Despite war and turmoil in MENA region hitting youth job prospects, there is hope for change

Conflict and unrest n the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are having a marked impact on youth unemployment, according to a former top UN official. (AP/File Photo)
Updated 05 July 2019
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Despite war and turmoil in MENA region hitting youth job prospects, there is hope for change

  • Christer Elfverson tells Arab News diversity in Arab world partly due to population growth and GDP
  • Unless tensions are eased, the outlook for many young Arabs remained bleak

LONDON: Wars and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are having a marked impact on youth unemployment, according to a former top UN official.
And unless tensions are eased the outlook for many young Arabs remained bleak, said international diplomatic adviser, Christer Elfverson.
His comments follow figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO), showing that one in five young people under the age of 25 in the region are jobless and have no skills, and in some countries the issue is becoming more acute.
Elfverson, who spoke at a recent event hosted by Education for Employment (EFE) in collaboration with Citi Foundation, told Arab News that the diversity in the Arab world was partly due to population growth and GDP.
But he added that turmoil and wars in the region had also affected unemployment rates, and a lack of initial education in some MENA countries was concerning for future generations.
Salvatore Nigro, EFE global VP and CEO, said that the MENA region had the highest percentage of young people, with 65 percent under the age of 25, yet unemployment rates were running at an average of 30 percent.
More than 27 million young people will come of working age in the next five years, creating even more pressure and competition in the jobs market. However, MENA countries often face very different problems.
In some mountainous regions of Morocco, for example, it is difficult and dangerous for children to undertake daily journeys, whereas Syrian or Palestinian refugees do not have the money for school transport or books.
“In some issues, it has gotten better and others it’s worse but at the same time those in the countries that have been able to find jobs then maybe the possibilities are greater now. But it is two different worlds,” said Elfverson, who is an EFE board member.
Abdesselam Aboudrar, the Moroccan ambassador to London, said that the education system in his country was currently being reformed. He added that the illiteracy rate had decreased from just over 40 percent to about 25 percent, which although “still a lot,” had been slashed over the past 10 years. “We are reforming the whole system to make it more effective and more empowering for youth,” the envoy said.
Aboudrar told Arab News that Morocco had been working with several NGOs and countries including Japan, China, Russia, Canada and EU nations to develop the maritime, industrial and textile sectors and encourage more young people to take jobs in these fields.
The ambassador said vocational training was a very important aspect in preparing young people for current and future jobs. It was also vital to simultaneously train youth in supplying water, maritime and fisheries, developing skills in the automotive, computing, agricultural and tourism industries, to curb poverty, educate women and provide young girls with access to education.
When it came to the MENA region, David Cowan, Citi Africa economist, compared Saudi Arabia with Algeria due to the oil factor.
“The level of growth and employment per dollar of government spending is one of the lowest in the world. If the Saudi government spends $10, the amount of jobs and growth that number generates is much lower than, for example, in many other countries. So that is a problem,” he said.
Cowan added that Saudi Arabia had a high level of revenue with no constraint but said: “It is how you spend that revenue wisely. Sometimes you need to spend money on lower-profile projects that may generate more employment in the long run.”
Jordan’s EFE chief executive officer, Ghadeer Khuffash, told Arab News that this quarter’s unemployment rate had increased to 19 percent. She said there was “economically active people in Jordan and there are economically inactive people.” The inactive ones were not working or looking for jobs.
“In Jordan 87 percent of females are economically inactive, which means only 14 percent of the women are contributing to the labor market. So, in our work we don’t only target unemployment or unemployed youth, but we also target those who are economically inactive.”
Not only is Jordan suffering from a high unemployment rate, but the country also has to bear the responsibility of millions of refugees or displaced persons and borders states that have endured years of war and unrest.
Refugees often do not have valid permits and are not able to leave camps. Those that do are barely able to move within the camp, let alone leave to go to work.
Regarding the challenges females face in employment, Khuffash said: “All the reports from the World Bank and so on, highlight the lack of public transportation systems and nursery care.”
She added that most of the work was predominantly in the capital Amman and the northern city of Irbid. The other governorates had minimal job opportunities.
One key factor however remains consistent: As candidates filter into the market, it has become evident that they are ill-prepared for the workforce, whether coming from a disadvantaged background or a more educated path. The problem cannot be solved by simply modernizing education and labor markets.
Speaking to Arab News, Cynthia Muller, board member of EFE-Europe, said the EFE had a measurable, traceable and easily comprehensible mission that did not need a lot of due diligence because “the money goes to where it is supposed to go. And it’s affectively being put to work.
“There is a bit of magic when you have humans together with a common mission who have not had the privilege of being attended to on a silver plate. I have been amazed to see people change their life with a very small amount of help by getting that first job,” the hedge fund banker added.

The chairman of the Arab International Youth Forum said they want to see their youth employed and women more engaged in the private sector, not only in Saudi Arabia, across the region. 

“Youth is the richest asset of the Arab region, but also is a huge challenge because of the lack of jobs or the mismatch between the education system and the jobs on the market,” Haifa Al Kaylani told Arab News. 

