Tariq A. Al Maeena

By most published accounts Saudis under 25 make up more than 60 per cent of the total population, with some statistics suggesting that the figure could be as high as 70 per cent. This formidable number must be taken into account during government policymaking.

A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) at the beginning of this year delved into what matters to Saudi youth most in an effort to help the policymakers focus on and address their areas of concern. BCG surveyed more than 1,000 young Saudis aged between 16-29 years to measure ‘their satisfaction with their lives’ and the primary concerns facing this large segment. The study encompassed youth from both genders, and also had urban and rural representation.

It became evident to the consulting group that there were five dominant areas of concern faced by the youth of Saudi Arabia. They were: The high cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, rising crime and violence among their segment, lack of confidence in the education system and finally the scarcity of opportunities for a career and good living. The results are not very surprising as such concerns had been reported from time to time given the significance of the numbers. The rampant rise in the cost of living despite repeated and unsuccessful efforts by the government to control rising costs is putting a severe strain on many young families and individuals. The rise in school fees, food and medical expenses and other basic necessities has forced some to beg or borrow to stay afloat. Meanwhile banks continue to rake in obscene profits by offering loans and extended credit limits to the desperate and those already drowning in debt.

Saudi Arabia has the largest land mass compared to the rest of the GCC. In fact, most of its land is yet to be inhabited. And yet many youth question why affordable housing in this land of plenty is a dream yet to be realised. While the government pumped in $70 billion (Dh257 billion) back in 2011 for the purpose of building entry level homes for Saudis and a new housing ministry was established and tasked with implementing the plan, progress has been excruciatingly slow with very few beneficiaries.

The ministry has also failed to control the prices of land which the young want to purchase and build their homes on. The disillusionment is simply not with the lack of funds but with what the government assisted funds can purchase on the uncontrolled housing market. The prices that landlords and landowners are demanding have caused many to complain that this ministry has failed in its performance and purpose in introducing affordable housing to the masses.

In the area of rising violence, the BCG study noted that these concerns were expressed predominantly by the groups in the northern and southern regions of the country which border other countries. In other areas the youth expressed concerns of crime and attacks from unemployed youth or undocumented workers. A female participating in the study in expressing her sentiments said, ‘There is a high rate of unemployment and there are a lot of robberies. You are even afraid that someone will rob your purse while you are walking around. They even steal your mobile phone from your hand.’ Many in the study group claimed that they had been victims at one time or another. And many did not place much faith in the police to address their needs for protection. They listed instead their families, friends and religious leaders, in that order.

Lack of career opportunities

In the area of education, which was a listed concern, many of the study group complained about the lack of effective preparation to enter the market place. They cited shortcomings in the curriculum that did not address the skills that the private sector employers are seeking such as problem solving, teamwork, effective communication and critical thinking. Indeed it is not unusual to run across a graduate with a very limited ability for analytical thinking. The lack of career opportunities was more important to the youth in the north of the country, which lacks industrialised cities, than elsewhere. One participant emphasised the limited job opportunities in the public sector departments outside the large cities. Complaining that ‘all the departments are gathered in Riyadh so everyone has to go there’, he added that ‘there are no opportunities in other areas’. Another chimed in his frustrations with, ‘Every day I have to search for a job and fill applications, but it’s hopeless.’

It is this hopelessness that must be channelled into positive and rewarding energy both for the youth and the country. Policymakers must take the disturbing regional events into consideration and ensure that our youth do not stray onto unwanted paths, be they Saudi youth or youth from the rest of the GCC. It is not enough to keep them fed. They must feel, belong and participate positively in the building of the nation.–Gulf News