Moment of truth for the Arab youth

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If you asked 1,000 people what their favourite John F Kennedy quote was, it would probably be this: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But I’ve always preferred this one: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

The latest Arab Youth Survey (AYS) didn’t ask its respondents what their favourite JFK quote was. But I suspect many Arab governments reading the 2014 results may well find solace in the second one. This has been a period of unprecedented change and crisis in the Arab world, though the AYS — a scientific and credible analysis of the views of 200 million young Arabs — also suggests this is the time of opportunity.

We have devoted much of this week’s magazine to analyising in-depth the many findings. Some are positive, some predictable and some perturbing. But there is one which to me really stands out: “Entrepreneurial spirit is high and a growing number of young Arabs would like to work in the private sector.” According to the survey, 67 percent of young Arabs are confident that their generation is more likely to start a business than the previous one. Across all 16 countries measured in the 2014 survey, 31 percent now say they would like to work for a private company — a rise from 26 percent the year before. Yes, a substantial 43 percent would prefer a job in government, but this figure is rapidly down from the 55 percent registered two years ago.

The results are not entirely surprising when you consider that 28.1 percent of young Arabs are out of work — that’s twice the global average according to the International Labour Organisation.  And when you add in the fact that the MENA region needs to create close to 100 million jobs just to maintain current unemployment rates, you start to see why the private sector becomes a more favourable option. Not out of choice but necessity.

The question is whether Arab governments are actually doing enough to stimulate this shift from public to private sector. There is much to be admired already: the UAE is working on innovative funding schemes for SMEs outside the banking system, while Jordan has been a revelation when it comes to creating a bastion of young technology entrepreneurs. Even the Saudis have got in on the act, with their Nitaqat system rewarding companies that provide jobs to a higher number of locals.

Is it all enough? No is the simple answer. If the AYS had asked its respondents who the world’s greatest living entrepreneur is, I have no doubt that Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson would top the poll. When Branson was in Dubai two months ago, we discussed with him the measures being taken to stimulate entrepreneurship and create private sector jobs. During the conversation, he asked us what the bankruptcy laws were like in the UAE. We said they didn’t exist.

His response was telling: “I’m flabbergasted to hear there’s no bankruptcy law [in the UAE]. What transformed Great Britain was, in about 1850 the bankruptcy law was brought in and people didn’t have to go to the watch house [jail] if they went bankrupt and they had a chance to start again. I would say that that would be one of the first things [Gulf governments] should do if they want to encourage entrepreneurship, because who’s going to take a risk if there’s no protection?”

The UAE companies law has some articles that cover insolvency but there is no specific legislation. A draft bankruptcy law has been in the works since 2009.

What the AYS does tell us is that this is a time of unprecedented opportunity to galvanise the mood, spirit and determination of the Arab youth. They want change, and they are willing to make change. But it is up to regional governments to put the right legislation in place — beginning with a bankruptcy law.

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