Meanwhile, Abdullah Jasem, president of Emirates Trade and Investment, said the youth’s contributions to Arab economies  is going to be a significant part in global trade and investment going forward. 

“We have a large population in the MENA region, most of whom overwhelmingly are below 35, and these are people with a lot of energy and they're being highly empowered by their governments, particularly the UAE where it has initiatives not just for its own citizens, but all Arabs,” he told Arab News.

For any economy to advance it needs human talent. “Anything that affects the economy and the country, and the well-being of people affects the youth more than the adults,” said Elfverson.


‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

Updated 20 July 2019
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‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

  • On June 17, 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan entered the history books when he journeyed into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are spearheading a new era of Arab space exploration

Arab astronauts may not have set foot on the moon, but an Arab geographer left his mark on the Earth’s natural satellite as long ago as 1935.

A lunar impact crater 65 km in diameter was named AbulFeda by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in honor of Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida, a prince of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

The IAU was founded in 1919 to promote the science of astronomy and pay homage to major contributors in the field. AbulFeda is just one of 11 lunar craters named after luminaries from the golden age of Islamic civilization, which lasted from the mid-7th century to the 13th century.

In all, 24 lunar craters have been named after individuals from the region, including Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), an Andalusian inventor, physician, musician, engineer, humanitarian and poet — and the first man to fly. According to a 9th century poem, the so-called Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim world “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight.”

Ibn Firnas was 65 when he became the world’s first hang-glider, jumping off the side of a mountain with feathers attached to his body and “touching the sky for a few minutes,” according to historical accounts.

Centuries later, in February, 1976, a meeting between the-then president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts changed the course of a man’s life and fired the imagination of a young nation. A year earlier, the astronauts had taken part in the historic docking of an Apollo command/service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US–Soviet space flight.

A black-and-white photograph of the meeting, which can be seen at the operational air force squadron in Abu Dhabi, made a great impression on a young Emirati pilot, Hazza Al-Mansouri.

“I would look at the photo and imagine retaking it with three Emirati astronauts sitting with the founding father,” he said later.

Now 31-year-old Al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first astronaut, will also make history when he joins a mission to the International Space Station in September.

“It is a great honor to be represent the UAE in space, and to make my dream and the dream of a nation come true,” he told Arab News.

The astronaut plans to take personal items with him into space, including a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

The photograph of Sheikh Zayed and the US astronauts was not the only image that fired Al-Mansouri’s imagination. Inside his fourth-grade school book was a color photo of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first Arab and royal to travel into space.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the space shuttle Discovery. During the seven-day mission, he helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).

Prince Sultan became a hero and an icon across the region. “We have long reached the stars and beyond,” he said.

Two years later, on July 22, 1987, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the first Syrian and the second Arab in space, carrying a vial soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, struck a responsive chord with many when he later told an interviewer: “When you go up there, you realize there are no borders, no countries, no nationalities. Just Earth. Mother Earth. We should protect this Earth. Who hurts their mother?”

The 1980s was a decade of expansion, exploration and transformation in the Middle East. Now, 30 years later, that energy has returned.

As the third Arab country (after Saudi Arabia and Syria) to send a man into space, the UAE has a special relationship with space and the moon.
In a corner of the Al-Ain national museum is “a piece of the moon” gifted to Sheikh Zayed by the three US astronauts.

“This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace,” says the plaque describing the object.

Next to it, is a small, well-traveled UAE flag.

“This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard spacecraft America during the Apollo XVII mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Presented to the people of the UAE from the people of the United States of America, Richard Nixon 1973.”

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the UAE is looking forward to the launch of Al-Amal, or Hope, in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. The spacecraft will orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.

“The moon landing was a pivotal moment in human history,” Salem Humaid Al-Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Arab News.

“It was when something we imagined became a reality, and humanity left this planet. It was the result of science, engineering, mathematics and imagination coming together.”

“Space makes people dream the impossible,” said Al-Marri.

The words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — have become part of history.

“It was such a powerful statement that influenced so many who watched the original landing as well as those from the current generation who watched it on the Internet or TV,” said Al-Marri. “There isn’t anyone who hasn’t see the moon landing somewhere.”

The space era began as a “race” between the superpowers that helped to break new ground.

“The race pushed space industry development to new levels. While it was driven by military involvement, the benefits from the technological advances were for all people,” said Al-Marri. “We have better satellites, as well as a better understanding of our planet and the world around it, as a result.”

However, after the 1969 moon landing, strained budgets and depleted resources forced the space industry to abandon competition and embrace cooperation.

“Space today is all about cooperating to reach new heights. If you want to fly into space now, you have to do so on a Russian spacecraft as the Americans retired their shuttles in 2011,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Mansouri will head into space together with a US and a Russian astronaut, symbolizing a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.

“The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost the Arab presence in the space industry,” said Al-Marri.

“Space is bringing Arab nations together.”

In the broad sweep of history, these space programs are building on the contributions of the Islamic civilization that shaped the modern world — and honoring the memory of scientists and explorers such as Abu Al-Fida and Ibn Firnas.