x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Teens need a place other than street

The quickest way to improve security is to establish a more robust police presence and tougher prison sentences for violent offenders.

Last March, four teenagers were arrested after assaulting a 14-year-old asthmatic boy. Two months later, a 13-year-old boy was beaten and stabbed by another gang in Dubai. Taken separately these were unfortunate incidents of youthful violence, challenges for parents and authorities but hardly evidence of a trend.

But today, the assumption that teen violence is rare is being challenged. As The National reported yesterday, two Dubai neighbourhoods have seen a number of gang-style attacks in recent weeks, including fights involving boys armed with knives, axes and swords.

Here, it is vital that a sense of perspective is kept. To be sure, gang fights and turf wars are not be taken lightly. But with one of the world's more affluent populations, the UAE has none of the endemic concerns - like devastating poverty and drugs abuse - that plague young people in places like Manila, Manchester or San Salvador.

And yet teenage street crime in the Satwa and Al Quoz areas of Dubai is cause for alarm; at least one hospital administrator says his staff is seeing victims of gang-related violence at least every other week.

This is still a manageable problem, but it demands swift attention. Police who track gang culture say crime rates remain low. Still, a surge in attacks - including two in the last month - has some rightfully worried. "I do not feel safe any more," said Eisa Asafi, a hospital administrator and Al Quoz resident.

The quickest way to help families feel safe, and disarm the young men with weapons, is to establish a more robust police presence. Increased patrols could dissuade would-be attackers, and tougher prison sentences for violent offenders could discourage violence in the first place.

But in the longer term, authorities will need to address the root cause of youth violence. High rates of unemployment among young Emiratis - 12 per cent by some estimates - mean many youths simply have no place to be. One idea that has worked in other parts of the world with high rates of crime is the creation of community centres with activities, sports and mentoring programmes to get teens off the streets for good.

Ultimately, though, adults in the UAE will need to find ways to help young boys and girls contribute constructively to society. Only when teenagers feel that they have options will they stop seeing violence and the street as their only escapes.