Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom home to millions of foreign workers, is finding it hard to enrol tens of thousands of its mostly young population who graduate each year, a report said.
Despite being the largest Arab economy, and the world’s biggest oil exporter, unemployment rate remains above 10% in a country where youth represent 55-60% of around 19 million nationals.
“I applied for jobs with the public and private sector, but I had no luck,” complained Majed Hasan, 26, who has an English-language degree. He quit his translation office job because of the low salary and long working hours.
A Jeddah resident, Majed said he worked for a year in a telecommunications shop, then opened his own grocery, which he had to shut down “due to competition from foreigners.”
Mufreh al-Kubaishi, 25, a law graduate from an Australian university, said he was “considering going for post-graduate studies because work conditions are not encouraging.”
His two sisters and a brother in the southwestern province of Jazan who graduated a few years ago are also without jobs.
The World Bank has said unemployment among Saudis has remained above 10% in past years, hitting mainly newcomers into the labour force, especially university graduates.
Dozens of universities across the desert kingdom pump out some 100,000 graduates every year into a work force dominated by some 8 million foreigners, mostly from Southeast Asia, who are prepared to take the low wages that a Saudi would reject.
Most Saudis prefer government jobs, where salaries are better and working hours are shorter than in the private sector, turning out to be the root of many problems.
The private sector appears also not keen on employing Saudis.
Saudi economist Ihsan Abu Haliqa argued that the problem is due to a “lack of determination” to accommodate the Saudis in jobs that are filled by foreigners.
“Official statistics show that in 2011 alone, some 1.1 million work visas were issued for foreigners who are above the level of domestic workers and the like. This means around 100,000 workers being brought in monthly,” he said.
Farouk al-Khatib, Economics lecturer at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, said the public sector represents job security and less stress for Saudis.
“The rights of employees are better secured than they are in the private sector. There is no arbitrary dismissal, nor overtime work, while working hours end in the early afternoon, and the weekend break is two days,” he said.
He said that even those who do join the private sector continue to look for a job in the public sector.
Saudi authorities have been for many years trying to “Saudise” jobs and created a support programme for job seekers in a bid to tackle the growing unemployment problem.
Labour Minister Adel Faqih said in January that the main challenge facing Saudis is to find new jobs in the private sector because 3 million posts are needed by 2015 and 6 million by 2030.
He said Saudis should replace foreign workers, who “transfer home 100 billion riyals ($26.7 billion) a year.”
Under its “Nitaqat” (Ranges) programme, aimed at prodding firms to employ Saudis, the Labour Ministry imposed quotas last year on companies for hiring Saudis, which would determine their ability to recruit foreigners.
For example, banks with a work force of up to 500 must now have a minimum of 49% Saudi staff.
Those in the wholesale trade with the same number of staff have to employ a minimum of 19% Saudis, with the same quota applied to media, insurance companies and government schools.
The Saudi Ministry of Labour said in March that more than 1 million Saudi nationals are now receiving unemployment benefit under the ”Hafiz” programme, which pays unemployed Saudis SR2,000 ($533) a month for up to one year. The welfare scheme was announced by King Abdullah during the Arab uprisings last spring and introduced in late 2011.
“The number of beneficiaries this month rose by 40% from last month and by 170% from December when the programme started to pay the monthly subsidy,” said the official Saudi Press Agency quoted Khaled al-Ajmi, the Labour Ministry official in charge of Hafiz, as saying.
He added that 86% of them are women.
Official figures show that unemployment among women surges to near 30%, with some 1 million women looking for jobs, including 373,000 who are university graduates.
Saudi Arabia has benefitted from decades-long population boom but the government is no longer able to cut down unemployment by creating public sector jobs. One of the major reasons of last year’s revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria have been attributed to some high youth unemployment figures.