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.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.