Youth in the GCC Countries: Meeting the Challenge

A new survey from Booz & Company reveals insights from a generation with the potential to bring about massive change.

The GCC is at a moment of unprecedented demographic opportunity. Young people make up one-third to one-half of the population of the GCC countries, presenting GCC governments with an opportunity to propel their nations forward: This group can bring creativity, energy, and productivity to the GCC national and regional economies. With their contributions, the GCC region can accelerate its development and continue building knowledge economies.

But regional leaders in government and business must understand the needs and aspirations of this critical generation in order to tap into their ideas and energy. To that end, Booz & Company conducted a survey of 415 young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, focusing on the areas most relevant to young people today:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Gender gap
  • Leisure activities
  • Community engagement

The survey showed that despite solid economic growth, technological improvements, and increased expenditure on education, GCC countries’ socioeconomic systems have not yet evolved sufficiently to meet the basic aspirations of their youth, who are seeking both social recognition and economic empowerment.

GCC stakeholders are aware of both the opportunities and the challenges in these areas and are making good progress in addressing them. But a more universal, all-encompassing effort is needed to ensure that young people are fully engaged in GCC societies, including governments, private sectors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civic organizations. The region needs a new paradigm that puts the region’s youth at the forefront of national policies, and involves young people themselves in building their future. Only such a holistic effort will allow the GCC to capitalize on this demographic dividend.

Education: Crucial for Youth Development

Because education is a cornerstone of young people’s development and the basis on which the Gulf’s knowledge economies will be built, it was a major focus of the Booz & Company survey. Young people certainly recognize the importance of education. When asked “What is your major priority/ambition in life?”:

  • 45 percent gave top ranking to completing their education
  • 17 percent said that finding a job was their first priority
  • 10 percent noted their top priority was to get married and start a family

However, when it comes to the quality of their education, the primary beneficiaries of the GCC’s efforts are not happy. When asked, “To what extent do you think the education system of your country has prepared you/is preparing you to find a job?”, they responded:

  • To a large extent: 19 percent
  • To some extent: 50 percent
  • To a lesser extent: 20 percent
  • Not at all: 12 percent

The results were similar when Booz & Company asked, “To what extent do you think the education system in your country has prepared you/is preparing you to succeed in your chosen career?”: 

  • To a large extent: 22 percent
  • To some extent: 49 percent
  • To a lesser extent: 18 percent
  • Not at all: 10 percent

In order todrill down into youths’ discontent, we asked survey participants to specify what was wrong with their education system:

  • Traditional methods of teaching: 63 percent
  • Theoretical knowledge/Lack of practical application: 60 percent
  • Curriculum not in line with job market: 58 percent
  • Lack of training: 53 percent
  • Lack of qualified teachers: 52 percent
  • Outdated curriculum 39 percent

GCC governments have begun to recognize the need for change and reorientation, and the initiatives undertaken so far are laudable. However, there is more that can be done. Curriculum reform is one major priority; in addition to instituting teaching methods that encourage students to take initiative and solve problems, there needs to be more emphasis on science, technology, mathematics, and foreign languages.

We also suggest GCC countries pay urgent attention to upgrading and expanding vocational education in partnership with the private sector. The aim would be to link the two environments of classroom and workplace in a practical way so that young people do not feel they are crossing into unknown terrain when they move from one to the other. The private sector can also get involved in the form of summer jobs, internships, and mentoring programs.

Employment: Making the Most of the Youth Dividend

The Middle East currently has among the highest unemployment rates in the world for people between the ages of 15 and 24; according to the International Labour Organization, the 2009 youth unemployment rate of 24.9 percent was nearly double the global rate of 12.8 percent. Unemployment looms as a huge worry for young people, with 87 percent of our Booz & Company’s survey respondents describing it as a major problem.

Young nationals see a number of hurdles to employment. When asked, “In your opinion, what are the challenges that people encounter while looking for a job?”, they noted:

  • Very few jobs available: 58 percent
  • Low salary: 57 percent
  • Lack of previous job experience: 49 percent
  • Job qualifications are high: 46 percent
  • Lack of appropriate skills for their chosen job: 24 percent
  • Lack of career progression/growth: 18 percent

However, young nationals also have some issues with the jobs available. When we asked them to rank certain criteria in order of importance, their number one consideration in choosing a job was a good salary. The second most important criterion was job satisfaction, followed by the reputation of the organization and job stability. Respondents placed career growth and skills development after these other desirable characteristics in a job. These rankings suggest that GCC youth are highly motivated by a desire for financial security.

