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Rise Of Education Lifts Arab Youths' Expectations

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year June 19 in the Red Sea port  city of Jeddah.
Amer Hilabi
AFP/Getty Images
Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year June 19 in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

Widespread youth unemployment is one of the underlying causes of the unrest in the Middle East.

The region has the highest number of unemployed young people in the world. At the same time, there are more educated young Arabs than ever before. It's created a revolution of rising expectations in Saudi Arabia, among other countries.

"I really wanted to work on something that I'm interested in," says Jihad Abdullah Al Ammar, 27, from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "It's also you have more of a chance, actually, to change the world."

His big dreams include real plans. Ammar created a Web startup company, Saudi Arabia's first online service that offers reviews — from restaurants to sports outlets.

"We aim to allow people to make better consumer decisions," he says.

He studied computer science at a U.S. university and returned with the drive to succeed in one of the word's richest countries. But Ammar says there is little government support or private capital for young Saudi entrepreneurs.

"Of course, it's one of the most important ways to create jobs is to let people start new businesses and add value to the economy," he says.

The kingdom has an alarming rate of youth unemployment. So five years ago, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah launched a reform program that includes scholarships for 100,000 Saudis to study abroad to learn new skills. But some of that talent is wasted, says Robert Lacey, the author of a new book on Saudi Arabia.

"You get this phenomenon of professional Saudi students abroad who wrack up the MAs and the PhDs on Saudi government money because they don't want to come home because they know there are no jobs," Lacey says. "And, actually, the Saudi government connives in this. They are perfectly happy to keep the young people abroad gainfully occupied."

Those who do return are discouraged, says Saudi commentator Khalid Dakhil.

"You cannot just open the country, send the kids outside to educate and then just tell them, well, nothing has changed. You can't do that," Dakhil says.

A food court in one of the busiest shopping malls in the Saudi capital exemplifies the issue. There are very few Saudis behind the counter at the McDonald's, the fish and chips place or the doughnut shop. The work is done by expats — foreign workers — and it's not just the low end of the pay scale. At the top end, doctors, engineers, professors and project managers are also likely to come from outside the kingdom.

"To me, that is a most incomprehensible anomaly," says Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former diplomat and ex-head of Saudi intelligence. He says the kingdom employs more than 8 million imported workers.

"How, within this 8.5 million of workers here, we can't find a slot for 2 million Saudis out of work is simply incomprehensible," Faisal says.

It makes perfect sense for private business, says Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, a top economist for the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council. Imported labor is routinely paid less, from one-third to one-half of the wages that Saudi university graduates expect and demand.

"And so these workers are more skilled and cheaper, so being rational, most businesses would hire these foreign workers," Aulsaieshag says.

In a bank headquarters, another economist examines the unemployment rates. Officially, more than 10 percent of males are unemployed, but for male college graduates, the number jumps to 44 percent.

John Sfakianakis, chief economist for Banque Saudi Fransi, says the Saudi economy produced more than 800,000 new jobs in 2009 — more than enough for the region.

"The problem in Saudi Arabia is not that you're not creating enough jobs," Sfakianakis says. "You're creating enough jobs, but they happen to go to foreigners. ... I don't think it's sustainable even today. I do agree they should act, because that's the biggest challenge.

"In fact, it's a national security challenge," he says, because Egypt and Tunisia have changed the definition of stability in the Middle East.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.