Saudi Arabia has delayed the publication of highly sensitive unemployment data for the fourth time, raising questions about Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's modernisation plan which pledged to create more jobs for millions of unemployed young people.
The Kingdom's labour market report for the third quarter of 2020 was meant to be published in late December, but was rescheduled several times before officials simply removed the release date from the Saudi Statistics Authority website. The authority is said to need more time "due to the importance of the target period."
The delay was necessary to ensure that data collected from 33,000 households during a period of pandemic restrictions meets the authority's standards, it explained. "The pandemic has had an impact on the economy that affected the Saudi labour market in terms of stability, job losses and job availability. The review of the data and its validity is extended in order to carry out a thorough analysis."
This has raised questions over the direction in which the Crown Prince is taking the Kingdom. Creating enough jobs for the young population is one of the biggest challenges facing Bin Salman as he tries to diversify the economy of the world's largest crude oil exporter. He aims to reduce unemployment among citizens to 7 per cent by 2030.
As part of his plan to get Saudis into work, Riyadh introduced a number of measures, including restricting jobs to Saudis only and increasing taxes on expatriate workers, which forced many thousands to leave the Kingdom. These policies appear to have had little success.
Indeed, Bin Salman is a long way away from achieving the target. Unemployment hit a record high of 15.4 per cent in the second quarter last year, when the pandemic and lower oil prices struck businesses. It is one of a number of key indicators showing that Saudi economic reforms, launched more than three years ago, are still having little success in creating jobs or developing non-oil-related industries.
More than 50 per cent of jobless Saudis are graduates. This suggests that there is a high demand for professional jobs amongst the country's young people.
A report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has concluded that the unemployment crisis in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the potential to trigger another wave of instability if it isn't addressed. In eight MENA countries, including Saudi Arabia, youth unemployment is more than 30 per cent.