Under new vision, talent becomes a shared responsibility

Saudi Vision 2030, the government roadmap for economic diversification and social development, envisages a strong qualitative improvement of the higher education scholarship programmes already in place in Saudi Arabia, aiming to align skills and capabilities with Saudi labour market priorities in strategic sectors.

In particular, the National Transformation Program Delivery Plan – one of the 11 Vision 2030 Realisation Programs (VRPs), designed to translate the goals of the vision into actions and supported by delivery plans guided by pre-defined objectives and key performance indicators tied to milestones which currently cover 2021-25 – points to the overall strategic role that a highly qualified Saudi workforce will play in diversification of the economy.

Training programmes and scholarships are designed to raise digital awareness, spread digital knowledge and build human capital to drive digital transformation.

The Human Capability Development Program (HCDP), another VRP, emphasises the need to boost entrepreneurship skills and thereby enhance the employability of Saudi youth.

In today’s rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, and with the rise of geo-economics and the rethinking of the global cyber order, Saudi Arabia wants to operate and compete efficiently at a regional and global level and to attract foreign investments; accordingly, the country needs a highly skilled and readily employable labour force.

To this end, in March 2022 it was announced that the well-known Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program, now part of the HCDP, would adopt a new strategy and would send 70,000 students to 200 educational and training institutions worldwide by 2030.

The new strategy will include four paths, namely: the ‘pioneers path’, the ‘research and development path’, the ‘provider path’ and the ‘promising path’.

These paths will boost the Saudi research and innovation ecosystem and train scholarship recipients to meet national demand originating from the so-called giga projects (the Red Sea project, Diriyah, Qiddiya, Neom and Roshn being the most important to date) as well as expanding priority sectors like manufacturing and tourism.

Economic diversification

In order to achieve multiple and diverse goals (reduce youth unemployment, promote the employability of women, foster creativity and entrepreneurship, attract foreign investments, expand the private sector and enhance the nation’s overall competitiveness, to name the most important), scholarship programmes are no longer the concern only of the Ministry of Education.

In what appears to be a major government shift, Saudi Arabia has introduced new internal and external scholarship programmes sponsored by different actors, all dedicated to the goal of providing the best opportunities for Saudi citizens to acquire new skills (hard and soft), improve their employability and eventually help the country to achieve economic diversification.

The Neom Corporate Social Responsibility department seeks to discover and develop local talent across different disciplines through a variety of educational and training programmes. One of the latest and most innovative of these programmes is focused on the future establishment of Neom as a global leader in sustainable fashion, and offers 20 places on undergraduate and masters programmes in Italy.

No less innovatively, the Ministry of Sport has launched the Saudi Future Falcons, an unprecedented talent programme headquartered in Spain and set up to improve Saudi Arabia’s football performance on the world stage, targeting different aspects of the game, including physiotherapy and coaching, establishing a strong foundation for youth talent and, of course, inspiring mass participation in football.

Under the broad title of Tourism Trailblazers, the Ministry of Tourism has set in motion a strategy to create highly qualified national cadres for the nascent leisure tourism industry. Saudi applicants can choose from 12 Saudi-based training programmes and one overseas training programme.

Tourism and hospitality

Similarly, the newly created Ministry of Culture is playing a strategic role in the Saudi scholarship programmes landscape.

Its Cultural Scholarship Program, launched in 2019, is sponsoring hundreds of Saudi students studying at universities and higher education institutions around the world who are focusing on creative specialisations: food science and technology, theatre, music, heritage and archaeology, fashion design, filmmaking, the visual arts, architecture, culinary arts and design, among others.

The goal of the programme is to empower national talent, foster creativity and innovation and, above all, maximise the employability of young Saudis specifically in the new tourism and hospitality sectors.

Moreover, the Ministry of Culture is involved in the continuously evolving activities of the Royal Commission for AlUla, which includes a scholarship programme for young unemployed locals, now in its fourth phase.

It is designed to build up human capabilities and expertise that meet the vision and objectives of the tourism development plan for the city of AlUla. It offers 1,000 Saudi male and female students the chance to study abroad (in the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany or Italy) in a range of fields related to AlUla’s development needs, ie, tourism, hospitality, history, archaeology, agriculture, the arts, museums, environmental sciences, design, urban planning, facilities management, services and communication management.

A collective effort

In addition to what is offered by the ministries, other government and private entities in the kingdom have launched internal scholarship programmes.

For example, the Saudi Data and AI Authority has created its own academy, which is looking to train a Saudi generation that can build a national economy driven by data and artificial intelligence (AI). The General Entertainment Authority organises a range of initiatives relying on different delivery modes and types of content to qualify and train a new workforce for the vital and fast-developing entertainment sector.

While the efforts of the Saudi government to provide global educational experience through the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program remain strong and consistent, a strategic shift has become discernible recently, with operational and funding changes that have led to more diverse responsibilities being shared by a variety of entities.

As a result, new scholarship programmes perform the function of translating and implementing governmental goals and ambitions for the nation. But it is no longer simply a question of the government creating and sponsoring such programmes. Organisations across the public and private sectors, following the government’s lead, are actively involved in achieving the transformation and progress required to compete at global level.

And this kind of collective effort aimed at forging the nation’s capabilities could also turn into a potentially effective and attractive tool of public diplomacy for a country which, regardless of persistent criticism from outside, nurtures strong ambitions to fly high in the changing global geopolitical scenario.

Annalisa Pavan is professor of international policies on education at the University of Padua, Italy, where her research interests include EU and UNESCO policies on lifelong and life-wide learning, the human right to education, Saudi Arabian higher education policies, with a specific interest in Saudi government-funded scholarship programmes for studying abroad, the ongoing social and cultural changes in the kingdom and development of the Saudi leisure tourism industry. Ruwayshid Alruwaili is assistant professor of applied linguistics at Northern Border University, Saudi Arabia, and a UK associate fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His research interests include the acquisition of morphosyntactic features/heritage speakers and research methods in second language acquisition. He is an entrepreneur and consultant in quality issues at higher education institutions.