Open Borders, Private Sector Investment, and Women Entrepreneurs Can Tackle Unemployment in the Arab World

On November 13th, leaders at the World Economic Forum in Dubai came together to discuss what can be done in the Arab world to increase economic growth, empower youth and face the employment crisis. From the predictable to the controversial- here are some of their answers (and you can watch the entire panel below).

The panel, which was televised on Al Arabiya, hosted: 

  • Masood Ahmed, Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
  • Erik Berglöf, Chief Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)
  • Curt Rhodes, the Founder and International Director of Questscope, which operates in Jordan
  • Dr. Mustapha Nabli, Economist and Former Governor of the CEntral Bank of Tunisia
  • Habib Haddad, the Chief Executive Officer, Wamda, United Arab Emirates and a Young Global Leader

The panel was moderated by Lara Habib, Senior Presenter at Al Arabiya News Television.

Are governments doing enough?

Citing the fact that the IMF predicts that the global economy  will grow 3.3% in 2012 and 3.6% in 2013, Lara Habib queried Ahmed on the stability of that prediction. Growth in oil-importing countries will be slow, but also in oil-rich countries, "the problem is to find the right skills match to find jobs for nationals in the private sector" he says. 

"Have governments done enough?" Lara Habib asks Erik Berglof, when it comes to recovering after the Arab Spring? "It's not easy to solve overnight," he says, pointing to the need to create a stable business environment and include youth. "When we look back at the reforms taken, [often] the way [they] worked out did not always include the broader population," he says. "There's a need to rethink how these reforms are implemented in the region."

Lara Habib pushes Dr. Mustapha to reflect on Tunisia "Bouazizi was the start of the revolution," she says. "Two years after the revolution, unemployment rates are at a record high. Are you satisfied by what has been done by your government?"

The major paradox, he says, citing an increase in unemployment from 18% to 30% in 2011, is what he calls the "Iron law of transition:" things are bound to get much worse before they get better. Alleviating mistrust is key in order to create a clear political roadmap in Tunisia, he says.

Habib asks Rhodes of alternative education platform Questscope what the implications of youth unemployment are from a social and economic point of view. The implications will include alienation and a lack of hope, he replies. "If young people can't themselves in the picture that we've created for them, someone will create a picture for them to be a part of."  

Increasing the population's earning potential is key, he says. "Either our youth are our biggest asset, or they become our biggest liability. How will they gain the self-respect that you need if you cannot generate your own life?" 

The two critical elements that can boost entrepreneurship 

At 12:05 (until 15:36), Lara Habib queries Habib Haddad, our CEO, about the need for reform in the Arab world. 

Political reforms are slowing down, agrees Haddad, "but the bottom-up world doesn't really care that much." Two major arenas in need of reform that he points to are 1) ease of travel across borders, and 2) the involvement of the private sector. 

"I think that a lot of the Arab World- the governments are just using entrepreneurship as a checkmark, it's sexy, it's cool, and it calls to the youth. But it's not being solved the right way," he says.

The region needs unity- "Saudi Arabia needs to open up its borders, and allow the Arab World to be called the Arab world." Haddad discusses Aramex as an example of private sector involvement in supporting e-commerce, urging more to adopt a similar mindset. "Why is the private sector obsessed with protecting its assets versus maximizing its upside?" he asks.

How to support women entrepreneurs

In a final segment (at 24:54), during an audience Q&A, the conversation turns back to the role of women in entrepreneurship, another critical element for fighting youth unemployment.

Habib Haddad is characteristically frank on the topic- "At Wamda, we've invested in two startups that are run by women, and they are much better than the men," he says. But we the ecosystem needs are more role models, he points out, citing the power of role models to encourage accomplishment.

"The press has to talk a lot more about women in entrepreneurship," he says. Rather than implement quotas, we need to encourage meritocracy, and support education. "60% of the youth in GCC think that women belong at home. We need to educate our youth a bit more, and tell them that [women] belong in the taskforce, and they can do a better job than you." 

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