A 2007 report by the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) puts the scale of the problem in context. In the report, IBLF notes that over 290m people live in the Middle East and North African region (MENA) and the demographic is expected to double over the next thirty years. Out of today’s population, some 60% is under 24. That in turn means that 20m jobs have to be found right now to reduce current levels of unemployment, and over 100m new jobs have to come on stream in the next 20 years to meet supply.
Youth unemployment is chronic in emerging markets and for all its much vaunted riches and resources, the story is the same in the MENA region. Finding a job is the top priority for 68% of Arab youth and if the means to find work are not there, then the result could be very challenging indeed. The problem has been in mind for some time. A few years ago, at an International Fund for Agricultural Development meeting in Rome, Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) secretary-general Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah compared unemployment to a ticking bomb likely to cause a “revolt” should the region fail to act comprehensively and soon. His fears may be justified. IBLF’s report says that 80% of young Arabs do not believe they will find employment easily; while 70% of young Arabs think it is up to the government to solve the unemployment problem.
The private sector can play an important role in tackling the growing crisis of youth unemployment and perhaps for too long governments and aid agencies have been seen as the only solutions to what could be an impending crisis. However, businesses and pressure groups across the Middle East now appear to be picking up cudgels and instigating—albeit in a small way—initiatives to help create new employment and enterprise opportunities for young people. IBLF’s report was published, for instance, with the support of the Young Arab Leaders, Emirates Environmental Group, Young Entrepreneurs Association, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a consortium of companies. Now comes a clarion call to action by FTSE Group and Silatech, which together are working to attract global investors into the process of change through the launch of a special index project to support youth led small businesses in the MENA region.
The initiative will promote the creation of small and medium sized enterprise (SME) markets and indices across the MENA region in order to “facilitate their growth and development and thereby increase youth employment opportunities,” notes Imogen Dillon-Hatcher, managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa at FTSE Group. The initiative will encourage and support individual exchanges “in establishing their junior SME markets, that are lightly regulated and thereby encourage the development of smaller, entrepreneurial companies. We know that such companies are more likely to employ and even be run by the 18 to 30 age group,” she adds. The first initiative will be implemented in Qatar, where local regulator, the Qatar Financial Markets Authority (QFMA) is working with the Doha Securities Market to establish a ”younger market that will attract investors. The next stage is to establish credible investible indices supporting the junior markets that will attract institutional investment,” explains Dillon-Hatcher. Moreover, she adds, the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are also supporting the broader Silatech initiative.
“This initiative is about energising SMEs, which are critical to the creation of youth employment opportunities, [which is] our main goal,” says Rick Little, chief executive of Silatech. Silatech, is focused on connecting young people across MENA to encourage employment and provide new business development services, unlocking capital and encouraging new business start-ups. Moreover, other exchanges in the region have indicated their interest in the project. “We have already had the commitment of the QFMA and expect to make announcements related to other exchanges which are in accord with the project very soon,” adds Dillon Hatcher.
The initiative also has broader connotations. According to Dillon-Hatcher, “it also resonates in markets such as Syria and Yemen, for instance, where there is no formal exchange arrangement, but where we can encourage small firms to list on other exchanges in the wider region to get access to investor funds.” In Syria, for instance, the major issues are lack of skills among the youth and a high preference for the public sector; a common trend in most countries of the region. In Tunisia, unemployed youth from rural areas are increasingly migrating to the cities. In Yemen, unemployment among women is six times higher compared to that of men. These dissonances have economic consequences, and it is estimated that MENA countries are losing as much as $25bn in income every year due to unemployment.
Global firms are also investing in the initiative. Cisco Systems is in the process of creating “an incredible web based communications network supporting the project,” notes Dillon-Hatcher, “designed to appeal to 18 to 30 year olds, providing forums, chat rooms and providing advice and access to training and meeting facilities.”
It is important to remember, notes Dillon-Hatcher, that the project has sound business principles behind it. “Without that it simply would not work. Although our involvement fits neatly with our high standards of corporate citizenship driven by our relationship with UNICEF, we also have a business stake in the project. What we are creating here sits alongside our day job. That ensures its longevity and our commitment as a business. Unless it fitted in with our strategy, it could wither on the vine.” By way of explanation, she points to the perennial requirement of exchanges in the MENA region to establish national indices and pan regional indices. “Our job is to create appropriate indices for the junior markets, perhaps with different frameworks to suit local market conditions, but with a common methodology.”
Ultimately, “All exchanges in the region are keen to establish new products, such as exchange traded funds (ETFs) and this project should be seen in this regard, as a means of diversifying indices in the MENA region, and offering investors access to the growing prosperity of the region as a whole across the business spectrum. The youth opportunity project in this regard is a very exciting development, which also has significant repercussions for youth employment in the region over the longer term,” highlights Dillon-Hatcher. In other words, its business case is based on the fact that the overall success of the Middle East in increasing prosperity among its population, and in particular, younger members of that population, is of central importance to every business with long-term operations in the region.