A longer version of this article originally appeared on Al-Fanar Media and appears here with the permission of that publication and the author.
As Saudi Arabian leaders detail their goals for the country’s future, the results of a rare survey of Saudi youth can help to inform how the country’s young philanthropic sector could bolster the government’s plans to move the country toward a knowledge economy.
During 2008 and 2009, my colleagues developed a questionnaire, ‘Bridging the Gap,’ to capture perspectives of 4,400 students and recent graduates from universities across Saudi Arabia. Results regarding gender roles, presented in the article I co-authored entitled Empowered but not Equal, offer insight into dreams, hopes and ambitions of women and men now early in their post-graduation lives.
These results can inform philanthropic endeavors. Such initiatives will largely have to come through work by domestic organizations in Saudi Arabia due to prohibitions on foreign foundations and restrictions on contact with them.
Three areas emerge for philanthropic involvement: education and training, research and enhanced visibility for role models and leaders.
Education and training
According to a survey result examined in the article, eighty-eight per cent of women and 70 per cent of men indicated a desire for further studies. Forty-eight per cent of women and 68 per cent of men desired opportunities for study abroad. These results indicate an opportunity for Saudi philanthropies to expand higher-education options.
Study abroad offers the potential to explore diverse educational and social settings, especially for Saudi women. Philanthropies could contribute to study abroad by developing additional programming or by providing scholarships. Such scholarships are available, for example, through the government’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program, but many of those opportunities have been shrinking in recent years.
Of course, such options can only benefit young people able to travel to take advantage of them. Thus, the development of overseas scholarships also needs parallel work to address the system of male guardianship and ingrained social and cultural norms limiting women’s abilities to participate in study abroad.
Philanthropies could also offer vocational education and career training. This area in particular could benefit from philanthropic investment by multinational corporations in partnership with local organizations like local chambers of commerce and industry and financial institutions. The survey examined in the FIRE article found a majority of young people expressed a desire to start their own businesses.
Results also indicated that 59 per cent of women and 51 per cent of men agreed many women waste their education by not pursuing a profession. The survey also found that 76 per cent of women and 64 per cent of men believed men receive more support than women.
The Kingdom’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development reported in 2016 that about a third of Saudi women seeking work remained unemployed. The report says that women face a lack of accommodations in private-sector workplaces, particularly since women and men are usually segregated in Saudi society, limiting employment options. The report also points to transportation availability and its costs as posing additional challenges. As in other countries, the costs and availability of childcare can prevent many women from being able to work.
But more research is needed to thoroughly understand such obstacles and strengthen existing programming, such as the work-from-home program targeting women that is part of the Saudi National Transformation Plan 2020.
Enhanced visibility of role models and leaders
Finally, a third area for philanthropic focus could be creating enhanced visibility through media coverage of women working in professions once dominated by men and for all young professionals exhibiting leadership qualities.
Tremendous opportunities exist for philanthropies working in Saudi Arabia to positively influence the lives of young women and men trying to make a transition from university to work, and to fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions.
Elizabeth R. Bruce is an independent consultant working in research and editing and has been part of a number of projects focused on Middle East education.