By Sunil John, president – MENA, BCW and Founder of ASDA’A BCW
Saudi Arabia is driving a transformational growth story backed by investments of $3.2 trillion by 2030. As the increase in oil price contributed to exceptional growth in government revenue and a record budgetary surplus of $15.3bn in the first quarter of this year, the Kingdom also recorded another remarkable milestone: Saudi Aramco overtook Apple Inc as the world’s most valuable company with a market capitalisation of $2.43 trillion in May – a phenomenal achievement from the region.
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The economic clout of the Kingdom could not have been stronger, with the Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, building an incredible portfolio of 50 companies in 13 sectors to create more than 500,000 jobs with more than $600bn worth of assets under management.
At the heart of these inspiring successes from Saudi Arabia are its young people. An estimated 22 million people in the Kingdom, or two-thirds of its population, are below the age of 30.
Satisfying such a large constituency of ambitious young men and women is an immense responsibility. HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alluded to this fact himself when he observed: “The dreams of men in Saudi Arabia are so many. I try to compete with them and their dreams, and they compete with mine, to create a better Saudi Arabia.”
Meeting the aspirations of his fellow citizens for a “better Saudi Arabia” runs through every aspect of the Saudi Vision 2030. Workforce nationalisation, diversification away from oil and gas, modernising local infrastructure – all the programmes and pledges that make up the Kingdom’s long-development agenda have the needs of the youth at their core.
This is particularly true of giga-projects such as Neom and The Red Sea Project, which will be at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s drive to mitigate climate change and provide a sustainable future for its rapidly growing population.
And while there will always be those, particularly in the West, who will quibble about Saudi Arabia’s sustained commitment to both transform its society and reduce its climate impact, the response so far from its young people is an enthusiastic thumbs up.
According to our annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, which last year polled 3,400 young men and women aged 18 to 24 in 17 Arab states, two-thirds of Saudi youth are convinced they will lead a better life than their parents, making them more optimistic than any of their peers across MENA.
A large share of the credit for this positive outlook must be attributed to Saudi Arabia’s leadership, with a staggering nine in 10 young Saudis saying they believed their voice mattered to their government. Moreover, 96 per cent said the authorities were putting in place the right policies to address the concerns of young people. Less than half of Arab youth in our overall study expressed the same level of confidence about the performance of their government. And almost all the Saudis we spoke to (98 per cent) believed the Vision 2030 strategy would be successful in securing the Kingdom’s economic future.
They also applauded Saudi Arabia’s action on climate change and, in 50 per cent of cases, said they were even prepared to boycott a brand that damaged the environment. Three-quarters of respondents admitted to being concerned about climate change, the highest level of anxiety about global warming in the region. This illustrates the wisdom behind Saudi Arabia’s pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2060.
However, not everything looks rosy. While more than half of young Saudis agree they are being well prepared for the workplace of the future and value the quality of education they receive, most (66 per cent) still hope to secure a government job when they leave school or university, up from 41 per cent in 2019. While a quarter (23 per cent) of respondents would prefer a job in the private sector, relatively few are eager to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs or carry on the family business. Only 7 per cent said they wanted to either work for themselves or their families, down from just under a quarter who said this in 2020.
A tech-savvy generation
However, it would be wrong to interpret the preference of young Saudis for a career in the public sector as an inability to move with the times. Saudi youth are arguably the most tech-savvy in the region, not to mention some of the most enthusiastic users of social media. So much so, in fact, that nearly nine in 10 admit to finding it difficult to disconnect from their devices, a far higher proportion than in neighbouring GCC countries, North Africa and the Levant. More than half say they now shop online, while two-thirds rely on social media for news, compared with 46 per cent who said they get their news from TV, and just 9 per cent who prefer to read a newspaper.
While the findings of our annual Arab youth survey, now in its 14th year, can be interpreted in different ways, one conclusion is beyond doubt. Saudi youth, much like their peers across the MENA region, have changed for good. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this is the fact that most Saudi youth now believe that men and women have the same rights and equal opportunities to progress. Not only that, 76 per cent of young women and more than two-thirds of young men (69 per cent) believe that the greatest help women can provide their families is to pursue a career.
This is arguably the most counterintuitive finding of our annual research. Considering Saudi Arabia’s immense influence across the Arab world (80 per cent of respondents in our study said Saudi Arabia was the most influential country in MENA), it will likely have the greatest impact, both on attitudes within the region and on perceptions of