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Emirati Youth Initiative Aims to Cut Unemployment in the Arab Region

Despite recent progress in education, the youth unemployment rate in the Arab region is around 27 percent, according to Arab Development Portal, twice the global average of 13.6 percent last year.

An initiative organized by the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education and described as a bootcamp challenged participants to design innovative solutions to the youth unemployment problem.

“The days of being passive observers and resigning themselves to what has become their ‘fate’ is far behind us all,” said Malake El Haj, the foundation’s director of knowledge and innovation. “When given the opportunity, I find that youth tend to embrace and face their challenges.”

The initiative, called the MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp, was held in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the United Arab Emirates University’s Science and Innovation Park. It focused on skills such as creative collaboration, customer discovery and project design, with the aim of converting ideas into applicable solutions.

Covid-19 restrictions meant that what was originally planned as an intensive seven-day program was re-formatted over ten weeks. Participants had weekly face-to-face meetings lasting from three to four and a half hours, and one-hour coaching sessions with experts from MIT or the region. They also had face-to-face meetings with other team members and time each week for independent study and other tasks.

Firsthand Knowledge of the Challenge

El Haj said the 120 participants were students, job seekers or employed, and could therefore relate to the unemployment challenge on a personal level and come up with solutions that meet young people’s needs.

She said she hoped the experience would make participants more employable as they acquire job market skills. (See a related article, “Job Creation Efforts in the Middle East Hit a New Snag: Covid-19.”)

All the participants in the bootcamp were either Emiratis or Arab expatriates living in the U.A.E., which has a very low youth unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, compared to 30 percent in Egypt, 36 percent in Tunisia and 43 percent in Palestine, according to the International Labor Organization.

“We are initially targeting STEM students in the U.A.E., but definitely we are planning to reach other Arab countries at later stages of the project, especially after gaining an understanding of the dynamics of the market and fixing any inefficiencies.”

Nihel Chabrak
Chief executive of the UAEU Science and Innovation Park

Nihel Chabrak, chief executive of the UAEU Science and Innovation Park said: “We are initially targeting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students in the U.A.E., but definitely we are planning to reach other Arab countries at later stages of the project, especially after gaining an understanding of the dynamics of the market and fixing any inefficiencies.” (See the following related articles, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them” and “Libyan Women Push for a Bigger Role in Rebuilding Their Country.”)

Tamer Taha, innovation digitization and entrepreneurship advisor at the Ministry of International Cooperation in Egypt, said it was important to capitalize on innovative ideas of young people and allow them to “be part of the solution, instead of being the problem.”

Taha, who is also a non-executive chairman of the regional online platform Yomken, said new ideas might turn into businesses or start-ups, or support social enterprises, creating job opportunities for youth, if implemented on a large scale.

Yomken helps low-tech small businesses and nongovernmental organizations identify the social, environmental and industrial problems they face and links to people with ideas for creative solutions through a process it calls “crowdsolving.” Winning solutions receive financial help for development. (See a related article, “The Arab World Turns to Its People for Solutions.”)

Emirati Youth Initiative
When given the opportunity, Arab youth “tend to embrace and face their challenges,” says Malake El Haj, director of knowledge and innovation at the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (Photo courtesy of the foundation).

An Educational Journey

Participants in the Al Ghurair Foundation’s bootcamp pitched their ideas to an online jury, including ministers and business community leaders—an opportunity to practice conducting business online.

Maryam Almarzooqi, member of the project Mehna, which won first place, said:

“The bootcamp was an educational journey in which we not only learned how to build a business from scratch, we also improved our interpersonal and communication skills as we dealt with team dynamics.”

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Almarzooqi said many science, technology, engineering and mathematics students feel that what they learn in the university does not match the needs of the ever-changing job market. Mehna, an online platform, aspires to fill this gap by connecting students to industrial companies

According to Arab Development Portal, on average it takes young men in the region two to three years to shift successfully from school to work, and an increasing number of young women are not making the transition at all. It says learning methods in schools do not allow students to acquire the skills to engage meaningfully in social, economic and political opportunities.

Atef Elshabrawy, an economic development advisor at the World Bank, has helped set up several entrepreneurial and innovation boot camps in the region.

Bootcamps are excellent opportunities to showcase innovators, spread the spirit of competition and allow youth to discover their creative and entrepreneurial capabilities, he says. But, because the time is limited, “participants might not be able to grasp all the different dimensions of complex problems to be able produce mature ideas.”

Because bootcamps run for only a limited time, “participants might not be able to grasp all the different dimensions of complex problems to be able produce mature ideas.”

Atef Elshabrawy
An economic development advisor at the World Bank

Also, unless properly promoted, bootcamps usually reach a limited number of young people and fail to attract the diversity needed.

The Mehna project, along with the second-, third- and fourth-place team initiatives, will be incubated at UAEU Science and Innovation Park.

Many corporations have reached out to Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation to ask how they can be more engaged in supporting Emirati and Arab youth in their transition from graduates to the marketplace, El Haj said.

That showed “how higher-education institutions can responsibly engage with corporations and foundations to support career preparedness skills and help find solutions to bigger challenges for our region,” she added.

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