Young, educated and dissatisfied

Gulf countries need to listen to their students and graduates – or risk trouble in the future.

The uprisings in the Middle East and Gulf in recent weeks highlight the fundamental flaws and long-term instability of the rentier state model. The model is an authoritarian and paternalistic one where, in the case of the Middle East and Gulf, oil-rich governments provide most of the jobs in the country through secure public-sector employment. They pay employees high salaries and generous benefits from their hydrocarbon revenues, which keeps their population "onside", limiting their demands for greater rights and inclusivity. However, this role, as "dispenser of wealth and privilege", also invites the "bad habits" of corruption, informality, lack of transparency and inefficiencies.

Countries such as Egypt, which have limited oil wealth compared to their neighbours, have struggled to restructure their economies and reduce unemployment. While the uprisings have not yet spread across other Gulf states such as in Qatar and the UAE, due to their high oil reserves and lower unemployment, such countries may nevertheless be storing up problems for the future if they do not address the demands of their populations and restructure their economies now.

In recent years, Gulf countries have put significant investment into education, industry diversification and partnering with multinational corporations. US and European universities and even think tanks have set up base in the Gulf to increase the variety of thought, product and work available. Dubai, for example, has in part moved away from reliance on oil revenues and into technological innovation, tourism, real estate and retail areas. But they have also faced greater economic turbulence and rising unemployment due to the recent property crash. Dubai's experience shows the limitations of a rentier system where oversight and independent processes are limited.

Governments in Qatar and the UAE have also implemented national targets to increase the employment levels of their nationals across the economy, in the hope of encouraging employers in the private sector to recruit more nationals, and to encourage nationals themselves to seek employment outside the public sector.

However, what most Gulf countries have not yet done is to develop an infrastructure that supports a smooth transition from education into employment for young people. They have not addressed the high wage differential between public- and private-sector jobs – a public-sector worker in the UAE can earn between 170 per cent and 400 per cent more money than a worker in the private sector.

Nor have they recognised that young people in these countries, many of whom have studied abroad or at international universities at home, have greater demands and aspirations than previous generations. Many young people are the first in their family to attend university, and many – including women – are putting off marriage until later in life, opting to study and have a career first.

There is not yet a level playing field in the Gulf. "It's as though you choose randomly," one female Qatari graduate said to me. "Schools don't prepare you for university and universities don't prepare you for work." Even those who feel they have made the right education choice feel it is not enough. "You have to rely on connections here to get a job," said a male university student. "Without it, you are nowhere."

How can young people be asked to make the unfair choice between high salaries and security in the public sector versus the private sector, with its lower wages and benefits? The trade-off between high pay, security and rewards in the public sector versus low pay and insecurity in the private sector is irrational and there is no incentive to persuade them otherwise.

In addition, more than 75 per cent of students in the national universities of Qatar and the UAE are women. How will Gulf economies absorb this untapped pool of motivated female graduates – and how will this educated resource be leveraged into hydrocarbon-based and traditionally male-dominated economies?

An educated, motivated, young and growing population is an asset to any country. The Gulf countries need to recognise that the demands of their young people for greater transparency and fairness in employment need to be met now if they are to ensure future stability and growth.

Increasing public-sector salaries, as some Gulf countries have done in recent weeks, is a Band Aid, an exchange for absolutist rule, and crucially misses the point of the underlying dissatisfaction, growing unemployment and the unmet aspirations of young people. It further expands the gap between public- and private-sector pay which, in the long term, is unsustainable.

The writing on the wall is clear in the Gulf – listen to your young people now, or risk storing up problems for the future.

Zamila Bunglawala is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.

Getty
Show Hide image

Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

0800 7318496