The GCC's six member nations make up one of the most youthful regions in today's world, with one third to one half of the population under the age of 25.
This large and growing young population has placed the GCC countries in a demographically historic moment that presents its societies with challenges and opportunities. In addition to issues such as upgrading education systems and creating jobs, GCC governments have to ensure that young people use their leisure time for extracurricular activities and community development.
Leisure activities such as sports, hobbies, internet surfing, computer games and activities in music, theatre, dance, films, painting and poetry are essential for relaxation, recreation and self-improvement. They also provide social engagement and encourage imagination and creativity.
Participation in community development helps young people build the skills that contribute to well-rounded personalities and success in the workforce. It also builds civic pride and responsibility.
Because the ways in which youths spend their leisure time is crucial to their personal development as well as the social and intellectual advancement of their nation, Booz & Company conducted a survey of young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE to get a better understanding of young people's use of this time.
We found they spent much of their time at home or socialising: 88 per cent of respondents said they surf the internet, 78 per cent watch TV, 65 per cent spend time with their family, and 58 per cent attend social gatherings with friends. By contrast, just 47 per cent participate in sports, 21 per cent seek out learning activities, and 13 per cent do community service.
Given the importance of sports and exercise to young people's health as well as their social development and teamwork skills, we asked survey respondents how often they exercise. Fourteen per cent of respondents exercise more than five times a week, while 30 per cent said they exercised once a week or less. And 19 per cent, or almost a fifth of our respondents, reported they did no exercise at all.
About half of those respondents who do not exercise said it was because of laziness or lack of time. But close behind those reasons came "no accessible [or] convenient facilities" and "don't like sports", which indicates there might be potential to increase young people's physical activity with the right infrastructure and exposure to fun forms of exercise.
A lack of opportunity also figures in young people's failure to be more active in their communities. Our findings indicated 72 per cent do not participate in community development activities. Of those, 42 per cent said they didn't have time, 40 per cent cited a lack of opportunity, and 31 per cent noted a lack of guidance.
Only 28 per cent of youth are involved in community development activities, with 45 per cent of those participating in volunteer work with the baladiyah (municipality) or government-sponsored activities; the rest did charitable work with anon-governmental organisation or through youth associations.
The respondents felt that governments should invest more in leisure opportunities. When asked how they could encourage participation in community development and leisure-time activities, more than half said they would like governments to integrate areas for sports and recreation into urban development plans and to create a special fund for youth activities.
Although GCC governments have recently introduced initiatives offering youth greater choice in how to spend their leisure time, there is more work to be done. These countries need to build workforces that are resourceful, productive and creative, with 21st-century business skills and the ability to operate in multicultural settings. These are traits learnt through leisure experiences, be they recreational sports or science fairs. Diversified, knowledge-based economies will also require young people to take a broader look at their career options - something else fostered by leisure activities. We believe that young people should be taught from an early age about the importance of leisure activities as an avenue to personal excellence; they should also receive more encouragement from parents, schools and their communities to get involved in all kinds of leisure opportunities to become well-rounded people.
By advocating leisure pursuits, GCC governments improve the quality of life in Gulf cities, as well as producing residents who are physically and mentally healthier. It is vital that young people be consulted about the activities they want.
Many facilities can be built and run by private companies, which also can organise recreational activities and sponsor cultural performances as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.
Healthy young people are the key resource on which the future of the GCC's economic and social development depends. And they must be seen in this light for GCC societies to reap the rewards that they offer.
*Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a senior adviser with Booz & Company's Ideation Center, and Dr Karim Sabbagh is a senior partner and the global leader of its communications, media and technology practice. Chadi Moujaes, a partner with the company, also contributed to this article