Last week the gap between the qualifications of what students graduate with and what the job market demands was highlighted by the Saudi minister of labour at the second Arab Forum on Development and Employment in the capital city of Riyadh.
Stating that “the instructions of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz are to continue and increase the development of human resources and improve the job environment,” he added that to achieve such objectives, the Saudi government had established a technical and vocational training corporation with the primary purpose of providing training to qualify nationals and develop their productive skills and increase their employment opportunities.
In the harsh realities of life, many Saudi graduates today find that the degree they hold from local educational institutions have not really prepared them with the necessary skills for the entry level requirements in the corporate world. As a result, many seek favours and influence from others to land a government job, a position synonymous with permanent employment with a very low risk of a layoff.
Speaking at the Forum, Kuwaiti Minister of Work and Social Affairs Hind Al Sebaih admitted that “most graduates seek government jobs because they are more comfortable. Such perceptions should change.” Government jobs are often seen as a fiefdom with very little accountability and are a magnet for many who lack the basic skills to perform in the more competitive private sector.
But it is not simply jobs or the lack of opportunities that faces many of the young Saudis today. The shortage of housing ranks high on the list of many concerns. A gap between what is available on the market and what many Saudis can afford has left many people frustrated. A shortage of low- and middle-income targeted housing means millions of Saudis cannot afford to buy a home. Young Saudis are especially affected since it takes years of saving before many can afford to buy a home, often a precursor to marriage.
Take the case of Mona and Saeed, a newly-wed couple who have been living with Saeed’s parents because of their failure to find suitable and affordable housing in Jeddah’s real estate sector. Their stay with the parents was meant to be temporary until they found the apartment of their choice, but it has now has been extended for over eight months because of their lack of luck.
Saeed, a bank employee tells me he cannot afford the prices landlords are charging for rents today. “They are indulging in uncontrolled price gouging and there is no way that I can afford something decent with my salary. Even if my wife is to pitch in with her income, we would barely get by after paying one bill or the other,” he complains. He adds that it is the couple’s desire to move out on their own so they could enjoy their privacy, but market prices have effectively barred their desires from bearing fruit.
Saeed’s voice is one of many who are facing a dismaying time at acquiring appropriate housing at affordable prices. Statistics on Saudis who do not own their own homes has reached as high as 70 per cent in some studies. To address the shortage, King Abdullah ordered the allocation of nearly $70 billion (Dh257 billion) back in 2011 for the purpose of building entry level homes for his people. A new housing ministry was established and tasked with implementing the king’s directive. The media at the time reported that the ministry was going to ensure the rapid addition of half a million new units for prospective buyers at affordable prices.
After nearly three years of waiting, many Saudis have become disillusioned with this ministry that promised so much but delivered so little. It was certainly not the lack of funds that was the factor. The market prices of what landlords and land owners are demanding has caused many to complain that this ministry has failed in its performance and purpose in introducing affordable housing to Saudis.
Periodic criticism in the media about their need to show results seems to have failed to penetrate the thick hide of the bureaucratic institution. A local columnist even went so far to suggest that the ministry’s bureaucratically oriented housing loan programmes had “actually created even more demand for homes, while the agency had almost completely neglected its duty to get more houses built.”
Many cannot understand why the kingdom should face such a quandary, given its large real estate. There have also been calls for the heavy taxation of large tracts of prime real estate that sit for decades within urban centres without being developed as their owners seek to maximise their returns. In Jeddah, the housing shortage is alarming and perhaps growing larger in a city whose population increases by approximately 160,000 people every year.
Along with unemployment, the rising shortage of housing must be regarded as a threat to the country’s national security and remedial actions beyond words and speeches must bear quick and concrete results, otherwise more home seekers will find themselves at the short end of the stick.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena