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Public Protests over Unemployment in Saudi Arabia

Teachers take to the streets over jobs in a rare show of defiance.

Two hundred Saudi teachers staged a rare protest in the Saudi capital of Riyadh over the weekend, calling on the government to give them jobs.

The protesters, mainly Arabic language teachers trained for two years in community colleges, called on the Ministry of Education to provide them with work, some claiming they have been unemployed for over a decade.

Police were called to quell the protests after demonstrators forced their way into the Ministry of Education’s compound and demanded a meeting with Education Minister Faisal Bin Abdullah.

The demonstrators left empty handed after a 13-hour standoff.

“Protests are rare, and when they do happen it’s never 200 people,” Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi teacher, told The Media Line. “It’s very strange that so many people would agree to do this.”

“They’re not being very political so I don’t think it’s a big risk,” she said. “It’s just not something we culturally do. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you want to change something.”

Undersecretary for School Affairs in the Ministry of Education, Dr. Saad Bin Saud Aal Fuhaid, told the Saudi daily Okaz that public protest was not the way to solve technical problems. The ministry, he claimed, does not decide who gets a job, just how many teachers it needs.

The Department of Civil Service, which divvies out cushy jobs to Saudi citizens, claims that the education ministry only has 657 jobs for the 6,000 student teachers that graduated this year with a teaching degree.

Al Nafjan said women are disproportionately affected by the high levels of unemployment in Saudi Arabia’s education sector.

“It’s even worse for women because a lot of women go into education so we have a lot of unemployed women,” she said. “The market is saturated and can only take so many teachers.”

Dr. Fawzia Al-Bakr, an education professor at King Saud University, agreed.

“Unemployment, especially among women, is very high,” she told The Media Line. “There are hundred of thousands of women with university degrees without jobs. It’s a big problem and it’s just accumulating more and more.”

Teachers accuse the Department of Civil Service of encouraging teachers to take adult education courses while working temporary jobs, then later saying such courses would not be considered in the selection process for jobs.

“The ministry announced that they are not responsible for hiring them after promising them jobs in previous years,” said Dr. Al-Bakr. “Now there are thousands of graduates without jobs and there are just no jobs.”

Al Nafjan said that given the levels of unemployment, the allure of being a teacher is slowly dying out.

“It used to be that being a teacher was the best job you could have because of the hours and the long summer vacation,” Al Nafjan said. “But slowly, beginning in the 1990s, people started to think twice about going into education. It takes longer to get employed and when you do get a job it’s often far away.”

With a population of some 27 million, Saudi Arabia has a fast-growing native population of some 18 million. Creating jobs for them is a major challenge for the kingdom’s leadership. While officially the unemployment rate is just over 10 percent, some Saudi economists claim the rate is closer to 20 percent.

Economists estimate that 4 in 10 unemployed Saudi citizens have university degrees, and many end up working in low-paying, unrelated positions.

The social benefits available to Saudi citizens are considerably lower than those offered to citizens in neighboring Gulf countries, each of which have proportionally smaller native populations.

Protest organizers say they plan to launch a much larger demonstration after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.