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Young Saudis can't live on oil alone
Publication Date : 22-06-2012
From a distance, it might appear a fortress of stability but Saudi society bears some eerie similarities to other countries in the region wrestling with unstoppable forces of change.
There's a burgeoning youth population with high rates of unemployment - 40 per cent among those aged 20 to 24 years. Its citizens are also more educated and plugged into the Web. There are 10 million Internet users in Saudi Arabia, which ranks second to Egypt in Facebook users, who are not immune to the zeal driving the uprisings against autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, with Syria next in line.
As in other places, the kingdom is also facing tensions among the rulers, conservative clerics and activists. "The underlying factors for instability are growing more evident," notes a Brookings Institute report.
The profile of the population - 60 per cent are aged below 20 - contrasts sharply with the elderly royals who want to keep reforms moving in a slo-mo fashion. King Abdullah is 88 and in poor health, while the recently appointed heir to the throne, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, is 76.
The cautious economic and social reforms expected under the Crown Prince might suit those who favour the status quo, in particular the nation's links with Western states and its moderate oil pricing stance. But to secure its future, the kingdom, on which other countries have grown to depend for its oil and stabilising policies, should keep reforms moving at a brisk and manageable pace.
Encouragingly, religious control over education is being curtailed and women now have an opportunity to study abroad on scholarships (while accompanied by a male relative). A ban on young men frequenting shopping malls has been removed but women are still banned from driving. To keep the young calm and buy time, the monarchy is dispensing handouts which, together with better welfare services and job creation schemes, can stack up to hundreds of billions of dollars, enough to strain even the world's largest oil exporter.
A more sustainable approach might be to focus on skills training for the private sector where 90 per cent of all workers are foreigners. With nearly 80 per cent of the nation's revenues coming from oil, the economy badly needs diversification to offer more opportunities to its young urban populace.
The process of picking a new crown prince involves secret votes cast by the sons and grandsons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. With the grandsons in the majority, the hope is that a new generation of leaders will emerge to spearhead change and forge a consensus among the young, the religious establishment and conservative sections of its society. Given Saudi Arabia's significance as a source of oil and regional influence, this matters to many beyond the country.