Munir Atalla
Last updated: 30 May, 2013

(Un)employment in the Arab World

How can the region solve what many would say is its biggest problem?

Day two of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa started with a plenary session on employment in the Arab world. Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan introduced the panelists, and began her speech with a conclusion.  Her point was to illustrate that “we know what problems are there…we have been saying the same things….for years and years”. 

Her Majesty believes that we have been consistently investing in the wrong areas for years.  She went on to articulate a vision of a “new Arab world” where “children learn in the playground and dream in the classroom”.

Facilitated by John K. Defterios of CNN, the panel covered a range of pressing issues from the inadequacy of an Arab Marshall Fund, the importance of hiring women, and the sad statistics that the region is swimming in.  Tarik Yousef, the CEO of the Qatari Employment Initiative Silatech said that he had spent the last two years working in the fields after having left the classroom. 

His responses were a testament to that experience, which he says made him reconsider many of his assumptions. “No amount of money will solve structural problems,” he began, “we have a lot of visions outlined and solutions articulated.  The challenge is approaching (implementation) when countries are in flux, policymakers are hesitant, and people are skeptical.”

Majid Jafar, the relatively young Chief Executive Officer of Crescent Petroleum, spoke with a relaxed wisdom. He urged listeners to “forget the macro for a second…none of us can imagine what 85 million people looks like”.  He went on to narrate the life of a 23 year old graduate living in a crowded apartment with his family, looking for a decent job.  “This person could be in Cairo, Amman, or Sanaa.  Try to empathize with them.”

Jafar showed courageous insight when he said, “most people in this room, when they were 23, had a bright future ahead of them.  I know it is hard, but try to put yourself in this person’s shoes.”  A good paying job, he revealed, is #1 on the list of things people want in this region.  “With a job comes the dignity people long for”. Democracy was #9 on this list of things protesters wanted, ranking lower even than a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the floor opened to audience members, the regional head of Invest Suisse pointed out that most youth do not know where to turn to for information on employment, employability, and job opportunities. She encouraged Her Majesty Queen Rania to found an online portal where young people would be able to access this information.

On another note, Tarik Yousef gave anecdotal evidence of a bank in “country x” where the average age of employees is 42. “Country X does exist,” he said, “how is this institution going to be capable of dealing with the youth bulge?”

A similar question could be asked of the leaders at the World Economic Forum.  A remarkable amount of conference goers are the veterans of many a conference past. The last question Defterios asked his panel was “how can decades old regimes solve decades old problems?”