In recent years, there has been a significant over-concentration of wealth, power, and employment opportunities in the main urban centers, especially the capital Riyadh. Nonetheless, this over-concentration in the capital worries some. In fact, research conducted outside Riyadh, in particular in the northern and southern regions, documents that there can be a sense of marginalization, a feeling that it is necessary to migrate to the capital (or other urban centers such as Jeddah and the Dammam-Khobar-Dhahran conurbation) in order to find a job and ‘get on in life’.
Capital and internal migration: the over-dominance of Riyadh
Since the launch of Saudi Vision 2030 in April 2016 the importance of the capital has increased. Vision 2030 is a decidedly ‘top-down’ project that exemplifies Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to centralize all decision-making processes. Therefore, Riyadh is where everything happens, and most Saudis comprehend, especially the young and ambitious, that if an individual wants to get ahead, he or she needs to be in Riyadh. As a result, the capital’s population has ballooned to approximately seven and a quarter million. Yet, the danger is that this internal migration could create a gulf between Riyadh and the rest of the Kingdom.
Another Riyadh-related issue is the ‘brain drain’ away from other parts of Saudi Arabia to the capital, frequently to the detriment of the former. This is particularly true when considering the lure of public sector jobs, e.g. in the ministries, or positions in the Royal Diwan (court) and most especially the foreign consultancy firms that have become highly active in Saudi policymaking following the launch of Vision 2030. The capital is home to the Saudi headquarters of foreign consultancies such as McKinsey and Boston Consultancy Group (BCG) as well as local consultancy companies such as Strategic Gears. In consequence, the ‘best and the brightest’ are often drawn to these companies and institutions due to higher salaries and the ‘trendy’ connotations associated with them.
Furthermore, it also appears that traditional geographic core-periphery polarization (urban centres-provinces) is being replaced by a social core-periphery based on an economic stratification divide that drives a policy of exclusion. This could prove politically problematic if dangerous disconnects are created between the urbanized population of the capital and more marginalized populations in the provinces. Indeed, the November 2018 visit by King Salman, accompanied by Crown Prince Mohammed, to al-Qassim, Hail and Tabuk was interpreted by analysts as an attempt to shore up support across the wider Kingdom.
Regional Employment Issues
In the course conducting qualitative research across Saudi Arabia over several years, when asked to list the issues that concern them most, young nationals nearly always cite employment as the most important. In truth, employment is a key issue because it is how many individuals judge the government, particularly those who believe that it is the government’s duty to provide everyone with a job, preferably a public sector one. Many young Saudis, in particular young men and graduates, are looking for a ‘job for life’, that is a position in the public-sector (or with a major corporation) whereby the individual is guaranteed a lifelong salary plus accompanying benefits such as healthcare for both himself and his family. Thus, increasing private sector employment in line with the goal of Saudi Vision 2030 is problematic because wide swathes of young nationals from across the regions continue to show a marked preference for public sector employment.
Nonetheless, current economic concerns linked to the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices are particularly pertinent to nationals trying to enter the labour market for the first time. In fact, many are concerned that they will be unable to find employment until after 2021, as it could take companies years to recover from the after-effects of the pandemic. The danger is that the Saudi government might try to mitigate the problem by employing young nationals in public sector positions, many of them ‘phantom’ ones, but ultimately, this would only be a temporary solution to a growing crisis.
In addition, there are sociocultural issues such as the perception amongst some young Saudis that certain occupations are beneath them. This can afflict young nationals in both the main urban centers areas and regions, a problem underscored by their parents frequently expressing the same views. Yet, the root of the problem is historic. Take the al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as an example: fifty years ago, local people were involved in agriculture, farming, and handicrafts. However, following the oil boom Aramco recruiters came to the local schools and offered the young men jobs with free housing and other benefits. This resulted in a whole constituency abandoning traditional jobs in the town to go to work for Aramco. Subsequently, the same nationals hired expatriates from the Asian sub-continent to do their old jobs and this sudden transition created the current trend. Thus, the ‘some jobs are beneath us’ mentality is a relatively new phenomenon, one that education and necessity must change if the Saudi government wishes to increase employment of nationals across all sectors and regions.
Yet, there are also regional issues that exacerbate employment problems. Many who live in locations such as Asir, Aljouf, al-Qassim and Najran Province complain of a lack of local job opportunities and job creation schemes away from the main urban centers. For example, in small towns in al-Qassim Province, many young men are obliged leave al-Qassim to find work in Riyadh. According to a group of friends in al-Mithnab, the government needs to create more well-paid employment opportunities in the regions as they are discouraged form working in their hometowns because of low salaries. Local salaries are much lower than those of public-sector jobs in the capital or large state owned enterprises such as the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) or Aramco. Another example: amongst the five members of a group of friends interviewed in the small town of Layla, al-Aflaj (south of Riyadh), one was an Arabic primary school teacher in Najran; another was deputy head of a private elementary school in Narjis, Riyadh; one unemployed young man attended Prince Sattam University in al-Aflaj, then worked for a bank in Riyadh for a year and was hoping to secure a position with Jawazat (the passport and visa agency of the Ministry of Interior) in the capital. The final two remained out-of-work because they did not want to leave their hometown even though they had very little chance of finding a job. In fact, for some young men moving away from their hometowns and families is never an option. As Bosbait and Wilson observe “there is a marked preference for Saudis to work close to home” and it is unthinkable for some young men to move away from their extended families.
Unfortunately, there is a danger that a lack of jobs and rising living costs associated with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices could push young nationals to the margins of society. This must be addressed otherwise it will place enormous social strain on the existing social contract and undermine efforts to implement Saudi Vision 2030. Indeed, regional employment opportunities are critical to implementing Vision 2030 and should be of concern to the Saudi government. From my research, I found that this sense of provincial marginalization (and disregard from elites in the principal cities) can be reminiscent of the disempowerment that Donald Trump and the Brexit Leave campaigns tapped into successfully in 2016, thereby disrupting the political status quo in both states.
 Author’s focus groups.
 See: H. Fathallah, “Failure of Regional Governance in Saudi Arabia”, Carnegie Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 26 July 2018.
 See here. The other main urban centers of Jeddah and the Dammam-Khobar-Dhahran conurbation have also grown considerably.
 A. Hoogvelt, Globalization and the Postcolonial World, Second Edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 64-5.
 See, for example: Multiple focus groups conducted across Saudi Arabia, 2016–2019, for M.C. Thompson, Being Young Male and Saudi: Identity and Politics in a Globalized Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
 M.C. Thompson, “Inherent contradictions in the Saudi rentier state: distributive capacity, youth employment preferences, and attitudes to education”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 47, 2020 - Issue 1: Revisiting Rentierism: The Changing Political Economy of Resource-Dependent States in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, January 2020.
 Author’s focus group.
 Author’s focus group.
 Author’s focus group.
 Author’s focus group.
 M. Bosbait and R. Wilson, “Education, School to Work Transitions and Unemployment in Saudi Arabia”, Middle Eastern Studies, 41(4), 2005, p. 542.
 Yet, others wonder if this is really a problem as the population of the provinces is small in comparison to the main urban centres (especially Riyadh).