The joint spectre of unemployment and the radicalization of Arab youth was high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent annual gathering of business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Omar Kutayba Alghanim, CEO of Alghanim Industries and Chairman of Gulf Bank, was part of a panel of senior international thought leaders, who held a powerful discussion on a critical issue faced by the world: the need to create enough jobs and employment opportunities for young people over the next decade.
Alghanim was joined by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director at McKinsey & Company (UK), and Aliko Dangote, President and CEO of the Lagos-based Dangote Group. The discussion included participation from a large studio audience, as well as live interactive links to four ‘Young Global Leaders’ in Orlando, USA; Abuja, Nigeria; Chandigarh, India and Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The hour-long panel discussion was moderated by renowned international broadcaster Nick Gowing. The meeting was part of a series of events connecting 40 cities worldwide and was broadcast live.
From Abuja to Seattle, the increasing number of jobless youth is a global phenomenon, particularly in developing economies, where populations are rapidly growing. The cost of unemployment is not just the cost of welfare; it also brings with it a host of other issues such as increased health care costs and increased crime. The MENA region in particular is facing some unique problems, with a fast growing young population and an estimated 70 million jobs that need to be developed within these economies over the next decade. With so many young people coming into the job market, Alghanim noted that “there is a need to find ways to engage people in the economy so they don’t become radicalized”. If youth cannot be involved in the economy and their voices not heard, they will become marginalized.
Alghanim went on to say: “We have a youth bulge in our region, 60% of our population is below the age of 25 and when you have a demographic like that, the incremental job requirement that needs to be created for people is huge.
“We need to find ways for young people to be involved in the economy. A big issue with our current education system is that we don’t teach critical thinking. In a fast changing world, if you just teach someone a particular skill but not how to think, then in any technology shift, we as a region will be unprepared and left behind. We urgently need to teach critical thinking.
“Another thing we need to examine is how are these jobs going to be taken up?” Alghanim went on to refer to the example of Kuwait, where the large majority (80-90%) of the national workforce is employed by the government. “That’s a stark figure, and I don’t think another country in the world has that percentage of the population working for the government.” His view is that the current situation is further exasperated because of the large number of young people in the population now approaching working age. These young men and women will not be able get jobs in the government.
Alghanim said that entrepreneurship is a big part of the answer and needs to be encouraged, “…because when you have entrepreneurs, your economy becomes more efficient, people think of problems in different ways, and can cross chasms in ways that big companies can’t. If you look at the percentage of SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and at the percentage of entrepreneurs in our region, it’s really, really, low. Globally, we come in the bottom quartile of ease of doing business.”
In summing up, the panel jointly expressed their common concern that not enough is being done globally to address the needs of youth within economies, and that both the issues of job creation and encouragement of entrepreneurism need to be urgently addressed. If not, as one commentator said, “society is in danger of destruction”. Governments and private sectors need to appreciate the need for immediate action and not just see it as something to be talked about. Dominic Barton likened it to a ‘pandemic’, while Aliko Dangote stressed the important need for government and industry to be more serious about addressing the issues “on all fronts”.
In his own concluding remarks, and speaking about the MENA region in general, Alghanim said, “We need to see the enormity of the problem that over the next decade, over 70 million jobs need to be created in the economies in our region. The urgency of this I don’t think is yet being felt. Politicians do not fully understand the enormity of the problem, and private sector leaders also don’t see it and aren’t reacting enough to it.”
The WEF meets annually in Davos, Switzerland, and this year it was attended by around 2,500 world leaders. During the meeting, which was from 21-24 January 2015, Alghanim attended a number of private meetings and official functions, including an official lunch with the French President, H.E. François Hollande, where they discussed the strong business ties between France and Kuwait. Alghanim, who is also Chairman of INJAZ-Kuwait and a member of the board of INJAZ Al-Arab, a non-profit organization that strives to create viable work opportunities for young people in the Arab world, was at the WEF as an expert panel member and as an invited delegate from a select group from Kuwaitis representing industry, finance, culture and the government.