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A Double Dividend for the Middle East

Published on: July 2008​
Genre: Education​ Category: Op eds​

For too long, the economies of the Middle East—stagnant, bureaucratic and conflict-prone—have lagged behind much of the rest of the world.

There is an opportunity to extend that boom to the wider Middle East, where a demographic trend has emerged that, if channeled properly, could transform our region for the better.

Alongside our economic growth is a surge in the working age population. Right now, 30 percent of Middle Easterners are between the ages of 15 and 29. Our teens and young adults are healthier and better-educated now than at any time in history. They are culturally literate and keen participants in the global economy. If put to good use, this double dividend of skilled workers and economic growth could push the Middle East into a new realm, making us competitive with the emerging markets of East Asia and Eastern Europe.

One major problem stands in the way: unemployment. Too many working-age people lack jobs or are stuck in substandard work. A quarter of them are unemployed across the region, double the global average.

Research from the Dubai School of Government and the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution shows that the opportunities are staggering, if those young Arabs stayed in school and landed gainful jobs. Egypt could add $53 billion to its economy per year – boosting its GDP by nearly 20 percent. Jordan would raise its national wealth by $1.5 billion. In Saudi Arabia, putting youths to work could bring in an extra $3 billion each year.

But too often, eager potential employees are blocked from entering the workforce, mostly because they’ve been provided the wrong skills. Instead of adding momentum to the economy, young Arabs often wind up slowing it down. Too many high school and university graduates move into a period of prolonged "wait-hood."

Without jobs, our youths are unable to make the normal transition to work, marriage and home-ownership. They’re locked out of the credit market that is key to buying a home or starting a business. Idleness leads to depression and sometimes to radicalization.

Our situation isn’t unique. In the 1960s, Arab countries like Egypt and Syria were on an economic par with Asian counterparts like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Both regions had high youth unemployment.

The Asian countries pulled themselves up through hard work and smart policy. Their governments adopted flexible labor regulations that make it easier to replace substandard workers. In the Middle East, by contrast, a job landed is often a job for life, regardless of performance. Workers enter the economy with these expectations, while the developed world has moved on. In the West, a person isn’t considered successful until he or she has climbed through multiple jobs.

We need our schools to produce workers who can slot themselves into the global economy. The fault isn’t with schools and teachers alone, but also with our companies, which haven’t communicated their needs to educators.

Unfortunately, many schools in the Arab world – including ours – are still using rote methods that reward memorization. The job market doesn’t need automatons. It needs people who can think creatively and adapt across workplaces.

We can produce engineers who can design the systems we need. But we want our engineers to have creativity to find new applications for their knowledge.

We need urgent policy action to address these issues now, while the window of opportunity is open. The current demographic bulge of 15- to 29-year-olds is a unique feature of a fast-declining birthrate. Fertility rates in the Middle East have plummeted from an average of 6.5 children per woman in the 1980s to less than three now. The next generation of workers will be far smaller.

Education reforms are the first step. Teachers whose students score well on standard exams should be rewarded. Those whose students consistently get low marks should be removed. Obviously, teachers need opportunities and incentives to adapt their skills as well. We also need cooperation between schools and the workplace, so schools can alter curricula and methods accordingly.

Of course, much of this generation has already left school, so education reforms can’t reach them. We also need to bolster "second-chance programs," reforming curricula for school-leavers and the unemployed.

Another untapped training ground is volunteerism. America’s Peace Corps sends unemployed graduates to volunteer work in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Those volunteers come home with languages, management skills and regional expertise that earns them high-level jobs.

Finally, we need to push this generation to start businesses, and we must back their ideas with capital. In Dubai, incubator programs such as the Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for Young Entrepreneurs are already doing this. We’re glad to share our expertise.

The timing on this issue is vital. We have just a few years to take advantage of our population surge. If we can’t employ our graduates quickly, our aging society will lapse into dependency, with fewer young workers to take care of it. Our future depends on putting these youths to work.

Nabil Ali Alyousuf is Executive President of the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National, and can be accessed here.

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