DUBAI: If the quality of its youth is what determines the kind of future a nation will have, then the Arab world can draw strength from its share of the global supply.
People between the ages of 15-35 make up almost 34 percent of the region’s population — the highest concentration of youth in the world.
This young population, more educated than ever, has a real opportunity to make significant and positive contributions to the economic and social development of the region, according to a recent report by the Arab Youth Center, the “Arab Youth Priorities Survey.”
These sentiments were also expressed by Shamma bint Suhail Faris Al-Mazrui, UAE minister of state for youth affairs, during an exclusive interview with Arab News.
“I honestly believe if there’s a big change that can revolutionize the world, it would be done by a young person . . . and I think it’s time to unleash the potential of Arab youth entrepreneurs,” she said.
The study, which surveyed nearly 7,000 young people across 21 Arab countries, found that 73 percent of young Arabs chose stability as their top priority, followed by education (70 percent) and health (62 percent).
Al-Mazrui expressed optimism over the findings while touching on the aspirations of the Arab world’s youth population and the challenges ahead.
A pervasive “lack of hope” among today’s youth is due to a combination of regional security and social and economic challenges, according to Al-Mazrui, who was first appointed to the government in 2016 at the age of 22. That said, Arab youth aspirations are not only attainable but can be exceeded — provided governments make available the proper platforms for unlocking their full potential.
The study, which was published on Aug. 12 to mark International Youth Day, shed light on 11 priorities in critical sectors including education, health, employment opportunities, sources of income, social life, self-development, environment, security, entertainment, infrastructure and technological development in each Arab country.
To meet young Arabs’ expectations, Al-Mazrui said that decision-makers and leaders had to view this segment of the population as an “asset” who drove development and were not “a problem or an issue.”
“I think one of the most important things that governments need to do is engage,” she told Arab News. “They need to start listening to the youth. I know it’s so simple, it sounds basic, but you need to be in their shoes, you need to have a kind of empathy.”
Al-Mazrui mentioned collaboration with Bahrain’s Ministry of Youth and Sport Affairs, which is led by a young Arab, and with the departments concerned of many other Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.
“I have been very inspired by the Arab nations that are focusing on building the leaders that tomorrow needs,” she said. “For instance, Saudi Arabia is focusing on empowering youth. Our neighbors in Bahrain have been ushering in amazing youth-engagement projects and youth empowerment. This shows that a lot of nations are betting on their young people and making them their top investment for their future.”
On the question of stability, the findings revealed three key elements of the priority, the most important being living in safe neighborhoods (55 percent), followed by living in a conflict-free environment (41 percent) and living in communities free of domestic violence (40 percent).
The results suggest that an awareness of the political and socio-economic impacts of conflicts in the Middle East had prompted a strong yearning for peace among young generations of Arabs.
“They want stability. They want security before anything else. They want their loved ones to be safe,” said Al-Mazrui, adding that even the basic needs of the youth in fragile Arab states are not being met. “Why (should they) live in fear every single day?”
Moving on to an issue that was, until recently, not openly discussed in most Middle East countries, Al-Mazrui said: “For me, it (the finding on domestic violence) was initially a bit surprising, maybe it’s because I come from the UAE and this has been tackled early on. I think it is a sign that in the Arab world it (domestic violence) is still an issue and there needs to be dialogue.
“It’s nice to see that all youth around the Arab world are trying to build a world that works, that is based on the values we see.”
In the survey’s other highlights, 71 percent of respondents expressed their keenness for a high-quality educational system, 55 percent would like to receive free education, and 33 percent want to see more curriculums that match the labor market’s needs.
The “Arab Youth Priorities Survey” categorizes Arab states into three groups – of high, mid and low purchasing power — while taking into account the significant macroeconomic differences between them. Al-Mazrui underscored the range of challenges within the education and health care sectors that young Arabs face. “Some youth just want access to education. (For) others who have wealth, it’s more about the quality of education — to be the best around the world,” she said.
The situation was similar regarding the quality and affordability of health care and medicine across the region. Al-Mazrui believes there is no limit to what technology can achieve, whether it is innovation in the field of robotic medical assistance or the possibility of medicine delivery via drones.
While only time will tell what happens to today’s big ideas in the fields of science and technology, a more pressing question is how Arab governments can provide their youth with the opportunities they need to flourish, succeed and reach their full potential.
“At the end of the day, as government officials, we are designing. We are designers,” Al-Mazrui said. “How do we design the best ecosystem for a certain section of the population to thrive?”
Answering her own question, she pointed to the UAE youth ministry’s tasks and duties in the context of the seven crucial transitional stages that young people go through.
“There’s school to university; university to higher education; higher education to the labor market; the labor market to starting a family; finding housing; going to the national service in the UAE; and sometimes the labor market back to school for those who do their MBA,” she said.
With these stages in mind, Al-Mazrui likened her role as a youth minister catering for 50 percent of the UAE’s population to that of “an orchestra conductor” — working in coordination with government departments to address the challenges facing this vital demographic.
“If you have a garden, you’ll have different plants or trees. Similarly, there are the elite and engaged youth, the smart youth and the dropout youth, the youth who are orphans or who have disabilities,” she said.
“When you don’t have a ministry of youth, you’re basically excluding all these characteristics and segments of the young population. Our job is to include them all, to understand that each one needs a different kind of strategy.”
As examples of inclusion and empowerment, Al-Mazrui pointed to nation-focused programs as well as pan-Arab skills-development initiatives such as the “Arab Reading Challenge” and the “One Million Arab Coders” educational platform.
“The greater risk is not taking radical risks for youth, because to not engage with the youth is to disengage from them; to not equip them is to directly hinder them; and not to empower them is to say we’re going to disempower youth,” she said.
At the end of the day, a country’s “return on investment” depends on how much it invests in its youth and its ability to succeed as a nation, Al-Mazrui said.
“It depends on how quickly (the country) is able to adapt and (steer) that youth energy into positive directions toward its economy, toward its social, cultural landscape and diplomatic landscapes.”