POMED Notes: “Saudi Arabia’s Race against Time
On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson International Center hosted a lecture by Wilson Center Senior Scholar David Ottaway, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Race against Time,” to highlight the current situation in Saudi Arabia.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for a PDF.
Ottaway began his talk by discussing Saudi Arabia’s response to the American film that has sparked protests throughout the Middle East. On Saturday, September 15, the Grand Mufti called for Muslims to abstain from violence, which has played a role in the lack of any protests in Saudi Arabia over the film. Ottaway added that protests in Saudi Arabia are very uncommon because they are discouraged by the government.
Ottoway next discussed the problem that an influx of college-educated youth is posing to a country with few job opportunities. He mentioned a conversation he had with an official from the Ideological Security department, who said the government’s main concern is “the return of foreign educated students.” Additionally, there are currently one million students studying at 25 universities in the country, with thousands more studying abroad. The high level of unemployment and the increasing numbers of both foreign and domestically educated individuals is leading to unrest. Saudi officials created an unemployment system after the Arab Spring began, but the government grossly underestimated the number of people who would join. This is partially due to the fact that initial statistics did not include women, who today make up almost 85-percent of Saudis who receive the benefits, but also because the unemployment benefits are almost 50-percent more than the average private sector wage.
Ottaway dove deeper into an analysis of the private sector as it relates to the unemployment situation, noting that private sector companies employ one Saudi for every ten foreigners, and that there are eight million foreigners out of a total population of 27 million. Two of those eight million foreigners are part of the domestic work force, while the remaining six million are in the private sector. The Saudi government is attempting to incentivize the employment of Saudis by withholding foreign worker visas for companies who employ a high number of foreigners in the hopes of raising the percentage of Saudis employed in the private sector to between ten and 37-percent. Unfortunately, there is an education discrepancy for many of the jobs being created, and the education system doesn’t provide the proper training for such high skilled jobs. On the other hand, Ottaway echoed sentiments he’s heard from the private sector that many Saudis are not willing to work in the private sector, which often include six day work weeks, 12 hour days, and a lower wage than both government jobs and unemployment.
Another concern for the government is expensive housing. Although the King created a mortgage-type system and plans on building 500,000 new housing units over the next decade, access to land can be a problem due to the fact that most of it is owned by the royal family and an average house costs more than half a million dollars.
Ottaway next discussed the role of women in Saudi Arabia. Recently, a women’s organization on a university campus held protests over the condition of the campus and inspired its male counterparts to join. The protests spread to more campuses across the country and led to significant changes at the universities. Ottaway emphasized the women’s role in starting the protests and reiterated that this was a new phenomenon in the country. The women’s movement has also encouraged opposition organizations to mobilize, although the government has begun to stifle any signs of descent through trials of advocates for reform and lengthy prison sentences. Additionally, the government crackdown came in response to opposition organizations documenting human rights abuses and sending the information to various human rights organizations, including the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The one area where protests and demonstrations can still be found is in the Eastern provinces, where the Shi’a majority lives. Although only ten percent of the population lives in the Eastern provinces, the majority of oil in Saudi Arabia comes from this region. The Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam that the Saudi Government promotes has very little room for different faiths and Islamic traditions, according to Ottaway, which alienates the Shi’a population. Where previously the demonstrations were peaceful, some Shi’a youth have begun returning fire when the security forces try to control protests. “There is a kind of tit-for-tat going on,” Ottaway said.
Ottaway noted that all segments of Saudi society have embraced new media and technology. Religious clerics have been particularly good at exploiting social media and gaining followers, but the government also views technology as a very useful tool. Information is becoming much harder to hide in this new media landscape, Ottoway said.
In conclusion, for the first time in recent history, social movements are starting at the grassroots level, Ottaway said, finishing with the thought that “there is a lot of tinder to set things off.”
During the Q&A, Ottaway reiterated that the majority of the new domestic jobs are highly skilled, but most Saudis do not have the necessary expertise and most private sector companies do not offer on-the-job training. Ottaway noted that many Saudi students pursue religious degrees in hope of becoming clerics, despite the government’s attempts to encourage more math and science degrees. Ottaway said “Saudis have projected themselves into foreign affairs in a way they never have before,” citing involvement in both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their aggressive stance against President Assad of Syria. The Saudi government would like to be a leader of the Arab world, but Ottaway suggested they must first take control of the GCC, which has been torn on the decision to challenge Iran, form a united monetary system, and involve other nations in the organization. Ottaway said that the position of women in Saudi Arabia has not improved, although the government has shown more willingness to address women’s demands than those of the opposition or Shia movements. Finally, Ottaway discussed Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, noting that the King has been vocal about supporting the opposition and calling for the ouster of President Assad. When a group of Saudi clerics got together and collected money for the opposition, the King asked them to stop, and then held a nation-wide fundraiser for the same cause, illustrating that the King and his government seek control over all aspects of the country.