The similarities between Spain and Saudi Arabia may prima facie be scarce, but there is at least one thing that both states share : structural youth unemployment that is off the scale. But while the troubled eurozone member’s 18-25 unemployment rate of around 50% is increasingly well-recognised, few are aware of the fact that despite an era of stellar oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s demographic of the young and jobless is almost as large: an official jobless rate of 10.6% veils the fact that the KSA has the highest number of unemployed youth in North Africa and the Middle East.
And this matters not merely as what King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has defined – presumably with one eye on the Arab Spring – as the nation’s ‘number one national security problem’; with a significant percentage of its known oil reserves already exploited, Saudi Arabia is going to have to build a conventional economy if it is not going to be relegated to the margins of the international community.
Enter the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology or KAUST, an acronym reminiscent of the classic nineteenth century opera Faust yet symbolising an even more profound cultural shift: the transition of an austerely radical Wahhabi state into the knowledge economy. A US$10bn endowment from no less a figure than the present ruler of Saudi Arabia himself, a university which was established as recently as 2009 increasingly looks set to feature as a viable choice for international graduate students: inside a campus of world-class laboratories and information networks is nothing less than another society: the religious police are notable by their absence, and the virtually unique gender segregation and clothing requirements that are the hallmark of Saudi society do not apply.
However, can KAUST and other similar projects resolve the Saudi unemployment conundrum? We at Mediolana are uncertain. As countless other commentators have noted, there is no lack of jobs in the KSA: what is missing is the willingness of anyone other than foreigners – whether they be from the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, or Europe and North America – to do them. In employment patterns seemingly deriving inspiration from Blade Runner, entry-level jobs are dominated by those hailing from largely poor Asian nations, while Westerners living in gated compounds generally enjoy unusually favourable remuneration; those Arabs thirsty for employment are often Egyptian or Sudanese.
And a cursory look at KAUST shows this institution exemplifying this pattern: the university is headed by Professor Shih Choon Fong, a Singaporean national who has been credited with catapulting his home nation’s National University (‘NUS’) into the global educational elite; meanwhile, despite KAUST’s location on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, KSA nationals are placed only third in terms of overall enrolment, being numerically eclipsed by those students bearing passports from China and Mexico. Evidently, it will take much more than exemplary facilities and good intentions to stop the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology from becoming an international institution which does little to assist Saudi Arabia’s potentially troubled transition from oil exporter to knowledge creator.