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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.