ABU DHABI // Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan answered questions for The National on the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which ended on Thursday.
She spoke about youth unemployment in the Arab World, education gaps, and the future of sustainable energy development in the Middle East.
How important is youth leadership and entrepreneurship to growing the Middle East economy?
If you look at the region, about a third of the population are youth, aged between 15 and 29. That's over 100 million people. We've been saying for years that this enormous youth bulge is an "economic blessing", a "demographic dividend", and a "window of opportunity" but there hasn't been sufficient action.
In the Arab region, youth unemployment is the highest in the world: 1 in 4 young people in the labour force are out of work, and this is even higher for young women. In addition, too many young people remain outside the labour force. When they can't find a good job for a decent wage it means things like getting married, starting a family, or buying a home become increasingly difficult. They become trapped waiting for adulthood and that's incredibly frustrating. This 'waithood' not only hurts individuals and families, but whole countries too. And it comes at a high price tag.
The cost to the region of youth unemployment is as much as $50 billion a year - that's nearly 30 times what Arab states received in annual aid for education in 2010.
Entrepreneurship can help cut through this "waithood". It provides an avenue for youth to harness their skills towards a business of their own.
According to Silatech Youth Survey in 2009, 26 per cent of Arab youth want to start their own business in the next year, and that is compared to 4 per cent in Europe and the US.
Arab governments need to create enabling environments for start-ups, more access to financing, and lessen the risk of failure. There needs to be special attention given to approaches that can encourage young women to participate in the labour force. The private sector can also up the ante with internships, apprenticeships and training for youth to learn the principles of an enterprise culture.
When innovative ideas are the most valuable commodity in the world, we must give our youth the tools to create, market, and sell them. And we need these skills now.
How important is it for Arab states to work together to address challenges such as youth unemployment and water and energy security?
Not only is it important, it is critical that Arab states work together to address our most pressing challenges.
An area I'd like to highlight is that too many young people in the region are coming of age and not coming prepared. If, as a region, we are going to meet the demands of our youth for education, jobs, and the dignity they bring, we cannot keep teaching them yesterday's skills.
They lack the skills to get a job, stay healthy, and prosper. We're also struggling to help the hardest to reach - like children trapped by conflict. In the meantime, many children [who are] in school leave unable to read or write, with a shell of an education. This is more of a global argument and it needs to be about the Arab world.
If we want our youth to thrive, we need to work together to prepare them for the century they live in. Let's give them a quality education, one that empowers [them] to question, to debate, to innovate … Let's equip them with 21st century skills and the right training to find, and also to create, the right jobs and opportunities.
Together, education, skills and training equal learning. That's our aim, not just for children to leave school with a certificate or a degree, but to leave having learnt.
So let's lead with learning. This is not a narrow approach. Learning is the catalyst for all our development ambitions.
What do you hope to achieve during the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week?
I'm hoping to encourage innovation for decentralised sustainable energy solutions and I'm hoping to bring in a new voice to the mix; the voice of the marginalised. We still have people in our region who are not connected to national grids and without access to clean water, or basic social services. These basic needs, if not met, will impede their chances and their opportunities for a prosperous future.
But most importantly, I'm hoping to listen - to learn from others' experiences and to see where we can go from here. How far are we from a more sustainable future, and how can we get there?
What is Jordan doing to develop its renewable energy infrastructure? What steps is your country taking to improve water and energy security?
Jordan imports almost 96 per cent of its energy needs. That is economically unviable, and unsustainable. And thus we have put forward plans to develop our renewable energy infrastructure.
The government has recently introduced several measures to promote the use of green energy sources and investments in the field, which also aim to increase energy consumption efficiency across the Kingdom.
The National Energy Strategy plans to increase the contribution of renewable energy sources to the national energy supply so that it reaches 7 per cent by 2015 and 10 per cnet by 2020. The new strategy aims to attract large investments in green energy and encourage public-private partnerships in the field, including projects to power several villages and towns with solar power.
The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Law aims to ease investment procedures and will eventually allow everyday Jordanians to sell electricity back to the national grid. That is a major step towards building a culture of sustainable energy consumption.
Regarding water security, Jordan has implemented a National Water Strategy to sustainably manage our limited water resources and preserve water quality while pursuing economic growth.
How important is renewable energy for the Middle East?
Because we live in a region with an abundance of energy resources - both renewable and nonrenewable - we sometimes forget how pressing it is that we begin to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels.
We live in one of the sunniest parts of the world and, in addition to solar energy, have access to an array of other renewable resources. With increasing fuel prices worldwide and our growing populations, it is clearly a more economically viable option for many countries in the region to start relying on the sun, wind and hydro for our energy needs. But we need to be effective in the way we use and harness these renewable resources. We need to find innovative micro-solutions that can directly affect and benefit the individual. In Jordan for example, decentralised photovoltaic units in rural and remote villages are currently being used for lighting, water pumping and other social services for the local community. It is such solutions that renewable energy can provide us: decentralised, sustainable, and accessible.
What can other countries in the region learn from the UAE in terms of developing renewable energy infrastructure?
I think the UAE has proved to be a regional pioneer in realising the potential of renewable energy and in diversifying the energy mix beyond the dependency on oil and gas. The country's experience and expertise in the field is one to be emulated across the region. Initiatives like Masdar and the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park are only a testament to these efforts.
The UAE is now the "one to watch" in the region for anyone seeking to develop a more robust and investment-friendly renewable energy sector.
The UAE leadership's keenness on developing such initiatives is another proof of the country's long-term vision for a more sustainable future for us and the generations to come.
How do you see the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda shaping up? What themes will be highlighted in the agenda?
First of all, let me say that I am honoured to have been selected as a member of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has tasked us with producing a report which will include recommendations regarding the vision and shape of a post-2015 development agenda and we are preparing to complete this by May 2013.
The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, have driven impressive development gains in the last 12 years. Yet many of the targets will be missed: too many children still die from diseases we know how to cure, too many who survive still never set foot in a classroom and too many girls still die in childbirth. We need to finish the job that the MDGs started, and build on what has worked in the MDGs to inform the post-2015 agenda.
As a panel, we all have similar concerns for our planet and its people. We agreed that the overall objective of the post-2015 development agenda should be to eradicate poverty. But the year 2015 is very different to 2000, and new critical challenges have arisen: climate change, energy, inequality, governance, and youth unemployment to name a few.
But, I'm very optimistic, because today there are also new opportunities: more partners, innovative financing mechanisms, more data, improved technologies and innovations that will not only help to accelerate progress, but help countries leapfrog over some challenges.
My role on the panel has also enabled me to emphasise the importance of education and vocational skills, which have an impact that extends across a range of social, environmental and economic areas.
I would also like to mention that the United Nations and its partners have recently launched a global online survey called MY World at www.myworld2015.org through which people can voice their opinions about the most important issues they would like the post-2015 development agenda to address. I think it's vital that people do so.