Six years after graduating as an Arabic teacher in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, Naif al-Tamimi is still waiting for the government job he was promised as a freshman.
Splitting his day between teaching part-time at a private school and driving a taxi, he could not support his family. So he sent his wife and newborn son back to live with her family, 500km from Riyadh, and moved into a shared flat.
“When I see how rich the country is and how poor I am, I feel frustrated that I cannot live with my family,” Mr Tamimi told the Financial Times. “The government said they wanted Arabic teachers. Now they only hire maths and science teachers. It is not my problem they have changed policies.”
Disillusioned by the wait for a job he feels entitled to, he has led a group of 250 other unemployed would-be teachers in infrequent protests before the education ministry in the past couple of months. Protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia but so far they have dispersed peacefully.
Mr Tamimi feels the risk is worth it. If the ministry finds him the job he believes he was promised at a government school, he says the salary will be four times that of a private school and will include the benefits of lifetime tenure and other perks.
Mr Tamimi’s grievances – and his expectations – highlight the challenges facing the Saudi government. As the country’s coffers swell with oil revenues, ordinary Saudis expect immediate benefits.
Years of the welfare state and comfortable government jobs during the first oil boom in the 1970s have contributed to this strong sense of entitlement.
In November last year, weeks before the surge of protests in the region, Prince Naif, the minister of interior, cited unemployment as a national security priority, regarding youths as easy prey for militant groups.
Most Saudis that have been recently arrested for connections with the al-Qaeda terror group are in their early 20s or 30s. With two-thirds of the kingdom’s population aged under 30, there are thousands of young Saudis entering the job market each year, swelling unemployment numbers.
Western and Saudi analysts rule out the eruption of mass protests similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia in the short term, yet they warn that the long term is harder to predict.
“State healthcare is failing and education is failing,” said Mohamed Fahd al-Qahtani, an economist and a democracy activist. “There has to be immediate real political reform to delegate power and responsibility, otherwise people will blame the royal family for everything.”
Initiatives to quell unemployment extend back decades, with the most recent five-year plan in 2005 aiming to cut jobless rates to less than 3 per cent by 2009, according to a recent report by Banq Saudi Fransi. Yet unemployment remained at 9-12 per cent throughout the period, reaching 10.5 per cent at the end of 2009, according to the report.
Without big changes, the report forecasts unemployment creeping up to 10.9 per cent by 2012. More alarming, the rate among Saudis aged 20-24 is estimated at 39 per cent.
Government strategies to curb unemployment focus on building universities and creating educational opportunities for Saudis, while tightening restrictions on foreign workers to encourage them to leave and be replaced by Saudi workers.
So far, billions of dollars have been invested in numerous schools, universities and foreign scholarships but the investments have yet to bear fruit.
Employers, particularly small businesses, say there are many advantages to hiring foreign workers. They tend to command a fraction of the wage a comparable Saudi employee would demand on a per-productive-hour basis, they are relatively easy to dismiss to their home countries and cannot switch jobs easily to demand a higher salary, unlike Saudis.
“Why would I pay for the government’s failed education system?” asked one Saudi business owner. “If the government wants me to hire Saudis, then they better train them, not to ask me to put up with them. I am investing to make money, not to fix the government’s bad policies.’’
Get alerts on Middle Eastern politics & society when a new story is published