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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.