Foreign skilled talent will develop Saudi Arabia’s knowledge-based economy

Sultan Althari
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Saudi Arabia – the biggest economy in the Middle East and home to the Arab Gulf’s largest population – has formalized a path to citizenship. More specifically, the path is paved for “experts and exceptional global talents with unique competences in religious, medical, scientific, cultural, sports and technological fields,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

This unprecedented policy shift marks a crucial step towards a more diversified, competitive, and knowledge-based economy.


A plethora of measures and strategies have been implemented in the name of diversification, but the magnitude of the task is now amplified as the country strikes a delicate balance between managing pandemic-induced economic challenges and executing ambitious diversification plans.

Evidently, the Kingdom is passing the test with flying colors: during the third quarter of this year, the Saudi economy grew at its fastest pace in over a decade, with GDP expanding by 6.8 percent compared to the same quarter of 2020.

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Beyond natural resources and quantitative metrics, human capital – defined as an individual’s skills, education, experience, and drive – is at the center of the value structure that makes a nation economically competitive.

It is therefore no surprise that attracting and retaining highly skilled professionals is a policy priority at both state and corporate levels. Offering citizenship to the world’s brightest minds goes beyond special visa schemes and adds a deeper, more meaningful layer to work in the Kingdom.

The policy shift imbues a visceral sense of purpose-driven ownership to highly skilled foreigners otherwise limited by time-bound visas.

As far as byproducts are concerned, a path to naturalization triggers positive spill-over in other sectors of the economy - such as tourism, entertainment, education, and even public health - deeming its relative impact far more substantive than economic estimates may suggest.

While difficult to quantify, the shift comes with significant qualitative dimensions: it gives top global talent a bigger stake in contributing to Saudi national development.

Efforts therefore transcend hollow, profit-centric considerations. On a more fundamental level, the policy shift gives highly skilled residents a new place to call home, adding an emotional connection to professional outcomes. This dimension amplifies the expression of talent and ambition to form a potent mix of skill and visceral emotional investment – one central to competitiveness in the 21st century economy.

Offering citizenship to the world’s brightest minds goes beyond special visa schemes and adds a deeper, more meaningful layer to work in the Kingdom. (File photo: AFP)
Offering citizenship to the world’s brightest minds goes beyond special visa schemes and adds a deeper, more meaningful layer to work in the Kingdom. (File photo: AFP)

The definitional value and potentiality those deemed “highly skilled” is context-dependent, and framed by economic, social, and cultural subtleties that inexorably vary by state.

Citizenship is set to be granted “through nomination based purely on public interest,” the Saudi Gazette reports. Top-down citizenship nomination ensures that citizenship is bestowed on talent with deep relevance to Riyadh’s reform-based trajectory.

In the short-term, this top-down structure comes with positive policy implications: granting citizenship to a select group of high-skilled professionals will strategically fill the crucial gap between public education and labor market demands, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

While unprecedented, the decision serves as the culmination of various growth-oriented policies aimed to attract and retain top talent and investment.

Major developments include legal reform that allows foreign investors to become chamber board members, labor reforms for foreign workers, the establishment of special economic zones, friendlier regulatory frameworks, as well as a host of initiatives to facilitate the expansion of international VCs and their portfolio companies into the Kingdom.

In addition, Saudi Arabia was among the top 10 most improved countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business report for 2020 – metrics span the ease to start a company, obtain permits, and contract enforcement.

Public awareness is inextricably tied to successful policy interventions. To ensure ease of implementation, it is imperative to relay the fact that an influx of foreign, high-skilled talent will not occur at the expense of local talent or compromise employment chances, but rather create new industries and innovation-centric opportunities beyond zero-sum considerations.

Misinformation on this end is a universal issue. Creating and sustaining an inclusive environment for new citizens necessitates supplemental interventions that ensure the general public is aware of the benefits that come with an influx of foreign talent.

Countries like the US have made it a mission to educate Americans that foreign workers fill a critical need in the country’s labor market, especially in STEM. These occupations have considerably low unemployment compared to the total national unemployment rate, pointing to a universal demand for STEM workers that exceeds supply – hence the need to attract highly skilled immigrants.

On a societal level, the influx of exceptional talent will generate fertile soil for the creation of new industries, jobs, and opportunities for economic expansion. It is imperative that this fact is successfully internalized by the Saudi public.

This major policy shift comes at a critical juncture – one in which the Kingdom is navigating the twin challenges of successfully managing pandemic-induced realities while diversifying its economy away from oil.

At the intersection of reform and talent attraction, the timely new citizenship scheme offers an additional – and pivotal– avenue of economic growth that will propel Saudi national development to unprecedented heights.

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