The relationship between Saudi youth empowerment and national development

With over 70 percent of the Saudi population under the age of 30, the future of national development in the Kingdom hinges on empowering its youthful majority.

In a region rife with instability and chaos, Saudi Arabia has remained an example of stability, engaging in gradual reforms by trading ultraconservative interpretations of Islam for a more inclusive, progressive outlook. In the years following the Arab Spring, the Middle East’s political centre of gravity has shifted from antiquated authoritarianism to the power of youth and the ideas of liberty and individual autonomy. With over 70 percent of the Saudi population under age 30, the influence of youth is particularly pertinent to assessing the future of Saudi Arabia.

The austere reality with which Saudi youth have grappled is changing quite drastically. Recent populist strategies—such as the crackdown on corruption and investments in the entertainment sector—elucidate the fact that Saudi leadership is now focused on fostering creativity, dynamism and youthful innovation, departing from debilitating entitlement, stagnation and corruption. This shift in policy represents a profound and unprecedented change spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. As a young Saudi myself, I dedicated my senior thesis to analysing the correlation between Saudi youth empowerment and national development. To that end, I surveyed more than one thousand Saudis (N= 1013; 609 male= 60.12%, 404 female= 39.88%) regarding societal transformation and the ongoing generational shift in the Kingdom.

My findings indicate that 82 percent of Saudi citizens believe youth empowerment is crucial to sustainable development in the Kingdom, while 9 percent believe that youth empowerment is crucial yet neglected (See Figure 1).

In addition, the overwhelming majority of Saudis—84 percent—believe that Saudi youth empowerment positively impacts national development across all sectors, while merely 13.5 percent of respondents believe that Saudi youth empowerment positively impacts national development only in specific sectors. This finding indicates Saudis’ great faith in youth empowerment across all age groups, and suggests that policies empowering youth will garner widespread support by the Saudi public (See figure 2).

Although an increase in Saudi youth representation is positive, it is imperative that policies effectively address the issue of Saudi youth inclusion. My survey data highlights the importance of youth inclusion: Saudis primarily define youth empowerment as a collaborative effort between officials and youth to positively transform and modernise Saudi youth disposition.  The collaborative element of this definition is crucial in understanding its popularity among respondents. Others, however, define youth empowerment as active participation by Saudi youth in substantive policy-making.  Of note, these definitions entail a degree of collaboration and participation on behalf of youth in the process of empowerment. This finding indicates the need to include Saudi youth in national decision-making processes, especially decisions concerning youth in the Kingdom. Top-down reform thus must be coupled with bottom up involvement by Saudi youth in reforms that impact their presence and influence in society. Insulated reform and policy implementation, on the other hand, may prove ineffective in generating intended objectives if Saudi youth sense a lack of collaboration or participation vis-à-vis policymakers.

Insulated reform and policy implementation, on the other hand, may prove ineffective in generating intended objectives if Saudi youth sense a lack of collaboration or participation vis-à-vis policymakers.

The Kingdom is currently faced with a plethora of internal and external challenges ranging from the goal of counterbalancing Iranian meddling in the region to an economic transition away from an oil-dependent economy.  As such, Mohammad bin Salman faces the challenge of reforming a state beset by an economy heavily reliant on declining oil reserves and a hyper-conservative religious establishment stifling positive social change. While radical Islamists have been tamed through ideological reform and counter-terrorism initiatives, citizens continue to struggle to adapt to austerity measures meant to transform a Saudi sclerotic economy. Despite these challenges, Saudis express great faith the country’s reform-based trajectory. Survey data reflects this reality—respondents were asked if they agree that Saudi society is changing for the better, and the findings are quite intriguing. Over 94 percent of respondents agree that Saudi society is changing for the better, with approximately 24 percent of the same group agreeing only “to a certain extent” (See Figure 3).

When assessing challenges and opportunities presented to Saudi youth, 70.6 percent of respondents believe that Saudi youth face more challenges than opportunities, albeit to varying degrees, in which approximately 27 percent of this cohort believe that Saudi youth have “slightly” more challenges than opportunities. Additionally, only 16 percent of Saudis believe that Saudi youth have more opportunities than challenges. This finding suggests that policy makers in the Kingdom are faced with the pressing need to address numerous challenges faced by youth in the Kingdom through effective socio-economic reforms and youth empowerment initiatives (See Figure 4). Interestingly, there appears to be a statistically significant variance (P =0.00) in how age impacts the perception of challenges and opportunities faced by Saudi youth. The chasm between the reality Saudi youth face and how the oldest age group (45+) perceives their reality is especially concerning. Over 36 percent of respondents in the oldest age group believe that Saudi youth have more opportunities than challenges, compared to merely 9 percent of respondents in the youngest age group (18-24). Therefore, this disconnect affirms the importance of appointing young ministers and policymakers who can relate to the reality faced by young Saudis, thereby ameliorating the evident disconnect between older officials and an overwhelmingly youthful populace.

A potent amalgamation of factors not only makes this generation of Saudi youth unique, but also creates new challenges and aspirations that policymakers must address.

A potent amalgamation of factors not only makes this generation of Saudi youth unique, but also creates new challenges and aspirations that policymakers must address. New socioeconomic realities have created a seismic shift in Saudi public opinion, such that youth are yearning for an active role in national decision making, while challenging outdated norms and traditions. Evidently, young Saudis are aware that this generation is sui generis—they embrace the rapid pace of societal transformation as an opportunity to rise above past alienation and repression.

Sultan Althari

Sultan Althari

Sultan Althari is a Master’s Candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). He recently graduated cum laude from Boston College with a BA in Political Science and a concentration in Islamic Civilization and Societies (ICS).  His research interests include Saudi public policy, political philosophy and the socio-economic development of the Middle East.  

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