For several years, she remained inactive, eager to return to the capital and find a job, but blocked by her parents, who, like many conservative Saudis of the previous generation, did not understand that their daughter wanted to leave the family nest. and seek employment.
“I told them they had to let me go, I can’t just sit there all my life like this,” Munira said. ” The first time [I told them] they said ‘No, why? We can give you money ”. I said ‘I don’t want to spend my life like this, I’m not looking for marriage yet, I need more experience in life’.
But her parents finally gave in and today Munira, 28, works in a men’s clothing store in the capital and shares an apartment with her sister.
She is one of the growing number of women working in the conservative kingdom, a trend that has helped change the face of retail stores in the capital’s ubiquitous malls and has seen tangible success with the country’s ambitious economic reform plan. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In just four years, women’s participation in the labor market has almost doubled to 33 percent.
Highlighting the paradoxes of the brash young royal’s reign, the increasingly authoritarian government has relaxed many social restrictions on women, including allowing them to drive while encouraging them to work, even though it has detained female activists in the part of a broader crackdown on dissent.
Cinzia Bianco, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the fight against female employment was vital to reducing the overall unemployment rate, as Prince Mohammed aims to reduce unemployment to 7% by 2030. But , she added, the crown prince had other motives as well.
“Women have been identified as a key constituency for Prince Mohammed,” she said. “Even authoritarian royals need a constituency. “
Saudization – getting Saudis to work
For five years after Prince Mohammed launched his Vision 2030 reform plan, unemployment has stubbornly exceeded 12%, with youth unemployment exceeding 30%.
Economic growth was sluggish, with the private sector intimidated by the arrest of hundreds of princes and businessmen in a conspicuous and uncertain anti-corruption campaign of the mercurial young crown prince.
But as growth resumed after the economy shrank during the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi unemployment fell from 15.4% last year to 11.3% in the second quarter of this year, its highest level. low in a decade, according to the state’s General Statistics Authority. .
This is in part due to the departure of expatriates during the pandemic and the strict application of quotas on the number of Saudis that companies in many sectors must employ. Nearly 2 million foreign workers have left the kingdom since 2017 as the government increased tariffs on them and their dependents.
Ahmed al-Rajhi, the Minister of Labor, said the government intends to continue rolling out new “saudization” quotas, but predicted that expatriates, who make up about a third of the country’s 33 million inhabitants. kingdom, would remain a similar proportion of the workforce.
Riyadh must strike a balance between hiring Saudis and putting pressure on a private sector facing increasing costs and which has long relied on the employment of lower paid and often better qualified expatriates. Rajhi said the problem was not that the Saudis were finding jobs outside the state, but “to have the right people for the jobs, or to avoid crippling the private sector by not allowing them to. bring in expatriates ”.
“We are limiting the number of expatriates, but there are not enough Saudis,” he said.
Foreigners still account for around 77 percent of private sector jobs. In retail, for example, where nationals now dominate the customer side of many outlets, Saudis still make up only 28% of the total workforce of 640,000.
“The private sector must develop”
Saudi officials say they have virtually frozen civil service jobs as part of efforts to downsize the public sector. But analysts say that so far, state-affiliated entities, including the Public Investment Fund and companies linked to the sovereign wealth fund, have done much of the hiring.
“You can push them into the job market, but the private sector has to grow and the big question is, is it growing enough to hire over 150,000 entrants each year? Said a Gulf expert.
Some young Saudis still yearn for the traditionally secure, well-paying public jobs enjoyed by older generations after the oil boom of the 1970s enriched the desert nation. Perhaps this is why the Saudi turnout has dipped slightly in the first two quarters of this year, falling to 49.4% from a high of 51.2% at the end of 2020.
“Unemployment is falling not because the private sector has grown, or even because expatriates have left, but because participation in the labor market is declining as Saudis are discouraged from seeking employment,” added the Gulf expert.
Some still question the engagement of young Saudis in the world of work. At a Starbucks, a team leader said his cafe had reached its Saudi quota by hiring two young Saudi women, but doubted they would stay.
“From the outside it looks good, but when they come it’s too hard for them,” he said. “In the past two months, more than 10 Saudis have come and gone. “
” We woke up “
But with Saudis working in shops and hotels; at supermarket checkouts, in cafes and as Uber drivers, attitudes are changing in a country where half of the population is under 25.
Youssuf, a team leader at a cafe where three of the seven employees are Saudi, said “you can tell we woke up.” “We realized we had to work and have more experience,” added the 25-year-old.
But a Riyadh-based academic warned that there was still a perception that there was less security in the private sector. “If you don’t have a good job you can’t afford a house or an apartment, and if you can’t get married you are not part of Saudi society, because being married and having a family is intrinsic to the identity story. , ” he said. “This historically explains the preference for positions in the public sector.
The cost of living has increased as fuel and energy subsidies have been reduced and VAT has tripled. And as Riyadh becomes the center of many of Prince Mohammed’s plans, more and more people are forced to lift sticks and move to the capital, where life can be expensive.
Mohammed is one of the many young Saudis who now supplement their income by driving an Uber. “If you want to have a good job, you have to move,” said Mohammed, who left the eastern province for the capital.
Yet Munira reveled in her new-found freedom. “I want my own money, I want to do everything – independence, now I feel it,” she said with a smile.