During my recent participation in the World Economic Forum meetings at the Dead Sea in Jordan as the co-chairwoman, I was part of an important panel on the youth imperative in the Arab World. While researching for my panel discussion, I discovered facts and statistics that served as a revelation.
On the one hand, I came across overwhelming reports and statistics describing the magnitude of the challenges facing Arab youth in terms of unemployment, work skills gap and overall future outlook.
For instance, in the next decade there is an imperative need for the Mena region to create between 80 million and 100 million jobs. The education and work skills gap continues to widen, and female integration in the workforce is one of the lowest in the world, despite the fact that more than half of university graduates are females.
The other side of the story was less foreboding. I perceived an unwavering sense of hope and commitment to action — individually and collectively — to overcome our challenges and create opportunities for Arab youth.
Global and regional reports and statistics demonstrate that Arab youth today are hugely enterprising. It is only natural then that a paradigm shift has been occurring in recent times — changing our youth from job seekers to job creators. We do not have to look too far for evidence — in the UAE for instance; SMEs represent 94 per cent of the total registered companies and contribute about 60 per cent of GDP. Most of these SMEs are run by young people. This reality is being replicated in most of the other Arab nations.
Governments are also catching up. In the last 10 years or so, about 43 start-up and technology incubators have been set up in the region, with complementing regulations being implemented gradually. The number of socially responsible yet profitable businesses is burgeoning, and they are creating job opportunities in their immediate communities and beyond.
The World Bank and International Finance Corporation have said the progress and pace of some of the reforms undertaken in the region to develop SMEs and increase their capacity to create jobs and improve their access to finance have been commendable. Arab women are also an important part of this economic dynamism, whether through creating and running their own businesses or through taking leadership roles in businesses and governments across the region.
Taking an objective view of the entire canvas, I was convinced it is not all doom and gloom for the Arab millennials. It is but a classic case of the glass half empty or half full.
Choosing to look at the half-full part of our glass is not a case of romantic naivety, but rather a conscious strategy to arm ourselves with the energy of hope to build on existing successes and create more achievements and opportunities. History teaches us that when faced with seemingly unsurmountable challenges, resilient countries arm themselves with a combination of hope, clear visions and a determination to work collaboratively to overcome their challenges.
We in the Arab region are not different. Working collaboratively across all the layers of our society will fuel this momentum with much-needed energy and stimulate our youth’s creativity and innovation.
Each one of us is responsible for the future of our region. Governments alone will not be able to create all the necessary jobs to keep up with the region’s growing population. Businesses alone cannot solve all social issues. The magic happens when parents, teachers, governments, businesses, civil society, the media, religious leaders and youth themselves work together as one cohesive unit and look in the same direction to achieve the same result.
One aspect that requires our collaborative effort is a shift in our collective mindset. We are at a turning point in our history where we need a fresh outlook, a fresh perspective to be able to resolve our challenges. The 21st century is a time of entrepreneurship. People are taking matters into their hands and are not waiting for governments to create jobs. Entrepreneurship has proven to be a successful strategy to combat unemployment and to stimulate innovation.
However, for entrepreneurship to flourish, it needs a culture that supports risk-taking, tolerates failure and encourages innovative thinking. It also requires a culture that gives youth a place at the decision-making table and takes their voices and opinions into account.
We will move forward when we adapt our mindset with the new realities, and when we align our education and policies with the aspiration of Arab millennials.
A sense of hope is only the first step of the thousand-mile journey. There is serious work that needs to be done at home, at school, in the government and in the private sector.
Arab millennials have demonstrated their willingness to contribute and to be part of the solution through their dynamism and creativity. We owe it to them to be hopeful and inspiring, and to create the right social context for them to thrive.
Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi is the chairwoman of Shurooq, the Sharjah government’s investment and development authority, and the founder and chief executive of Kalimat Publishing Group.
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