Driving Change in Saudi Arabia

How allowing women to drive is one step in training a nation’s entire workforce.

Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow women to drive is seen—with good reason—as a victory for women’s rights. But experts inside and outside the country view it as something else: a job training program with millions of participants.

The country, the second largest in the Arab world, is trying to modernize fast. Led by its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom is selling off a big stake in its state oil company, making big investments in alternative energy sources, and even attempting to build a megacity in the middle of the desert from scratch. But the kingdom’s biggest challenge may be its least visible: training the nation’s 33 million citizens for work in the 21st century. “It’s a big task, but they are making it happen,” says Patricia Martin Echeverria, leader of Korn Ferry’s Assessment and Succession practice in the Middle East.

There is a raw determination among the country’s highest leadership to make sure that Saudis learn the skills they need, even if it means throwing them in at the deep end. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for many positions to get filled by expats who had the required skills. But that meant the locals didn’t get business experience. “Now the idea is that they are going to be forced to learn,” says Echeverria.

The country is embracing the learning-by-doing technique, in part by requiring certain positions to be filled with Saudi nationals or by linking the number of expats that can be hired to the size of the company. Echeverria gives the example of a head of department position, which by law must be filled by a Saudi, but who in turn might hire an advisor to help them learn in the role. “Over time, they will have to learn,” she says, even if that means that at first some of them stumble.

This rapidly changing environment has brought with it controversy and exposed some structural problems. For years, many people didn’t necessarily have to work while oil prices were high and the kingdom was awash in petrodollars. Now that fossil fuels are slowly being phased out; things have changed. At the same time, the nation’s education system hasn’t always kept up with what businesses need from their employees. Experts say there is an urgent need to get the workforce skilled up.

The average Saudi is less than 28 years old, according to the CIA World Factbook, and the birth rate is approximately 50% higher than it is in the United States. There will be less time for people to grow into jobs under the supervision of more experienced professionals. On the flipside, those young workers represent an untapped workforce, and many of them are women. In its Vision 2030 economic plan, the kingdom wants to increase female participation in the workforce to 30% from the current 22%. Allowing women to drive may increase the number of available workers solely by ensuring that those workers are allowed to get to a job on their own.

“Modernization has to happen, because it is the country’s vision and it is a bigger purpose, meaning it’s about the future prosperity of the kingdom,” Echeverria says.