GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Reevaluating the Saudi Social Contract: The Perspective of Saudi Male Graduates
Paper Proposal Text :
Abstract: Until summer 2014, it was a given for King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) graduates to receive four to five good job offers either in the public or private sectors from companies such as Saudi Aramco, Haliburton and Schlumberger. As Saudi Arabia’s ‘best and brightest’ in the fields of petrochemicals, engineering and commerce, these young men are selected, educated and groomed to take their place as leaders within their respective fields, and by extension contribute to the creation of a twenty-first century knowledge-based Saudi economy and society. However, since the drop in the oil price, significant economic transformations and realities have impacted dramatically on the Saudi labour market. For example, in summer 2015, KFUPM graduates received at best two to three job offers and by January 2016 graduates were lucky to receive one. Indeed, one astute student points out that if KFUPM is affected, then the employment prospects for other young Saudi male graduates further down the academic scale are likely to be much worse.
Therefore, given the fact that approximately two-thirds of the Kingdom’s population is under age 30, with many young male Saudis struggling to enter the domestic labour market, it is imperative to examine societal attitudes towards the changing role of economic structures and policies in shaping citizen-state relations; that is evaluate the ways in which the existing Saudi ‘social contract’ is evolving in light of recent economic realities. As Hertog (2005) notes, each economic crisis in Saudi Arabia creates pressure for ‘radical’ reform and/or a redefinition of the Saudi ‘distributional’ system or ‘social contract’, i.e. the implicit or explicit bargain between citizens and the state. However, the term ‘social contract’ is often criticized as being euro-centric—as well as not having the same meaning when translated to Arabic—and thus, does not explain adequately the relationship between the governing and governed in the Kingdom. In addition, in the Saudi context, the English language term often has negative connotations in Western literature as it suggests co-optation of societal constituencies by the Saudi government. Hence, in the Saudi context the idea of a social contract is best understood as mutual benefits between authorities and citizens whereby a citizen will pledge his loyalty if the government provides, for example, a job for life. Nonetheless, how do young male Saudis interpret this ‘mutual bond’ between the government and citizens? Indeed, is this a concept that they recognize and if so, to what extent do they believe that a Saudi social contract is a description of reality? Furthermore, if young male Saudis recognize that a social contract exists between the governing and governed, then does their interpretation match that of the authorities? In other words, how do the authorities perceive citizens and vice-versa? Because if a ‘mismatch’ exists then this would require a revision of the role of the state in the economy or in fact, a shift in the government’s economic relationship with society. Indeed, quite clearly, a social contract does not simply entail socio-economic factors, but also includes non-economic elements such as socio-political participation and/or inclusion in decision-making processes. Naturally, this has immediate relevance to an individual’s perception of his role in society, his place in the labour market as well as his willingness and desire to contribute to national development. Hence, a comprehension of how young male Saudis perceive the changing nature of the social contract is not only pertinent in the Saudi national context (or indeed multiple Saudi domestic contexts), but also has wider GCC relevance in light of oil-market developments, economic policy and/or diversification plans as well as their impact on socio-economic and socio-political transformations. With this in mind, the paper is informed by a number questions including:

• To what extent are Saudi male graduates aware of a ‘social contact’ and if so, what does this mean to them?
• To what extent are the ‘traditional’ ways in which the Saudi government seeks to legitimize its rule and create bonds with citizens changing due to current socio-economic conditions?
• To what extent have channels of communication through which citizens negotiate their ‘social contracts’ with the government changed? For example, in the past, demands for ‘radical’ reform came from the educated elite, but to what extent has widespread access social media in Saudi society changed the nature of reform demands?
• To what extent are there different implicit contracts with different Saudi constituencies? If this is the case, who benefits and who loses in the current socio-economic climate?
• To what extent does the Saudi government need to draw on non-economic elements of the social contract—or contracts—in order to increase citizen participation and consultation, but within acceptable limits?
• To what extent do young male Saudis feel that is the government’s responsibility to provide them with employment and welfare benefits such as housing loans?
• To what extent do Saudi male graduates expect a ‘job for life’ (particularly in the public sector)?
• To what extent do young male Saudis feel that it is their responsibility to contribute to national development?
• What are the ramifications, for both parties, when due to the low oil price the social contract becomes destabilized or fails?

This paper is part of an ongoing research project looking at Saudi socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural issues from the perspective of young Saudi men aged approximately 19–25. It discusses the impact of issues related to rapid societal transformation in the Kingdom and the challenges that many of these issues pose to young Saudi men. The paper is based on primary research including, interviews, focus group discussions, online surveys and student reports conducted with approximately 500 undergraduate KFUPM students and their extended networks.