NEW YORK // The influential head of the Qatar Foundation has criticised Arab governments for failing to provide sufficient education and work for the region's burgeoning youth population, and warned of a "devastating cycle of unemployment".
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned's criticism was published in a UN report today amid uprisings across the region in which young people have led calls for better job prospects and political rights.
"The education system in Arab countries is partly responsible for the soaring unemployment rate, because it focuses more on granting diplomas than on effectively training students in practical skills," wrote Sheikha Mozah, who is the wife of Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
"In today's rapidly changing technological world, young people need to learn critical thinking, writing skills and flexibility - areas virtually absent from our curricula at present. If we do not reform our current practice Ö our economies will not be able to compete globally."
Sheikha Mozah, a UN education envoy, added that huge hydrocarbon revenues had not "been entirely beneficial for our young people" in the six-nation Gulf bloc. "Many adolescents have grown accustomed to a materialistic lifestyle that distracts them from reaching their full potential," she wrote.
"Likewise, the seduction of consumerism traps adolescents in an endless quest for possessions and encourages them to disregard their role as citizens responsible for community involvement and positive self-development."
The 138-page annual report from the UN's agency for children, Unicef, quotes unemployment rates for those aged between 15-24 reaching 27 per cent in North Africa and 23 per in the Middle East at the end of 2009, among the highest levels globally.
In 10 years, 65 per cent of the region's population is projected to be under the age of 25. This would require the creation of 6.5 million jobs each year to cater to the growing youth population, or risk more of the political unrest that has swept the region.
A lack of opportunity for young people was a feature of protests even before the 26-year-old Tunisian university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze to protest against officials barring him from even menial work as a street vendor.
Unicef's 2011 State of the World's Children report contends that the Middle East and North African countries most affected by political turmoil have related, though subtly different, problems when it comes to education and youth joblessness.
Bahrain and Tunisia, which have both experienced protests, have relatively high rates of secondary school enrolment (89 per cent and 71 per cent respectively for 2005-2009), far higher than in other troubled countries, such as Yemen (37 per cent) and Egypt (22 per cent).
Vivian Lopez, Unicef's regional expert on adolescents, said that young Tunisians and Jordanians were frustrated because despite of their high levels of educational attainment, there were still "extraordinarily high rates of unemployment".
Meanwhile, countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Yemen had large numbers of adolescents who were "both out-of-school and out-of-work", where even the lucky ones could only earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day doing menial work, she said.
"We have been talking about the need to address young people in the region for decades but the financial, technical and human resources provided have been far too little," Ms Lopez said.
"Now there is an opportunity to develop integrated national policies for young people," she said, "addressing the multi-faceted issues that are making young people go out on the streets, such as education, unemployment, lack of opportunity, participation, freedom of expression and censorship."