Saudi youth at centre stage of vision 2030
About 70% of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30. Saudi youths are considerably better educated and have more access to information than the older generation. An estimated 200,000 Saudis are studying abroad in countries as varied as the United States, France, China and India.
The ambitious package of economic and social reforms known as Vision 2030 is aimed at providing Saudi youths with the tools — and opportunities — to compete with their counterparts around the world. Vision 2030 seeks to transform the country within 13 years. To succeed, young Saudis must embrace it and take the lead. That transition is well under way.
The architect of Vision 2030 is Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, 31. Although a relatively unknown when he was appointed deputy crown prince and Defence minister in early 2015, he — more than anyone else — personifies a new generation of Saudi leaders: Young, confident, ambitious, frank and not afraid of change.
Prince Mohammed has put a high premium on competence, efficiency, timeliness, accountability and transparency. Although he has not done many media interviews, when he does speak with Saudi or Western journalists, he makes sure it counts.
In an hour-long interview with Arabic satellite news channel Al Arabiya last year, the prince painted a picture of someone who understands the demographic and economic challenges confronting the kingdom. He also seemed very confident in the measures that must be implemented to address those challenges.
While acknowledging there will be obstacles and setbacks along the way, he spoke with excitement about the opportunities ahead, as the kingdom reduces the size of its public sector, lessens its focus on energy revenues and looks to develop other parts of the economy.
In an Al Arabiya documentary about the legacy of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the ascent of King Salman, Prince Mohammed was shown interacting with the Council for Development and Economic Affairs, which he heads. Often dressed relatively casually — foregoing the more formal headdress and cloak — Prince Mohammed is known to use English words and phrases in meetings.
This style appears to have endeared the prince to many Saudi young people who identify with him because of his age and his tendency to speak with refreshing candour about the economic and social challenges the kingdom faces.
At the same time, Prince Mohammed’s respect for age and experience is apparent, especially in his public interactions with his father, King Salman, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Having attended a dinner in Washington in late 2015 where King Salman and Prince Mohammed were the guests of honour, I saw first-hand Prince Mohammed’s presence and charisma that have been noted by foreign dignitaries and journalists.
While Prince Mohammed is the person who most clearly embodies the generational shift under way in Saudi Arabia, he is not the only one. Crown Prince Mohammed, 59, is also relatively young and is in line to become the first king of Saudi Arabia from the third generation of Al Saud royals.
It is also worth mentioning that the Council of Ministers is mostly comprised of people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s, the overwhelming majority of whom are commoners, not royals. In today’s Saudi Arabia, there is a sense among many that competence and a strong work ethic will be recognised and rewarded.
To harness the power of its human capital, the government has spent billions of dollars creating state-of-the-art educational institutions, including schools, universities and vocational training centres. The emphasis has been on mathematics and science to fill many of the technical jobs that are primarily performed by non-Saudis.
That is not to say that young Saudis do not face any challenges. One of the main issues facing Vision 2030 is generating jobs for the estimated 200,000 Saudis who join the labour force every year.
Saudi planners have long realised that the oil sector will not be able to generate enough jobs. The sector has arguably never been labour intensive and, as technology has advanced, it has become even less so.
While the government has offered the private sector incentives to hire more Saudis and imposed penalties on those that do not meet certain thresholds, that effort remains a work in progress. Some Saudis have publicly expressed resentment about the continuing domination of foreign workers in private sector jobs.
At the same time, it is apparent that more Saudi youth have tempered their expectations, especially early in their careers, and are willing to pay their dues in lower-paying jobs to gain experience. For many Saudis, there is nothing shameful in working in retail or the service sector.
Like their peers around the globe, Saudi youth have been targeted for recruitment by extremist groups. Small numbers have fallen prey to abusing narcotics. The government’s effort to counter extremist groups is well-publicised and has largely been successful, although the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to target security personnel, government institutions and the wider Saudi public.
The government and civil society have also done a commendable job raising awareness about the dangers of narcotics and the abuse of prescription medication. While the government has taken a zero tolerance approach to drug smugglers, it has treated users as victims who are in need of counselling and treatment.
Aware of the dearth of entertainment options in Saudi Arabia, the planners of Vision 2030 created the General Entertainment Authority to improve the quality of life for young Saudis. A recent performance in Riyadh by the legendary Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu marked a turning point and was met with excitement across the country.
“The future of any country is about its young people. In Saudi Arabia that is even more true because you’re the majority and you’re more educated and inquisitive than any generation that’s come before.” This was the main message that Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates delivered when he addressed a mostly Saudi audience at the inaugural MiSK Global Forum last year.
MiSK was founded by Prince Mohammed. The organisation is aimed at “encouraging youth to connect with the global economy”.
There is also a drive to encourage entrepreneurship, technological innovation as well as various art forms, including music and film-making. These are also moves in the right direction. Young Saudis hold the key to whether Vision 2030 comes to fruition and how soon.