UAE minister champions the role region’s youth must play
WASHINGTON // Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs, said she hopes the UAE’s strategy of engaging the young will inspire other countries to address their needs and concerns as a key factor in assuring the stability of the Middle East.
“If there is a gap between government leadership and their youth, if governments do not value their youths sufficiently and are not connected to their true needs, ideas and concerns [and] if governments don’t create authentic, credible channels to connect to their youth, this creates a social vacuum of un-empowered youths who will follow different paths,” Ms Al Mazrui said.
The minister was speaking on a panel on Thursday about the challenge of the region’s growing youth population at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC, her first public speaking engagement in the United States.
Across the Middle East and North Africa region, where more 70 per cent of the populations are under 30, young people suffer higher rates of unemployment than their counterparts elsewhere, despite having relatively high levels of education.
In the wake of youth-led protests during the Arab Spring, many states took short-term measures to mollify the young, such as incresing subsidies and offering government jobs, but failed to put in place education and economic reforms that addressed the underlying causes of their grievances, she said.
Firms in the Mena region were older, and managers were older than in any other market in the world, with laws that protected businesses from competition, said Mattias Lundberg, a World Bank expert on youth development, who was also on the panel. “It is much more difficult for a young, ambitious person to break in and establish themselves in Mena than elsewhere,” he said.
Education systems must also be reformed to move away from just teaching technical skills to teaching less tangible “life skills”, Mr Lundberg said. “When we talk to employers in region they say we can find workers who have the technical skills but we can’t hire them because they don’t have interpersonal skills and experience problem solving.”
Regional governments must think of their countries’ youths as an asset rather than as a security problem to be contained, Ms Al Mazrui said.
“Many view us as a threat or danger, but our UAE leadership has long seen youth as an irreplaceable asset, a key to our country’s growth,” the 22-year-old minister said. “I am a testament of my country’s commitment and courage to go beyond rhetoric and thoroughly integrate youth into the process of building our future.”
She said that while she pushed the public and private sector to engage more with young people in the UAE – who make up more than half of all citizens – there were also avenues for young Emiratis to voice their thoughts of concerns directly to senior government officials through new youth circles that she said contributed to policy making.
“We need to be in their shoes we need to know how they feel not giving them policies not by them and from them,” she said, adding that “we can’t wait to develop the best youth strategy we have to implement something now, and that’s to me empowerment – to try to take calculated risks in investing in our youth.”
The UAE revamped its government ministries earlier this year and young people and women are more represented in the Cabinet. UAE leaders have sought to gain the support and buy-in of young people for the economic diversification reforms being implemented in response to low oil prices.
But others on the panel said that the UAE had unique advantages – political stability, small population, large amounts of cash and oil reserves – that most countries in the Mena region did not enjoy, making the replication of the UAE’s youth strategy very difficult.
The moderator, BBC journalist Kim Ghattas, asked Ms Al Mazrui how she responded to observers who are critical of the UAE’s youth engagement efforts as “token gestures”.
“In the UAE we don’t have time for publicity stunts,” the minister responded. The country “does not want to wait, it wants to take action now”.
Ms Al Mazrui was visiting the US to meet with youth development organisations to learn about their programmes and strategies.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “There are a lot of organisations here that do massive and amazing youth work and so I’m here to know about potential partnerships that we can do.”
Published: September 2, 2016 04:00 AM