Finally, the survey respondents felt that their governments had a role to play in mitigating unemployment. When Booz & Company asked what governments can do to expand economic opportunities for youth, they said:

  • Develop youth service programs: 65 percent
  • Promote youth entrepreneurship: 62 percent
  • Create employment through microfinance: 60 percent

Significantly, only 38 percent said they believed the state should partner with the private sector to identify high-demand skills.

Booz & Company’s survey confirmed that GCC youth struggle to find suitable employment and are anxious about their prospects. They also suffer from the absence of a tradition of part-time work during school vacations, as well as a lack of internships and mentoring programs offered by the private sector. Among our survey respondents, only 41 percent said they had ever held a temporary job or internship during summer vacation while they were at university.

Those who had not sought out summer work said that it was because:

  • They were traveling: 45 percent
  • They preferred resting and relaxing at home: 31 percent
  • They didn’t feel ready for work: 26 percent
  • There were not many good positions available: 19 percent

These findings suggest that GCC youth need to adjust their attitude so that they see part-time work as valuable, necessary training.

In order to reap the full rewards of the GCC’s youth bulge, countries need to partner much more extensively with their private sectors to address youth unemployment. The pervasive attitude that it is the task of government alone to provide work must change.

It is also vital to develop clear, strategic economic plans to reach the twin goals of economic diversification and youth employment simultaneously. That means job creation in sectors where the GCC can gain a competitive edge, including knowledge-based activities such as R&D and finance, with corresponding reform in education to give students the necessary skills in science, technology, mathematics, and foreign languages.

Youth and Gender in the GCC: Narrowing the Gap

As a result of women’s increased education in the region, GCC women are exerting a positive influence on their society as they move beyond the traditional confinements of home and family. Educated and ambitious young women are participating more and more in the public arena as businesswomen, university deans, bankers, medical professionals, scientific researchers, and government ministers. However, the Booz & Company survey found that despite the gains that women have made in the region, a mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs, and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence over young women’s lives, limiting their opportunities in education, employment, and leisure pursuits.

Notably, we found a significant “aspiration gap” between men and women. When we asked both what they feel should be the role of women in society:

  • 59 percent of men believed women should first be wives and mothers; 22 percent of women felt that was true
  • 27 percent of men felt that women should seek employment for financial support or independence; 71 percent of women believed that they should do so

We found similar discrepancies when we asked about the role of women in education and employment. In response to the question “Do you believe in equal opportunities between men and women in education?”, 91 percent of women said yes, compared to only 67 percent of men; likewise, 76 percent of women believed in equal opportunities in employment, compared to just 46 percent of their male counterparts.

Although young men accept that more women are getting an education, they are still resistant to the idea that they should have the same opportunities as men in the workforce. There was a significant gap between men’s and women’s responses when we asked what governments should do to improve the status of girls and women:

  • Encourage women to work in different fields: 44 percent (men); 70 percent (women)
  • Encourage education of girls inside and outside the country: 38 percent (men); 60 percent (women)
  • Encourage women’s promotion to prominent decision-making posts: 36 percent (men); 69 percent (women)
  • No need to improve: 24 percent (men); 5 percent (women)

Another pertinent finding from our survey showed the ambition and initiative of young GCC women. When asked “What can your country’s government do to expand economic opportunities for youth?”, the most common response among young women was “promote youth entrepreneurship”; 65 percent of young women thought this would be effective. Among young men, however, this choice came in third, with 59 percent of young men opting for it.

Recently, all of the GCC countries have launched important initiatives to encourage women’s greater participation in society, but most of them address female unemployment. Booz & Company believes particular attention should be paid to empowering young women by creating opportunities for them to voice their opinions and realize their ambitions.

In our vision of a new paradigm for GCC youth, officials would begin to develop policies that support the needs and aspirations of women as much as they support those of men. They would also work to change national perceptions about the role of women in GCC society, sending the message that the demands of a modern economy require the productive participation of women and that women represent a largely untapped resource for powering up their economies. A more flexible approach to women’s participation in the workforce not only would generate more jobs for women and contribute to national income; it also would reduce countries’ dependence on foreign labor.

