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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Unemployment, the new Saudi challenge
By Roger Hardy
Middle East analyst, BBC News

Saudi schoolchildren
Is Saudi schooling partly to blame?

"I think it's the number one challenge for Saudi Arabia," says Ihsan Ali bu Hulaiga, an economic consultant and a member of the majlis al-shura, the country's informal parliament.

It's a view you hear echoed by officials, Western diplomats and ordinary Saudis.

Many are shocked that such a wealthy country is unable to find employment for its own young men and women.

And, right now, the Saudi kingdom is even wealthier than usual.

"Oil prices have been very high for about three years," says Khan Zahid, chief economist at Riyad Bank.

At current prices of about $60 a barrel, the country is earning $480 million a day.

A large slice of that - some 35-40% of the government budget, says Dr Zahid - is being spent on education, manpower and health.

More than money

If money alone could solve the problem, then, unemployment would not exist.

In fact, however, it is growing at an alarming rate. The official figure is 9%, the unofficial estimate 20%.

We cannot have 80% of our college students graduating in history, geography, Arabic literature and Islamic studies
Maha Akeel, Arab News

And among those under 30, who make up two thirds of the population, it is thought to be higher still.

So what has gone wrong?

Talk of "Saudi-isation" of labour - replacing the country's six million foreign workers with Saudis - is hardly new.

But making it happen is slow work.

The energetic labour minister, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, is pushing businesses to hire more Saudis and struggling to impose tough quotas.

The private sector is resisting. Businessmen complain that Saudis are more expensive and less productive than non-Saudis.

Education, education, education

They also say the education system is failing to equip young Saudis with the right skills.

What is taught at schools and colleges is heavily influenced by the conservative religious establishment.

The result, says Maha Akeel, a journalist with the Jeddah-based newspaper Arab News, is a stifling conformity.

"I think it starts with the curriculum and the way of teaching it," she says.

"It's all based on memorising; it's not based on critical thinking."

Oil refinery
Soaring oil revenues have yet to help with joblessness

What's more, she argues, young Saudis are not studying the subjects the society needs.

"We cannot have 80% of our college students graduating in history, geography, Arabic literature and Islamic studies and we barely have enough students graduating in science, engineering or from the medical schools."

Cultural attitudes

I talked to students in Jeddah and found them remarkably frank about the problem.

"The Saudi male has this idea that some types of jobs are for Filipinos or Pakistanis," says Salem, a 21-year-old business student.

"He thinks a Saudi should be working at a bank or an oil company or as the manager of a company."

Thamer, who is 20 and studying law, says unemployed young men have nothing to do.

"Young men are barred from ['family-only'] shopping malls or restaurants, simply because they are males," he says.

Certain people think we can do it without the women... It can't be done
Ihsan Ali bu Hulaiga

"They have nowhere to go. They end up not wanting to work - or just playing the stock market."

Officials and parents worry that unemployed young men are drifting into crime, drugs or even religious extremism.

Gender gap

As for the young women, in a sexually segregated society their job opportunities are few.

As Maha Akeel points out, Saudi women comprise 55% of graduates but only 5% of the workforce.

"Certain people think we can do it without the women," says Ihsan Ali bu Hulaiga. "It can't be done."

But convincing religious conservatives that women can enter the workplace without corrupting the morals of the nation is not easy.

Dr Gosaibi, the labour minister, has drawn fire from the conservatives by trying to force the pace.

Abdel-Aziz al-Qasim, a young Islamist lawyer, warns against exaggerating the strength of opposition.

He says that, in a recent opinion poll, 65% of Saudis supported letting women drive - which would make it much easier for them to work away from home.

But the environment has to be right, he insists.

That means having a decent public transport system - and laws against sexual harassment.

Change is under way, but slowly. The population, in contrast, is growing in leaps and bounds.

An expanding pool of bored, disaffected Saudis without work can only spell trouble.

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