With more than half the population of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) under the age of 30, engaging, educating and employing the region's young people has never been more important.
The topic of the GCC's youth across the countries in the alliance — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — came up numerous times during discussions at the Gateway Gulf Investment Forum in Bahrain this week, with ministers and business executives discussing the enigma — or not — of how the region can make the most of its young people.
"The theme of the investment conference is unlocking the puzzle (of the Gulf Cooperation Council), but I don't think it's a puzzle," Mohammed Alshaya, the executive chairman of Kuwait-based Alshaya Group, told the forum on Thursday.
"The Gulf has 30 million citizens (excluding expats) entitled to government services, 70 percent are below 30, sovereign wealth funds of $3 trillion, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the GCC is $1.7 trillion and private wealth of at least $1.5 trillion and healthy sovereign debt," he said.
"So we have a lot of opportunities with our youth. Now, youth has to be employed and where are they to be employed? In many sectors and particularly in my opinion, retail and services," the chief executive of Kuwait-based retail franchise operator Alshaya Group said.
Statistics vary but the GCC is estimated to have a predominantly young demographic — with around half of its population under the age of 25 — a potential opportunity or disaster if employment is not high enough for them.
Statista data show that, among the GCC, youth unemployment varies greatly. In Bahrain in 2017, for example, unemployment rates of those aged between 15 and 24 is 6 percent. But in Oman, the rate rises to around 48 percent while in Saudi Arabia, the level is around 32 percent.
Bahrain's Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Zayed Al Zayani, said it was time that the GCC governments pushed for a more entrepreneurial youth.
"There's huge potential in the region with younger people, their brilliant ideas, their excellent education and I see the role of government — and this is what the government of Bahrain has done — as emphasizing more on training, on capacity building, on infrastructure where you give these youth a chance to prosper rather than just giving them social welfare for being citizens."
Alshaya said the playing field for young people must be fair and merit-based rather than nepotistic.
"Now, the role of the government is not to spoil the youth and give them a job just for the sake of giving them a job," he noted.
"They have to be qualified to get the job. It's unfair for a smart girl and a smart graduate man to be sitting next to someone that has come through tribal connections or by knowing people, it's not fair and it's unsustainable," he added.