SAUDI ARABIA STANDS at a critical moment in its history. With oil revenues already in decline, the nation’s government unveiled an ambitious “Vision 2030” strategy earlier this year to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The strategy calls for sweeping reforms across many sectors, including new approaches to labor policy and programs. These reforms require a foundation of solid data and evidence, and the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) is working with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MLSD) to create that foundation.

On Oct. 25, EPoD hosted a research symposium titled “Evidence Based Policy Design for the Saudi Labor Market”in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in coordination with MSLD and Saudi Arabia’s Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF). MLSD has worked with EPoD since 2013 to incorporate empirical research in the design of labor market policies. The symposium was an opportunity to showcase ongoing and newly launched policy research projects funded through the engagement.

The symposium attracted more than 200 participants, including international researchers, Saudi university faculty, MLSD leadership, senior civil servants and leaders from the private and non-profit sectors. Keynote speakers at the event included EPoD co-directors and HKS professors Rema Hanna and Asim Khwaja, as well as HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf and the Minister of Labor and Social Development, Mufarrej Al Haqbani.

While countries around the world encounter obstacles in optimizing their labor markets, the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia are unique. The country has a highly educated population with near-universal literacy, yet individual investments in human capital are usually mismatched with employers’ needs. Students have little information about what jobs are available and what types of skills are desired in the workforce. The country also faces challenges in getting women into the labor force, and into fulfilling careers. Data from 2014 show that labor force participation rates for working-age women are among the lowest in the world at 16 percent, and 74 percent of employed women work in public schools. Under its Vision 2030 plan, Saudi Arabia has committed to increasing female labor force participation to 30 percent. 

Elmendorf discussed the importance of using research to address the labor market priorities laid out by the Saudi leadership, which includes creating sustainable employment opportunities, developing workers’ skills and transforming the country’s welfare system.    

“Implementation of new programs is not enough,” Elmendorf cautioned. “They are expensive and demanding, and ministries are under more pressure than ever to ensure their investment of money and effort produces results. This is where policy research adds value. High quality policy research—like the research supported by this collaboration—takes a systematic, scientific approach to designing, implementing, testing, and refining policies and programs.”

The symposium was impressive not only in the research presented, but also in the remarkably diverse group of senior leaders it brought together. Attendees shared a common interest in a rigorous, evidence-based approach to improve labor market policies and solve some of the toughest labor market challenges facing Saudi Arabia. EPoD co-director Rema Hanna was quick to remind participants of this common objective.

“My work, and the work of all our teams is guided by the fact that information—data and evidence—is critical to designing effective policies that improve lives and promote economic growth,” she said. “It is easy to lose sight of that objective, but ultimately, that is the reason we are all here.”

Symposium participants worked within groups to identify new opportunities for academic research to contribute meaningfully to the policy design process. Active engagement of the full spectrum of labor market stakeholders is critical, and the EPoD team looks forward to combining their energy and experience with the expertise of research teams and policy counterparts to achieve meaningful policy impact.

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