Youth: the great 21st-century challenge: an additional 100 million young Arabs will be cast onto the international job market within the next 20 years, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Arab youth should be looked on as an economic asset and a potential agent for positive change--it's certainly how they see themselves.

Author:Lancaster, Pat
Position:Cover story
 
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Currently the Middle East region is experiencing an unprecedented "youth bulge", with around 32% of its population between the ages of 15 and z9 years of age, representing over loom people and the highest ratio of youth to adults in the region's history.

These young people face a unique series of challenges to secure a stake in their society but perhaps the greatest test they will confront as a group is that of securing employment.

A series of regional and global initiatives are aiming to ensure these challenges become, rather than an excuse for hand wringing and despair, a real opportunity for progress in unleashing a Middle Eastern-generated dynamism that will propel the world into a new and exciting era of change and development.

The international community as a whole is confronting the challenge of meeting the employment needs of present and future generations but the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region must start from the back, given that it already has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world.

Creating sufficient jobs over the next two decades to allow young people to participate fully in their society--as members of the national workforce, as husbands, wives and eventually parents providing for families of their own--is the most difficult challenge the region will face in the early decades of the 21st century.

True, the prospect of mass unemployment in the region is a daunting one but the other side of the same coin presents us with a demographic window of opportunity. Economies that elect to enable policies in support of young people now could find themselves supporting sustained economic growth in the years ahead. As Europe and the West confront the prospect of increasingly ageing populations, the reverse will be true for the MENA states.

Fortunately, Arab governments have been efficient in identifying the key issues and setting in train a series ofprogrammes and initiatives to aid the progress of future development to meet the challenges as they arise.

The World Economic Forum has given its wholehearted backing to supporting a series of global education initiatives and the launch of regional programmes by The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (UAE), Silatech (Qatar) and various others, are recording impressive progress.

A meeting held in Doha in June 2009 marked the first anniversary of the launch of the Silatech organisation with the publication of a report, in cooperation with Gallup, and a conference to track the organisation's achievements over the past 12 months and outline its aspirations. Its co-founder--with husband, the Emir Sheikh Hamed Al Thani a key supporter, and Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mouza Bint Nasser al Misnad--welcomed over 300 participants to the Qatari capital for the event.

Explaining why the Gulf countries can expect to face a huge challenge in accommodating the large number of young people demanding employment in the coming years, James Wolfensohn, former leader of the World Bank (1995-2005), told The Middle East the region would be forced to prepare itself for serious changes both in education and societal hierarchy if the challenges are to be met.

In countries such as Qatar, Wolfensohn noted, the local youth grow up expecting that they will take up employment in management or other high level posts on completion of their education. "In some Arab countries, those with larger populations, local people will work in all sectors but in the Gulf there is a situation where local people do not...

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