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The changing dynamics of the Middle East

In Saudi Arabia, says Wiseman, foreign residents account for a fifth of the population and form the backbone of the private sector.

Alex Wiseman and other faculty members explore the cultures and economies, and the changing dynamics, of Middle Eastern nations.

For much of the past decade, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been touting its transformation into a world-class “knowledge-based economy.”

The oil-rich nation’s complicated reality, however, undermines its optimism.

Like its neighbors across the Middle East and Northern Africa, Saud Arabia is mired in double-digit unemployment. It is also one of the most youthful nations in the world. A third of its residents are under the age of 15, and the working-age population is expected to grow by more than six million by 2020.

The problem, according to Alex Wiseman, is that nearly one-fifth of the Saudi population consists of non-nationals. This diverse population of Indians, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Filipinos and others makes up the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s private sector.

“Non-Saudis work in the private sector at a much higher rate than Saudi nationals,” says Wiseman, who is coordinator of the Comparative and International Education Program and associate professor in the College of Education.

Two economies, haves and have-nots

Wiseman is not the only Lehigh faculty member who studies the cultural, political and economic dynamics of the turbulent Middle East.

Ron Yoshida, provost emeritus and a professor in the College of Education; Joel Sutherland, managing director of the Center for Value Chain Research in the College of Business and Economics; and Ziad Munson, associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, also give viewers an inside look at the protests now spreading across the Middle East.

A collection of their videos can be found on Lehigh’s Opinions and Deliberations page, and on the university’s YouTube channel.

Wiseman has long investigated Saudi Arabia’s investment in education—and the impact education has on the labor market—as the nation seeks to join the world’s most competitive economies.

While foreign workers make up the bulk of the private sector, he says, the native Saudi population has traditionally relied on the public sector for employment.

“Rather than create a bigger and bigger bloated public sector,” says Wiseman, “[the Saudi government] is trying to figure out ways to get Saudis to move into the private sector.”

Changing the terms of employment is creating a tense environment between two populations who share little in common, says Wiseman.

“There is a very clear distinction that there is a have and have-not group, a Saudi and non-Saudi group. [The country] has a very uniquely institutionalized system of favoring nationals.”

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Monday, April 18, 2011

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