Unemployment and gender in Saudi Arabia



Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Published — Sunday 12 May 2013

Last update 12 May 2013 7:43 am

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The Central Department of Statistics and Information (CDSI) of Saudi Arabia has just published quarterly unemployment indicators for 2012. There is some good news as well as bad in the new figures.
The indicators trace movement of unemployment rates during 2012, quarter by quarter. As expected in a segmented labor market, unemployment rates in Saudi Arabia are drastically different between Saudis and non-Saudis, as well as between men and women.
It is especially surprising that unemployment rates changed during 2012 in markedly different directions between the four groups (Saudi men and women; non-Saudi men and women). While unemployment rates for Saudi men moved slightly downwards between the first and fourth quarters, they declined dramatically for non-Saudi men and non-Saudi women. However, for Saudi women, unemployment rates continued their upward climb from previous years.
Let us look more closely at the unemployment rates for each of the four groups.
For Saudi men, unemployment declined from (6.9) percent in the first quarter of 2012 to (6) percent in the fourth quarter, or a (13) percent decline, thus reversing a decade-long trend of rising unemployment among Saudi males.
For non-Saudi men and women, unemployment also declined at a much brisker rate during 2012. In the first quarter, the unemployment rate for men stood at (0.4) percent, dropping to almost zero (0.07 percent) in the fourth quarter, or a (83) percent decline. In other words, unemployment among non-Saudi males declined six times as fast as among Saudi males.
For non-Saudi women, there was also a sharp decline in the unemployment rate from (0.9) percent in the first quarter to (0.2) percent, or (80) percent decline.
The only losers among the four groups were Saudi women. Their unemployment rate was already extremely high in the first quarter (34 percent), but it went up to nearly (36) percent in the fourth quarter, increasing by nearly five percent in that interval.
Unemployment among Saudi women has been on the rise for some time. In 1999, their rate of unemployment stood at (16) percent. It has since steadily climbed to reach (36) percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.
In other countries, such high rates of unemployment are associated with economic decline or deep recessions, but as the economy grows unemployment rates usually decline for all social groups, regardless of gender or national origin, even when there are differentials in their unemployment rates.
However, that is not the case in Saudi Arabia, where the economy has been booming and new jobs are created daily, but unemployment rates keep rising as well. In 1999, when unemployment for Saudi women was at (16) percent, gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at only (143) billion dollars. However, by 2012, GDP had risen by (410) percent, to (727) billion dollars. Yet, despite this five-fold increase in GDP over that period, unemployment for women more than doubled, reaching (36) percent in 2012.
The rate of unemployment published by CDSI is calculated by applying a strict definition. It takes into account only those unemployed women who have been seriously searching for work during the month preceding the survey. It thus does not include in the rate those women who are not looking for work for whatever reason, such as full-time housewives or retirees.
Nor do CDSI unemployment figures for women include those who are not searching for employment because they are too discouraged, have lost hope that they would find suitable employment, or do not have the means to “seriously” or properly search for employment. Accordingly, unemployment figures do not include women who are merely waiting for a civil-service job to be advertised, despite the fact that those women are interested in finding work outside the house.
CDSI figures reveal that the total number of Saudi women working outside the house increased during 2012, but only slightly. In 2011, there were (604) thousand women employed, increasing during 2012 by (43) thousand to reach (647) thousand in the last quarter of 2012.
The number of employed Saudi women has risen by (300) thousand since 1999, when the number of employed women was only (347) thousand. However, the number of Saudi women employed now (647,000) represents only ten percent of Saudi women in working age.
This low rate of employment for Saudi women is quite low by international standards, where the rate of employment for women reaches an average of (57) percent in industrialized countries.
Saudi Arabia has made great advances in educating women, but that has not enabled them to find gainful employment outside the house. In one generation, Saudi women went from having one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, to having one of the highest rates of university education. There are in fact more women university students than men in Saudi Arabia. However these significant achievements in educating women have not translated into significant employment opportunities. According to CDSI figures, nearly (80) of unemployed Saudi women hold university degrees.

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