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The art of transformation without losing soul

From a barren land of sand and searing sun only a hundred years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been transformed into one of the most advanced and prosperous nations in the world, but with a difference: the development has not taken place at the cost of its soul, faith and traditions.

Manpower development through education has been the cornerstone of the Saudi state policy from the time of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the Kingdom. From nominal literacy a century ago, Saudi Arabi today is almost totally literate. Almost all school age children, including girls, are going to school and the country boasts of some of the finest universities in the Arab world. Years of persistence has led to a growing stream of qualified cadres of young Saudis who are taking to the forefront of national development in both public and and flourishing private sectors.

Allocation to the education sector throughout the years of infrastructure building has been generous at over 20 percent annually, which is significant compared to the global average of 5.8 percent estimated by the World Bank.

While the population growth rate is at 3.8 percent, 50 percent of the 20 million Saudis are younger than the age of 16, while 77.6 percent of them are below 30. Women, who make up half of the adult population have begun to take up jobs in hospitals, schools and ladies banks. But the effective Saudi labor force remains the 3.25 million Saudi males who are above the age of 16.

According to the Saudi Manpower Council, 2.5 million jobs in the country are filled by Saudis while there are 4.7 million jobs still with expatriates. The government's decision to integrate the growing numbers of young Saudis in the country's economy has picked up pace in recent years. Since October 1999, all firms in the country are required to report a minimum of 10 percent Saudization.

The turnout of specialists by Saudi universities and colleges is quickly being mopped up by the public and private sectors, in particular Saudi Aramco which absorbs most of the graduates from the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM).

‘I don’t understand all this fuss about not finding jobs,’ said Mattoq Abdul Ghani, a 70-year old resident of Makkah. ‘In my days, we did not have these millions of expatriate workers. We used to work till we dropped.’ 

King Abdul Aziz had laid the foundation for the spread of education and it was up to Prince Fahad to build on his success. Under his guidance, within four years, the budget of the Ministry of Education grew sevenfold from SR12.8 million to SR88.7 million. Today, King Fahad is hailed as the father of modem education in Saudi Arabia. In the annual budget for the fiscal year 1419-1420H (1999), the allocation to the education sector was SR42.9 billion. In comparison, allocation to the other sectors were: SR4.8 billion for Subsidies, Infrastructure and Social Programs; SR8.5 billion for Industry and Electricity; SR5.2 billion for Transportation and Communication; SR6.6 billion for Municipality Services and Water Authorities; and SR18.7 billion for Health Services and Social Development.

Challenge of globalization
Saudi Arabia has the largest stock exchange in the Middle East with capitalization of about $60 billion, which is a key indicator of the momentum of the privatization drive. With a promising stock market, a stable riyal, the impetus of privatization and healthy overall bank performances, there is wide consensus that economic stability in the Kingdom has been carefully nurtured by prudent government planning. 

The development of the country’s industrial base is the thrust of the gas exploration program. The course has been charted and as business and industry dig in for the long haul, a sharp increase in the demand for qualified Saudi manpower over the next decade is expected. Demand currently far exceeds the supply of Saudi graduates from the Kingdom’s five universities, but steps have already been taken to correct the situation.

When it come to computer hardware, Saudis make up a bigger market segment than expatriates, according to Anas Iqbal Alvi, who deals with software and office machines at Jarir Bookstore, Jeddah. ‘Unlike most expatriates, they are well aware of what’s in the computer magazines and are frequently on the lookout for upgrades,’ he pointed out. True, the new generation of educated Saudis are more prone to being smitten by computerization, but then cyberspace is where the future is anyway, especially for those seeking higher education opportunities to qualify for better jobs.

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