x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A new generation for a new world

There is no such thing as a composite Arab youth. In an ongoing series, The National will cross borders to discover the individual hopes, realities and issues that face this booming generation, while reflecting on the historic opportunity that unites them all.

Students walk to a lecture at UAE University in Al AIn. Broadly speaking, Arabs are healthier and better educated than at any other time in history.
Students walk to a lecture at UAE University in Al AIn. Broadly speaking, Arabs are healthier and better educated than at any other time in history.

Hassan Najdawi is mired so deep in a rut that it almost hurts to listen to him. He left school eight years ago, but still cannot afford university. He lives with his divorced mother. The occasional computer repair job earns him the equivalent of between Dh1,556 and Dh2,082 a month, barely enough to get by in inflation-ridden Amman, let alone pay tuition fees. Najdawi's predicament is common for many young people in this region. He cannot go to university without getting a better-paying job, yet he cannot get a better-paying job without going to university. Marriage? With the cost of a middle-class wedding in Jordan running at about Dh15,000, that is a fantasy.

At 26, Najdawi is trapped in a life that only seems to offer more hopelessness. Leaning against a wall outside a video game parlour in Amman, thumbs hooked in the pockets of faded jeans, he yearns for someone or something to show him the way in a world that has become far more complicated than the one his parents envisaged or navigated. "There's no one to teach you how to go forward, how to invent yourself," he says.

"Inventing yourself" - this matter-of-fact assertion is itself remarkable in a culture where, until recently, few choices in life were on offer. Yet across the Arab world it is precisely invention, or reinvention, that the young are rushing headlong to do, as the region grapples with changes wrought by globalisation, satellite television and the internet. People under 29 make up six out of 10 of the region's population, and for them, the contrast between life as it is lived and life as it could be has never been greater.

The burden on them is a heavy one. They will be expected to solve the many crises plaguing the Middle East. Regional wars, depleting oil resources, overcrowded cities and an unsustainable demand for water. This is the reality of the region's baby boom: 100 million young people in 14 countries between the ages of 15 and 29. For better or worse, they will increasingly drive cultural, social and economic change throughout the region over the next decades.

But they are also frustrated and ill-prepared to face the future. Schools and universities often fail to prepare them for a global economy and to compete with highly skilled workers from the West and upwardly mobile ones in the developing world. At the same time, young people are far more than the objects of their parents' hopes and frustrations. They also are seen as a vast, largely untapped, consumer market. Their tastes and political and religious predilections are the subject of intense scrutiny by governments, international financial institutions and think tanks.

One reason for this attention is simple. For the region's rulers, the stability and prosperity of their societies depend on understanding and channelling the aspirations of this large segment of their populations, from which future leaders will come. For Europe and the United States and China and Japan, the reason for the avid interest in Arab youth also is simple - the prospect of their greater radicalisation is viewed as a threat to the oil and natural gas supplies upon which their energy depends.

The West, in particular, worries that this large restless cohort could form a recruiting pool for radicals to channel their energy towards terrorism. With so much at stake, gaining the attention and allegiance of Arab youth has become the great contest among political and religious leaders and the marketing and the global entertainment industries. From this cacophony of voices, no corner of a young Arab's life is exempt. For young people themselves, it is often difficult to hear - or more importantly perhaps, be heard - above the din.

This new series, Young in the Muslim world, seeks to amplify that voice. In co-operation with the Dubai School of Government and its Middle East Youth Initiative, it will chronicle the predicaments, fears and hopes of Arab youth. The ongoing series will bring you stories of the people and institutions that are providing hope and opportunity to the region's young. At the centre of it all is a rather simple idea - there is no such thing as the composite "Arab youth". An Iraqi born in 1985 has known little peace amid the horror of three wars and years of western economic sanctions. In contrast, his Emirati counterpart has known little of the same adversity or hardship amid one of the greatest economic booms the world has ever seen.

In the coming days, a series of stories that spans the Arab world will examine how young people are changing their societies and how they are affected by change around them. In Saudi Arabia, we will look at the challenges women face as they break down rigid gender roles by joining the workforce. In Egypt, we will consider why thousands of young people are joining volunteer organisations to help the poor. In Jordan, the shifting balance of power between fathers and sons is shaping society.

Closer to home, we will examine Dubai's emergence as a magnet for young, single and ambitious women from the Gulf states who are changing tradition by living alone, away from their parents. Among social scientists, the term "Arab mall" is now taking its place alongside "Arab street" as clichés that purport to encapsulate various demographic strains of Arab public opinion - in the latest case, the supposedly unique frustrations and lifestyle rebellion among the growing ranks of affluent young Arabs. The young in this part of the world have so many faces that they defy generalisation. Yet all are heirs to a recent history of colonisation and the disenchantment with many of the fruits of the "-isms" foreign powers have sowed: socialism, capitalism, and secularism.

All youth have in common, too, the struggle to reconcile the principles of faith with the needs of modern societies and the summons to recognise the full rights of women. Finally, all share an abiding scepticism with democracy in the western sense, thanks to the occupation of Iraq and the chronic failure to reach an equitable settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is against this backdrop that a crisis is unfolding. First and foremost is the problem of jobs.

