The new Saudi vision for self-reliance
Global oil prices reached a historic peak in May 2008 at $143.91 a barrel. By January 2009 the price had plunged to $48.37. A gradual recovery from this slump continued until June 2014, when another massive crash took the price of oil back to 2009 levels.
Faced with this uncertainty and in the knowledge that oil reserves will not last forever, one of the world’s biggest oil exporting countries is seeking to educate its population in core skills like maths and engineering in an attempt to make the country less reliant on its oil exports as well as easing its reliance on foreign labour for construction and infrastructure.
As an OPEC member, Saudi Arabia can directly influence the price of oil – as well as stabilise the market – by increasing or decreasing production. But they cannot play that game for ever as oil reserves dwindle. There is an ever more pressing need to wean the country’s economy off oil. So wise heads are looking to bolster the kingdom’s skillset by offering technical courses in subjects like engineering, household electronics and computing.
Saudis are perceived as not wanting to get their hands dirty with manual work, and a large and fluid population of foreign workers is employed to do it for them as they bask in their oil wealth. But due to oil price instability, Saudi Arabia has had to postpone some major infrastructure projects and even introduce taxation. It has now embarked on a wide-ranging economic and social reform program to broaden its industrial and small business base to employ more locals.
Many of the new courses are not intended to prepare Saudis for employment, but rather to give them the skills required to perform basic repair and maintenance on their own possessions, vehicles, and household appliances, all of which has previously been done by foreign nationals who are either legally or illegally working in the country.
For women, courses have been made available in hairdressing, beauty therapy and computer technology.
The education reforms are part of Vision 2030, a sweeping set of plans to overhaul its economy and society in coming years. Social plans include reducing domestic violence, cutting road deaths and increasing opportunities for public gathering, such as providing more city park space.
"The Vision 2030 or the other programs are intended to transform not only the economy. The intention also is to transform the society and to address the needs of the younger generation and the aspirations that they look for," Information Minister Adel al-Toraifi told reporters on Tuesday.
The new courses on offer are also designed to foster a sense of satisfaction with daily life which can lead to an improved society. If a subject can fix his own car rather than rely on a foreign labourer to do it, the thinking goes, he will be a better citizen.