Expert Roundtable: Social Reform and Challenges in Saudi Arabia: Youth and “Vision 2030”
Growing economic and social constraints have generated a sense of disconnect and of being neglected among many Saudi youth. Whereas Saudi Arabia’s older generation benefitted from tax exemption, free health care, and education, young Saudis are faced with increasing socio-economic constraints. In order to cope with these challenges, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has set out to transform Saudi society as well as the traditional social contract between the Saudi state and its citizens through the implementation of an ambitious reform agenda – “Saudi Vision 2030.” The vision aims to diversify the oil-based economy, increase the share of nationals in the job market, strengthen the rights of women, and provide greater entertainment opportunities for society.
At the roundtable, experts argued that high social media usage by Saudi Arabia’s young generation has driven a cultural revolution, which has made winning the social media narrative crucial for the Saudi state. At the same time, it has created a sense among Saudi youth that they are able to engage more in the political debate, especially on domestic issues.
While the recent social and cultural openings were positively acknowledged, the experts argued that they also served to mask key issues, such as high youth unemployment of about 30%, rising living costs, and an increase in housing prices. The declining oil prices, the down-scaling of the construction sector, and prevailing nepotism have made it more difficult for well-educated and less-educated Saudi youth alike to find employment. As employment opportunities in the public sector have decreased, entrepreneurship has been gaining greater traction. Even though many barriers continue to exist—including social and family pressures to seek employment in well-recognized fields with greater job security—start-ups, which have seen a growing number of incubators and accelerators, are a current trend in Saudi Arabia. Yet greater government support of entrepreneurship is necessary in order to create better employment opportunities and to improve job satisfaction. Similarly, the roundtable experts argued that the state must make private sector employment more attractive, especially by increasing job security. Tackling unemployment and rising living costs were seen as the most important challenges for the Saudi government, whose public support could be undermined, should it fail to provide solutions.
The event was held under Chatham House rule.