Saudi women apply for a job during a job fair in 2017. On Sunday, it was announced that the unemployment rate for citizen fell to the lowest in more than three years Image Credit: AFP

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s citizen unemployment rate fell to the lowest in more than three years as the kingdom’s non-oil economy gradually recovers from a slowdown.

Joblessness slipped to 12 per cent in the third quarter from 12.3 per cent in the previous three months, according to data published on Sunday by the official General Authority for Statistics. The quarterly data showed improvements across the board, with more Saudis working in both the public and private sectors and unemployment dropping for men and women.

But the private sector is still losing jobs on an annual basis, with 2.8 per cent fewer Saudis employed than in the same period last year and the number of foreign workers down 8.5 per cent.

Saudi Arabia’s unemployment is a key indicator watched by officials as they try to create jobs for nationals in a private sector dominated by foreign labour. Until now, improvements in employment have continued to lag a rebound in non-oil growth this year. That’s partly a reflection of persistent weaknesses in business confidence, worsened by a string of fiscal reforms such as new taxes and fees.

Joblessness among nationals has held at or above 12 per cent for the past three years, testing the patience of young Saudis entering the labour market. The private sector has continued to shed Saudi jobs even as droves of foreigners have left, pushed out by the weaker economy and official policies that encourage or require businesses to hire locals.

However, the latest data show the annual rate of job loss in the private sector is slowing, both for Saudis and foreigners.

And although Saudi female unemployment remains over 30 per cent, that’s largely a reflection of more women seeking jobs as social restrictions loosen in the conservative Islamic kingdom. Annually, the number of working Saudi women has gone up nearly 1 per cent, while female labour force participation has risen to more than 23 per cent, its highest level on record.

In addition to an improvement in the private sector, the government is also hiring. The number of Saudis employed by the public sector rose an annual 2.8 per cent.