Saudi Arabia and the Labor Market

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Jon Alterman: Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed is the visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, a research fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and she is a specialist on how young Saudis think about the labor market and vocational education. Hanaa, welcome to Babel.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Jon Alterman: Tell me, what is the general shape of the Saudi labor market? In particular, as young people think about the market, what are their employment prospects?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: So 58 percent of Saudis are under age 30—there's a really big youth population. The majority of Saudis work in government; it's about 66 percent. In terms of the split, there is much more unemployment for young women. There's a huge percent of non-Saudis in the labor market as well, which is an important feature. 58 percent of the labor force is non-Saudi. The majority of Saudis that are working have bachelor's degrees, but that's also the largest represented segment of the unemployed Saudis.

Jon Alterman: The youth unemployment rate generally is more than 30 percent, and one of the things you talked about in your dissertation is that for a lot of the unemployed youth, they've never had a job. They haven't gotten their first job. It can be years between when they finished their education and when they actually start working.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: Exactly. This concept of a part-time job, or working while you're in high school, or even while you're in university, is not necessarily widespread in Saudi. Not only do you not have work experience when you're growing up, but you rarely have experience when you finish your university studies or your technical degree. It's a tough place for young people who are looking for jobs right now.

Jon Alterman: Vision 2030—the big modernization program that the Saudis embarked on—has a strategy toward this. How would you capture that strategy?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: The vision is incredibly ambitious, in a good way. I think there are a lot of things that it has recognized as challenges and really put it out there and tried really hard to address some of the big challenges. Looking at quality of life, looking at environment is also in the vision, and trying to create jobs in all sorts of different sectors.

Jon Alterman: You've done a lot of work particularly on technical and vocational education and training. Getting people to learn to be mechanics and cooks and other kinds of skills that not only get people off unemployment, but can also create careers. What are young Saudi's attitudes toward that?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: They're not very good. To take a step back, the way vocational education is structured in Saudi is similar to the way it's structured in the United States. It's something that happens after high school, not necessarily something that you would do as part of your high school career, like it would be in a place like Germany or Switzerland.

It's more something that happens instead of going to university and traditionally in Saudi, most people go to vocational colleges if they cannot get into academic universities.

The quality inside a lot of the vocational schools isn't as great. And so people end up graduating and not finding work. I think that a lot of young Saudis really do look at it as a last resort for people that didn't do well. But that is changing, and the vision has changed that. A lot of these developments that I'm going to mention now happened after I did my research.

There's been a lot of kind of private-public institutes that have opened up, and they're really coveted, and people would like to go to them because they have programs which you go through and are guaranteed employment at the end of them. I did interview a cohort of young people that were going to one of these vocational colleges, and they were more optimistic about their future prospects than the ones in the public vocational schools, but they weren't that optimistic. They had their own challenges that they were dealing with. And there were other issues that they were worried about. But also, there aren't very many of these institutes; they're still harder to come by.

Jon Alterman: Your dissertation talks a lot about the illusion of choice that young Saudis have. That there seems to be a lot of options, but because of employment pressure, family pressure, social pressure, people sometimes feel they don't have much choice at all.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are choices that are bound by a lot of restrictions, so people's choices happen within boundaries of what's acceptable. You are making choices, but a lot of times you would like to make choices outside of that, and you're worried about maybe losing the respect, or losing the confidence, that your family members or your community members have of you. There's very little career awareness. There's very little in terms of other types of developmental programs in schools. So you're making choices based on, a lot of times, very anecdotal evidence that comes from your family instead of real choices about real opportunities or potential opportunities that could exist for you.

Jon Alterman: What does it matter if your family doesn't like what you've decided to do?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: We really depend on our social relationships for everything, I think, and that looks different to different people. Your relationships could be your family relationships. It could be your friendships, it could be your colleagues or your parent’s colleagues at work, but those social connections, whatever they are, whethe they're tribal, whether they're newer work relationships, friendships, they help you get through life. In a place like Saudi, it's who you know, they create opportunities for you. A lot of it can be merit-based, but you still benefit a lot from being in a community of people that you're comfortable around, who know you, who know your family. I think that if they're mad at you, you lose some of that. And that's really, really valuable social capital.

Jon Alterman: You've described trying to do work in a part of Saudi Arabia you weren't familiar with. You had all of the official permissions and everything else, and people wouldn't give you the time of day. And then you found a way through that. How did that work?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: This was when I was working, before I was doing my PhD. We had a program that was actually working with schools to talk to young people about their career prospects. We were asked to provide it in a different city. I was in Dammam and we needed to go to Tabuk—

Jon Alterman: —the Eastern province where Aramco is, and a lot of the oil is produced.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: I was working there, that's where I'm from. And then we went to Tabuk, which is a city in the northwest. We didn't know anybody. We were making all the phone calls to all the different venues that we wanted to rent out to host this career guidance event. We're calling the government entities that we wanted involved, who we actually were involved with in the Eastern province, and nobody was really answering our calls.

And I remembered a friend from high school and one phone call later, people were calling us and offering us venues and offering us support. When we got there, it was incredible. It really still does depend on who you know. In the bigger cities, we do have people from all over the country living with us, going to school with us, and so it's easier. But when you want to go somewhere that's smaller, having those social connections is essential.

Jon Alterman: One of the things that has struck me when I've dealt with other young women from other societies in the Gulf is partly that there's more interest in entrepreneurship, self-employment, sort of side businesses. There seems to be a certain freedom that some women take from not having to have a conventional career, not being locked down to an office job.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: No, absolutely. I think that young women actually find a lot of opportunity in education spaces as well. So a lot of women will pursue further education. That's because there isn't that pressure necessarily to be working if the family isn't in need, so they can form new relationships through that type of interaction, which really is empowering for a lot of women in that way. But as you say, more and more women, especially today, are finding opportunities to work in a semi-informal economy that is more formal now than it was before, because it's recognized more.

So, yes, Instagram and Snapchat are huge places where young women are marketing their products, things that they're making things that they're doing, and it's a space that women are comfortable doing it in because you really can do it from home. And I think Covid-19 is maybe a good thing in that way, showing that there is a lot of value in working from home. If everybody's doing it now, then what was happening before also had a lot of value. It’s giving it more of potential legitimate value within the economy.

Jon Alterman: One of the things that struck me reading your work on a range of topics is how much a unifying thread is a persistent pursuit of prestige. Prestige is something that other people see in you. It's not what you necessarily find fulfilling, but it's what your family and friends, spouses, and whatever find impressive. Do you see that changing over time? Has it changed? Is there something else going on, or is it just a question of redefining prestige for the 21st century in Saudi terms, as you see it?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: I think it really isn't going away. I think people are, again within this social setting, are very much aware of how other people look at them and really trying to please other people. I don't think it's going away at all. I think it's maybe even more extreme now because you have so many people using platforms that they can even project who they are to more people. It's not just the recognition that you get from your immediate family or your extended family, but now you're on a social media platform and you can get even more of that.

Jon Alterman: There has been increasing commentary in the West about how we are encountering an energy transition sometime over the next several decades. Certainly, for the young people you talk to in Saudi Arabia, it's going to be during their lifetimes. How is that affecting the way people are thinking about their employment choices, if at all, and what do people think it will mean for their livelihoods and their wellbeing?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: I think that people are worried, to be honest. I think that young people are worried about their future. I think that there's always this spirit of being enterprising and there's this idea that they want to be in charge of their own work day, in charge of themselves, in charge of their own money. But up until now, that's really been something that people like to do on the side, as long as they have a stable job with the public sector for most people—they'll have their job and then they'll have their real estate office. They'll have their job and then they'll have their cafe, their barbershop. These are things that people have done, and they think of themselves as entrepreneurs because they have their own businesses.

I think more people are going to stop having that stable income and have more of these young people that know that there is access to funds to start new, small and medium enterprises or funds to start new things. But there is the element of risk that's an issue still. And so I think there's prospects for starting your own company, your own business, and getting funding for that, government funding. But as well, there's more and more angel investors coming on the scene and that kind of thing. But at the same time, I think that without real ideas and big economic growth, that's not going to solve anything. People are worried, and I think, recognize that they have no idea what it's going to look like.

Jon Alterman: Is there a prestige that goes with real creative ideas? What kinds of activities get people excited and what just seemed like a small side hustle to generate a little cash?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: There's a lot of prestige in creative ideas. Most of those seem to be in the entertainment industry at the moment, and tech as well. Those are two areas actually, where it's easier to get in and get investments anyways. I think a lot of young people are doing interesting things with different apps, with different kind of entertainment, and production companies and things like that.

I think that there are a lot of efforts inside the government to really create a platform to show where people are succeeding to motivate others. There's definitely this narrative of grit and resilience that they want to promote. To me, that's excellent but it also is almost putting a little too much burden on the individual and taking your hand out of it a little bit too much. I think we still need a lot more support and governance systems throughout the K–12 education system to get people more equipped to do these things.

Jon Alterman: A lot of creativity is about breaking rules, testing boundaries, subverting the dominant paradigm, some people call it. You've written about the pressure to paint between the line. How do people see the tension playing out between the need to test the boundaries, to do things in untraditional ways with a family and a social set that may be offended by people testing boundaries and doing things not the way their parents and grandparents did them?

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: I think that every Saudi entrepreneur that has broken a rule, or that has succeeded, that you speak to will tell you about all the rules that they broke and how resistant their family was to begin with, if you really talk to them and ask them that question. I think that we need more of that, but we need more support to highlight how it can end up being a good thing. One of the young people that I spoke to, he was a student in a technical college, and he had a chain of restaurants. He said that he really wanted to be a restaurateur, and he had a partner that had funded him.

He had a restaurant in Bahrain, as well as a couple in Saudi, and this is what he wanted to do, but he had to go get this technical degree because his parents were just so upset with him that he didn't get into university. This was the least he could do to make his family happy. I asked him so, "Well, when you're done, what are you going to do with your qualification?" He said, "You know what, to be honest, I'll probably end up working for Aramco or SABIC." Two big, big companies, semi-governmental. And he said that he was going to do that. And I said, "Well, what about your restaurants?" And he was just like, "I'll still do my restaurants." But there's still this pressure to conform, even when you're breaking the rules.

Jon Alterman: Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed: Thank you so much for having me.