The region already has one of the world's highest unemployment rates. More than one out of four are young people between the ages of 15 and 24, nearly double the world average. In Syria, an astonishing 73 per cent of all unemployed people are young. In Morocco, the youth unemployment rate is so high - 37 per cent - that graduates established the National Association for Unemployed Graduates to address the problem.

Sometimes the perception is that the jobless are illiterate kids or products of radicalised madrassas. But recent studies have turned those assumptions on their head. Among Arab youth with university degrees unemployment is soaring. In Egypt it is 10 times that of people with primary educations. "The well travelled and well educated in the Middle East are disproportionately unemployed," according to a Middle East Youth Initiative paper on social exclusion. The scale of this wasted potential is colossal. Every year the region's economies lose US$25 billion (Dh91bn) because of youth unemployment. Yet today's generation are better educated than their parents thanks to government investment decades ago. For women, higher education has been considered the ticket to independence because they do not need to rely on men to support them. At the UAE University, for example, 79 per cent of the students are female. Broadly speaking, Arabs are healthier and better educated than at any other time in history. At the same time, broad access to education has proved to be one of the biggest betrayals, as colleges and universities fail to teach the skills needed to compete in the global economy. While the percentage of young people entering the workforce with higher education levels has increased hugely since 1980, their education mostly trains them for state-owned bureaucracies. Governments are not updating and investing in their education systems to better prepare their children for a globalised, free market economy. Too many schools rely on rote memorisation, says Paul Dyer, research associate at the Dubai School of Government. "Schools are producing bureaucrats; what they don't produce is young people with entrepreneurial skills." Young women are specifically targeting the public sector while young men who were surveyed in one recent survey said they chose the public sector because it offered "security and stability". Attempts by governments to make the transition to private sector-led economies include new labour laws allowing temporary or part-time workers on low wages, the majority of whom tend to be young. They do not earn enough money to save for marriage and to move out of the parental home. In Arab culture, a girl becomes a woman, and a boy becomes a man, only when they are married. At the same time, weddings are becoming increasingly expensive, says Diane Singerman at the school of public affairs at the American University in Washington. "Marriage costs a lot," she says. "Everybody in the Middle East knows this but because it is considered a social thing economists and policymakers don't pay attention to it." A generation ago, Arab men or women who were not married by the age of 25 were considered something of a disgrace. Today, barely half of Arab males marry by their late 20s. It is now common to see unmarried men and women in their early 30s. In America, the average age of matrimony is 27 for men and 25 for women. Unlike their counterparts in the West, unmarried Arabs must stay at home until they wed. Meanwhile, socialising with the opposite sex is a taboo. This extended period of adolescence is causing great stress and frustration, says Ms Singerman. "In Egypt there is a lot of anxiety about this and you see reports in the media that young people are becoming hedonistic, westernised," she says. "The Islamists say 'marry early age' but this doesn't really address the issue. But at least they are talking about it." Among the young, religious observance has grown visibly in recent years. Where the young do not automatically turn for solutions is political institutions. They show less interest in formal politics than their parents. They have watched as, for years, some of the region's rulers have pointed to the spectre of extremism and chaos to parry and obstruct demands for political change. The Arab family is not necessarily proving a source of comfort or direction, either. In numerous opinion polls, Arabs of all ages say the family is the most important thing in their lives. But the Arab family, too, is the focus of unprecedented strain. Between parents and children, there is a "deepening communication barrier", says Hayfa Matar, a 30-year-old diplomat in Manama. "In Bahrain, for example, the community is very, very small and very judgemental. Everything is scrutinised, even in a family. The question is what can I disclose to my parents and what can't I?" The six Gulf states have their own set of challenges, brought on by the oil boom. The experts say part of the problem is there is not enough data about the Gulf countries to understand the changing patterns in society. The challenge for the Gulf is to provide for young people without enforcing oil economy expectations, says Navtej Dhillon, the director of the Middle East Youth Initiative, a project between the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and the Dubai School of Government which looks at youth exclusion in the region. "The message is money alone cannot solve the problem," he says. "It is about changing the mindset of young people and the population. "At times of prosperity there is a risk of creating distorted incentives which reinforce behaviour such as high subsidies for housing, inflated salaries for public sector jobs, that it is worth waiting for that public sector job, it is worth waiting for assisted housing." Mr Dhillon adds: "Oil in many ways is a curse for the young." If governments do not implement new policies, he says, they will face the "quite large consequences. They will fall further behind in comparison to other countries such as east Asia, it will have lower levels of wealth, social cohesion and higher levels of alienation. "It is a historic opportunity because you have a demographic boom with the oil boom and they are two gifts region is being given and they (governments) have the opportunity to use them in effective ways. The Middle East can't afford to lose this generation."

cnelson@thenational.ae

hghafour@thenational.ae

This series was made possible with the co-operation of the Dubai School of Government