The challenge for GCC policymakers is to create programs that assist young women without upsetting strongly held traditions. It is not easy to design and implement such nuanced policies. But the benefits that would result—in terms of eliminating poverty, increasing literacy, improving public health, developing human capital, and boosting productivity—are worth the effort.

Leisure: Expanding Young People’s Horizons

GCC countries need to build workforces that are resourceful, productive and creative, with 21st century business skills and the ability to operate in multicultural settings. These are traits learned through leisure experiences, be they recreational sports or science fairs. Diversified, knowledge-based economies also will require young people to take a broader look at their career options—something else fostered by leisure activities, which expose young people to different areas of interest. Because of the benefits of organized leisure activities, and in particular of the physical exercise involved in sports, we asked survey participants about their leisure time.

We found that young people spend much of their time at home or socializing, rather than pursuing extracurricular activities:

  • 88 percent surf the Internet
  • 78 percent watch TV
  • 65 percent spend time with their family
  • 58 percent attend social gatherings with friends
  • 47 percent participate in sports
  • 21 percent seek out learning activities

Given the importance of sports and exercise to young people’s health as well as their social development and teamwork skills, we asked survey respondents how often they exercise:

  • More than five times per week: 14 percent
  • One to three times per week: 50 percent
  • Less than once per week: 17 percent
  • Not at all: 19 percent

About half of those respondents who do not exercise said that it was because of laziness or lack of time. But close behind those reasons came “no accessible/convenient facilities” and “don’t like sports,” which indicates that there might be potential to increase young people’s physical activity with the right infrastructure and exposure to fun forms of exercise.

Survey respondents felt that governments should invest more in leisure opportunities. When asked how governments can encourage participation in leisure activities, more than half of the respondents said they would like governments to integrate areas for sports and recreation into urban development plans and to create a special fund for youth activities.

Although GCC governments have recently introduced a number of initiatives offering youth greater choice in how to spend their leisure time, there is more work to be done. Booz & Company believes that young people should be taught from an early age about the importance of leisure activities as an important avenue to personal excellence; they should also receive more encouragement from parents, schools and their communities to get involved in all kinds of leisure opportunities in order to become well-rounded people.

By advocating leisure pursuits and collaborating with young people on the type of leisure activities they want, GCC governments can improve the quality of life in Gulf cities, as well as produce residents who are physically and mentally healthier. In doing so, they should seek out the participation of the private sector. Many facilities can be built and run by private companies, which also can organize recreational activities, particularly in sports, and sponsor cultural performances as part of their corporate social responsibility programs.

Community Development: Youth and Nation Building

Participation in community development helps young people build the skills that contribute to well-rounded personalities and success in the workforce. It also builds civic pride and responsibility, as well as fostering the feeling of belonging that binds together communities and nations.

However, volunteer work in the community is still fairly limited among young GCC nationals: Just 28 percent of the respondents in the Booz & Company survey said that they participate in community development activities. Nearly half of these (45 percent) do volunteer work with the baladiyah (municipality) or government-sponsored activities; the rest did charitable work with an NGO or through youth associations.

Of those that did not participate in community development:

  • 42 percent said they didn’t have time
  • 40 percent cited lack of opportunities to participate
  • 31 percent noted a lack of guidance
  • 22 percent said they didn’t get encouragement from family members
  • 6 percent said they did not like community welfare work

What is needed is greater awareness of civic responsibilities and greater commitment to community building. The character-enhancing aspect of contributing time and energy to helping others in one’s community should be highlighted and promoted.

But altruism need not be the only motive for community service. Such service is also excellent preparation for the workplace. Volunteer work exposes youths to teamwork, gives them leadership qualities, and builds their organizational skills.

Youth and the Future

Young GCC nationals want to contribute to the development of their country. They aspire to live in technologically advanced, prosperous nations with a well-educated citizenry. Ambitious to complete their education and find suitable employment, they also are keenly aware of the importance of being part of a globalized technological world.

These young people face major challenges in the high cost of living, high unemployment rates, poor preparation for the workplace, and insufficient affordable housing. They want improved education systems built on international standards that provide them with modern skills relevant to a global, dynamic economy. They want increased access to the decision-making process, policy formulation, and civic and community development at the local level, as well as the creation of local youth councils for effective participation in society.

Young people are the key human resource on which the future of the GCC’s economic and social development depends. And they must be seen in this light in order for GCC societies to reap the rewards that today’s youth offer.