Revolutions are started by the young. And as the Arab Spring demonstrated, they also tend to be started by those with dismal economic prospects. Saudi Arabia, which has so far managed to avoid the upheaval experienced by many of its neighbors, could be sitting on a “time bomb” according to Bloomberg News:
“Wherever I go, companies say they want someone with experience, but I don’t have it,” Hussein al-Ghamdi, 25, says. “So they bring in foreigners with experience and deny us the chance to get a start and prove ourselves. That upsets me very much.”Under-30s such as al-Ghamdi and his friends make up 66 percent of the Saudi population—a group that also has the highest rate of unemployment. About 27 percent of the Saudi labor force aged 20 to 29 is unemployed, according to data from the Central Department of Statistics and Information.
Saudi officials are acutely aware of these demographic and economic conditions. They are actively searching for a way to increase the number of jobs available to locals, while simultaneously providing a generous social safety net for those who can’t find work. The government has updated its quota system to increase the incentives for Saudi companies to hire Saudi workers. King Abdullah last year announced his country’s version of a stimulus package—a $130 billion plan that, among other things, sought to create jobs and provide subsidized housing. The government also recently introduced a scheme to pay more than a million unemployed Saudis 2,000 riyals ($530) a month for a year as they look for work.The resentment felt by young men like al-Ghamdi is exacerbated by the opulent lifestyles enjoyed by many foreigners in the country. About 90 percent of the private-sector workforce is foreign, and these interlopers are able to afford the fancy cars, clothes and electronics that are on display so prominently in the country. Awash in petrodollars, the Kingdom has the financial flexibility to ameliorate some of the structural problems that contributed to the overthrow of rulers throughout the Middle East. Nevertheless, if recent history has taught us anything, it has taught us that a massive number of unemployed young people is a volatile element no matter how much money you throw around.For better or for worse, Saudi Arabia’s political stability is a cornerstone of what order and predictability remains in the Middle East. Think about what serious unrest in Saudi would mean for world oil prices, the political situation in neighbors from Yemen to Bahrain and Iraq, and for the global effort to stop the Iranian bomb — and you will understand why Saudi youth unemployment is everybody’s concern.