabia:  Those surveyed, while pleased with reforms now allowing Saudi women to drive, wanted to see more advancement of women’s rights across the Arab region.

These results can inform philanthropic endeavors. Such initiatives will largely have to come through work by domestic organizations in Saudi Arabia due to prohibitions on foreign foundations and restrictions on contact with them. Regarding these constraints, a survey of recent developments in Saudi Arabia and my own experience tracking changes in legislation impacting philanthropy across the Middle East and North Africa region indicate an ever-changing landscape that includes public pressure for more civil rights. Domestically, Saudi philanthropy has a demonstrated record of engagement, particularly by government-affiliated entities and royalty who make a personal commitment to favored causes. Consequently, philanthropy is positioned to work in concert with Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030, including the goal of increasing women’s participation in the workforce, as well as the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by the Kingdom and also includes a focus on women and girls.

Three areas emerge for philanthropic involvement: education and training, research and enhanced visibility for role models and leaders.

Education and Training

According to a survey result examined in the FIRE article, eighty-eight percent of women and 70 percent of men indicated a desire for further studies. Forty-eight percent of women and 68 percent of men desired opportunities for study abroad. These results indicate an opportunity for Saudi philanthropies to expand higher-education options.

Study abroad offers the potential to explore diverse educational and social settings, especially for Saudi women. Philanthropies could contribute to study abroad by developing additional programming or by providing scholarships. Such scholarships are available, for example, through the government’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programbut many of those opportunities have been shrinking in recent years.

Of course, such options can only benefit young people able to travel to take advantage of them. Thus, the development of overseas scholarships also needs parallel work to address   due to the system of male guardianship and ingrained social and cultural norms limiting women’s abilities to participate in study abroad.

Philanthropies could also offer vocational education and career training. This area in particular could benefit from investment by multinational corporations in partnership with local organizations like local chambers of commerce and industry and financial institutions.  , the Arabic version of the multinational oil company’s global LiveWire initiative that supports young entrepreneurs, is just one example of such a collaboration. This could be especially beneficial for women, as starting a business represents an alternative for them to working in the Saudi public sector. The survey in the FIRE article found that a majority of young people expressed a desire to start their own businesses, though By offering microfinance, philanthropies could provide an additional tool to make this alternative a reality.


Results from the FIRE article survey indicated that 59 percent of women and 51 percent of men agreed many women waste their education by not pursuing a profession. The survey also found that 76 percent of women and 64 percent of men believed men receive more support than women.

The Kingdom’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development reported in 2016 that about a third of Saudi women seeking work remained unemployed, noting, “Many women are looking for work and are unable to find it.” The report says that women face a lack of accommodations in private-sector workplaces, particularly since women and men are usually segregated in Saudi society, limiting employment options. The report also points to transportation availability and its costs as posing additional challenges, although those costs may decrease now that some women can drive themselves to work. As in other countries, the costs and availability of childcare can prevent many women from being able to work.

But more information is needed to understand the obstacles women face in seeking employment. By prioritizing research, philanthropies could clarify what Saudi women need to thrive. For example, research could pinpoint where and at what times of day public transportation could benefit the greatest number of people. Research could also discover what types of childcare would best serve families, providing support for working parents and their children.

Research could strengthen existing programming. For example, as part of its National Transformation Plan 2020, the kingdom is offering a work-from-home program targeting women, presenting an alternative for some or a temporary option for others desiring to work outside the home but facing obstacles. Understanding how this program and others impact individuals, families and the economy could prove invaluable.

Enhanced Visibility of Role Models and Leaders

A third area for philanthropic focus could be creating enhanced visibility for women working in professional roles and for all young professionals exhibiting leadership qualities. First, this means highlighting role models.

For example, Ahmed M. El-Sherbeeny of King Saud University writes that although engineering education has been available in Saudi Arabia for 55 years it was originally restricted to men and is still dominated by them. Summarizing 2013 statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education, he reports that while 66,000 men graduated as engineers from Saudi universities between 2007 and 2011, just 4,000 women did the same.

Media attention focused on women who are working in these professions once dominated by men can encourage girls and young women to imagine themselves in these jobs. Regardless of gender, philanthropies can encourage the development of leadership qualities among all young people by highlighting those who are leaders in their respective fields.

Tremendous opportunities exist for philanthropies working in Saudi Arabia to positively influence the lives of young women and men trying to make a transition from university to work, and to fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions.

Elizabeth R. Bruce is an independent consultant working in research and editing and has been part of a number of projects focused on Middle East education.


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