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Fountain of Youth

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

Demographic Shifts Offer a Window of Opportunity for the Middle East

Across the Middle East, taxi drivers with university degrees have become the norm. The "brain drain" — where many of our best and brightest migrate to other countries seeking greater opportunity—has long afflicted the region, and the energy and promise of those remaining is often stifled by a variety of institutional roadblocks. While the region has invested heavily in education, it has failed to truly realize the potential of its people. It is time to change this situation.

There are now nearly 100 million people between 15 and 29 years of age in the Middle East, the largest such demographic wave in the region’s history. With some of the highest unemployment rates in the world, ongoing political instability and high levels of underutilized talent, the region now faces the challenge of integrating this group into society as mature, productive adults. While some areas of the Middle East are experiencing unprecedented growth and economic expansion, overall we are seeing an entire generation lagging behind their predecessors at a time when job opportunity and education should be at the forefront of every governmental platform.

So what needs to be done to address the barriers facing youth in the Middle East today? First, we must understand the effects of specific policies on blocking the transition from youth to adulthood.  For instance, the costs of marriage and forming a family are overwhelming for many, particularly when exclusionary credit practices leave many young people relying solely on family assistance.  Reforms must therefore be made to ease the financial and social pressures faced by those newly entering the professional market and just beginning their independent lives.

In addition to expanding access to financial credit and affordable housing, we must expand job opportunities for young people, equip them for lifelong learning through relevant and stimulating education, and strengthen their contributions to the body politic through civic participation. Reducing the period of “waithood” between youth and adulthood depends on creating stronger pathways to life transitions, and reducing barriers that prevent accumulating and utilizing different forms of capital.

The Dubai School of Government, in partnership with the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution, recently launched the Middle East Youth Initiative to address these issues. The Initiative is conducting research to develop policy recommendations and program interventions to provide youth with skills, expand opportunities for employment, and facilitate access to credit, housing and civic participation. Recognizing a complex set of interrelated challenges, the Initiative is focusing the attention of policy makers on youth inclusion by building a better understanding of the rapidly changing context in which young people are growing up across the region, by concentrating on the quality as well as the quantity of jobs, and by recognizing the barriers to inclusion beyond employment-related issues—such as affordable housing, transitioning to adulthood through work and marriage, and civic participation.

Ultimately, only results matter. With this in mind, the Dubai School of Government and the Wolfensohn Center are aiming for the development and implementation of a regional action plan for promoting the economic and social inclusion of young men and women throughout the region.

Successfully incorporating almost 100 million people into the societies of the Middle East is a daunting challenge. It is also a wonderful opportunity to revitalize and diversify Middle Eastern economies. Studies show that when a society’s dependent population (ages 0-14 and over 65) declines, resources are freed up as less is spent on social welfare such as pensions, social security and childcare. At the same time, savings and investment accumulates through a proportionately larger working-age population who can contribute to economic expansion and strengthening the overall economy. In short, having a large working-age population and a low dependency ratio presents the region with a window to increase incomes, bolster savings and investment, and improve social welfare.

The time to take advantage of this historic window of opportunity is now. By 2045, the demographic bulge, and the challenge and opportunity it presents, will have passed. Until then, the region has the potential to take advantage of these conditions. Ultimately, policy makers must recognize and correct the misalignment between the aspirations of youth and the opportunities available to them in order to unblock the potential of the region’s greatest gift.

Nabil Alyousuf is Director-General of The Executive Office of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai. He is also Executive President of the Dubai School of Government.

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