How Can Young Saudi Men Be Brought Into the Private Sector?

Editor’s Note: This article first ran on the website of Chatham House and appears here under an agreement with that institution.

Although the position of women within Saudi Arabian society quite rightly draws media attention, young Saudi men for the most part remain a silent mass, their thoughts and views rarely heard outside of the kingdom. But new research conducted in Saudi Arabia by Mark C. Thompson, including 50 focus group discussions and interviews and surveys of over 5,000 young men from diverse backgrounds, reveals intriguing new insight into their views on subjects including gender segregation, identity, education, employment and marriage, as well as political participation and exclusion.

As 78 percent of the workforce, the views of Saudi men are crucial to the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan, which aims to help break the kingdom’s dependency on oil and, at the same time, diversify the economy toward important growth sectors, such as retail, health, IT, communications, tourism and education. This means encouraging them to shy away from following their parents into the public sector and embracing the challenge of the private sector.

But it is not clear at all that they are prepared to play an active part in fulfilling those expectations—for many, the public sector still provides the welcoming comfort of a job for life.

Surveys of two sets of male undergraduates at Saudi universities are instructive of what the government might do to change that.

Approximately 200 undergraduates at Qassim University in central Saudi Arabia and 200 at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran were asked, if they were offered positions simultaneously in the public and private sectors, with the same salary and benefits, which one they would choose.

At Qassim University, around 75 percent of respondents stated they would prefer to work in the public sector, while the remaining 25 percent expressed a preference for the private sector or were undecided. Respondents who preferred the public sector said that government positions offered job security; more amenable hours; better work/life balance; longer vacations; guaranteed promotion; generous health insurance; and high salaries and regular bonuses.

At KFUPM, on the other hand, preference for each sector was split evenly (50/50) with a minority (5 percent) stating that the choice would ultimately depend on the individual’s situation. Those undergraduates (at both universities) who expressed a preference for private-sector employment noted that it offers graduates an opportunity for self-improvement, supports both personal and career development, and provides greater freedom to be creative and productive in new ways.

The disparity is likely to be attributable to different educational approaches adopted by each university. In fact, Qassim University’s results are most likely more in line with broader youth perceptions of public and private sectors, as the research reveals that a number of unique factors at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals drove a higher percentage of students there to express a preference for private-sector employment.

The quality of education is notably higher at KFUPM (it ranks first in the kingdom and 189th in the world, according to the QS World University Rankings). The curriculum is more specialized in engineering and business, rather than Islamic and Arabic studies. Its ecosystem creates an awareness of the private sector and encourages undergraduates to seek work placements in the private sector. The language of instruction is English, which opens up opportunities to work with international businesses.

Finally, the entry criteria for KFUPM is the highest in the kingdom and, as a result, tends to attract entrepreneurial students who are curious to explore beyond their environment.

Although it is difficult to extrapolate from the two case studies, it does appear that the ecosystem at KUFPM is more inclined to support increasing private-sector employment. If that is the case, and it can be tested with a comprehensive study, then the Saudi government and the multiple agencies tasked with implementing Vision 2030 should review—with some haste—the approach to education in all of the kingdom’s universities. They should set in train a root-and-branch transformation, but, at the same time, be prepared for it to take at least one generation before it bears real fruit.

The research has revealed that in spite of the hype that has surrounded Vision 2030 and the energy it has appeared to release among the kingdom’s youthful population, the promise of a safe and secure job in the public sector, as for their mothers and fathers before them, remains the touchstone for success for many young Saudis.

That presents the government with a major problem—unemployment among young Saudi men will never be brought under control unless there is a precipitous swing in favor of the private sector. For now, that looks to be a distant prospect; the majority passing through the education system will continue to expect the government to not only provide employment, but also award benefits, as part of their right.

Neil Quilliam is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a research institute based in London. Mark C. Thomson is an assistant professor of Middle East studies at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals and the author of  Being Young, Male and Saudi: Identity and Politics in a Globalized Kingdom, due out this fall from Cambridge University Press.


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