Few anticipated the turnout at this year’s Misk Global Forum (MGF) in Riyadh. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pulled its sponsorship, the agenda and list of speakers remained a mystery until hours before the event began. The Kingdom, having recently fallen out of favour with several western powers, led many to believe the third MGF would be a feeble or chaotic event, an echo of the Future Investment Initiative held last month in the capital.
But during the inaugural panel session, there was barely room to stand, let alone sit in the ballroom of the Four Seasons hotel with some 4000 believed to be in attendance from 85 countries.
The event was not anchored by a specific speaker or celebrity. While boxer Amir Khan and football legend Ronaldhino both made an appearance on the first day, their presence was not advertised prior and so turnout was seemingly pushed by the desire to participate and learn.
According to Misk, more than 80 per cent of participants were aged under 35, a demographic that makes up more than 70 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population. As documented in the Global Youth Index report launched at MGF, there is a marked generational shift in expectations, attitudes and priorities among the youth, something that we also noticed throughout the event.
Questions on Education
In the opening panel discussion, Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi, Saudi Arabia’s minister of labour and social development identified the importance of education and entrepreneurship to drive down unemployment and empower the youth in line with Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s economic plan.
At least three questions from audience members focused on education and what the government was doing to ensure students gained the right skills after graduation.
“We are working now to reskill the graduates…some of them have graduated from subjects not required by the labour market, we’re trying to reskill their abilities to go into certain jobs,” said Al-Rajhi.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) government has put together a ministerial committee comprising the economic planning, commerce and investment, education, civil service and labour and social development ministries to ensure that every youth in Saudi Arabia has a clear plan of where to work after graduation.
The need to reskill and upskill was frequently alluded to throughout the conference and the minister of education, Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Issa, informed the audience that his ministry is reviewing every aspect of the school curricula as well as the specialisation needs of higher education in a bid to match them to the needs of the labour market. Much of this has focused on technology skills.
So far some 300,000 students have learned how to code in Saudi, with one million expected to learn this year, while 11 out of 30 universities in the country now offer specialisations in cyber security, data science and artificial intelligence (AI).
Wamda hosted a majlis session at MGF, with four discussions centred on the future of work. Attended by students, graduates, entrepreneurs and professionals, discussions on the impact of automation and AI, changing models of work and the skills required in the future were questioned and analysed.
The interactive nature of the majlis demonstrated the hunger for self-development, few were afraid to speak up about their experiences and expectations and hopes. Many expressed the importance and need for the government to provide and promote incentives and training programmes to create experiences for the youth.
One of the biggest sentiments from participants was the need for a cultural shift, changing mindsets to understand and encourage entrepreneurship as a viable career path alongside engineering, medicine and law – fields traditionally seen as routes to success.
We noticed an eagerness to learn and to be heard during the majlis sessions, particularly among some of the young women. Despite the hope, there was a stark sense of realism among participants.
As one young engineering graduate explained:
“To achieve Vision 2030 we should build a reliable base to make this jump without breaking down. It should be well calculated and not just about technology. There is a cultural and social factor that should be taken into consideration.”
The past few years have brought about significant changes to the status of women in Saudi Arabia, but cultural and societal attitudes have yet to develop with the same velocity. While women have the right to now drive, few have taken up the driver’s seat. The anticipated rush to emancipation is taking a more cautious path.
This issue of gender inequality was addressed on stage as an ethical issue. Eric Dawson, chief executive officer at Peace First, an organisation that helps prepare young people to lead positive social action called for the need to change the “narratives and stories about who women are”.
He also called on men to play a role in women’s empowerment.
“There are amazing projects that young men are doing to change the way that men talk about women, the way they see women,” he said.
At the Wamda Majlis sessions, we learned that more women feel comfortable to pursue entrepreneurship, particularly in e-commerce as a means to employment, while a Saudi Aramco employee noted the physical changes the oil giant has had to make to cater to the rising number of women being hired in the engineering and onsite fields, areas traditionally dominated by men.
There is certainly hope, but one tinged with a sense of realism of the country’s conservative nature.
Skills of the Future
The call for youth empowerment was complemented by discussions on sustainability, social impact, innovation and creativity. There were several workshops (all overbooked) some on coding, blockchain and others providing advice on job interviews. The overarching theme however was skills and employment.
Many of the recent graduates felt that they lacked the skills required for the future.
“What we’re finding more and more is the skills for the future are decision-making, emotional intelligence, agility,” said Shaima Hamidaddin, executive manager at MGF. “We need to prepare them [youth] otherwise there will be an imbalance.”
US-based venture capital firm 500 Startups launched an accelerator programme in partnership with Misk Innovation to bring Silicon Valley expertise to the region.
While much of Silicon Valley has lost confidence in Saudi Arabia, participants at MGF seemed unphased. There were streams of young Saudis taking selfies and pictures in front of the large picture board of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. To the youth in Saudi, he is still the pioneer and hope for change.
Politics aside, Saudi Arabia has a large millennial population with a desire to learn and empower themselves. They seem hungry to bring about change, what remains now is how much the government will equip them with the tools to do so.