Youth in the GCC: Towards an Innovative Future- by MEP H.E. Ambassador Amal AL HAMAD

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have one valuable asset to capitalize on, besides oil and gas resources, and it is definitely youth! The six member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) represent one of the youngest regions in the world today, where more than half of the population is less than 25 years of age, and the population will remain predominantly young in the decades to come. As much as this unique demographic reality offers opportunities for our countries to advance towards knowledge-based economies – since young people are sources of both innovation and productivity – it also confronts us with important challenges, such as new means of developing human resources, creating job opportunities, encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit and providing innovative education. All of this places youth, mainly their employment and education, at the top of national priorities.
GCC countries strongly believe in human development as one of the primary sources of power and progress, with a focus on excellence, creativity and forward thinking. Encouraging and maintaining a High Level of Human Development is one of the GCC’s strategic goals. It covers all aspects of improving standards of living, eradicating unemployment and enhancing chances for youth, providing them with the best education, healthcare, housing and community services. In this regard, GCC countries have achieved and surpassed the Millennium Development Goals. Stemming from our strong commitment to empower the young generation, a wide-scope “Youth Conference in the GCC” was organized by the GCC Secretariat General in Riyadh in November 2013 and gathered around 700 young men and women who were convened to give their input on the best means to engage them in setting up adequate policies for future generations and helping them become more innovative and competitive in the regional and global market.
Yet, despite solid economic growth, technological improvements and huge investments in education, some challenges still loom ahead when it comes to youth empowerment.
In fact, youth unemployment is a considerable challenge for the GCC due to several factors, among them an inadequate preparation process for the labor market, even though huge investments were made to modernize the educational system (for example, 26% of Saudi Arabia’s budget for 2011 was allocated towards education and training), as well as the difficult process of adapting skill sets to the global economy which now requires developed and innovative capacities.
Moreover, GCC countries need to encourage personal initiatives from young entrepreneurs so they can establish dynamic and innovative SMEs instead of relying on the public sector as the main employer and putting a heavy burden on national governments.
At the roots of these challenges lies the educational system which has witnessed deep restructuring through the modernization of teaching curricula and techniques in a way that encourages science and research, IT learning, practical skills and innovative thinking.
The same holds true for research, as new research institutions and foreign universities have recently opened subsidiaries in the region, like the Paris Sorbonne University in the UAE and Carnegie Mellon in Qatar. Such institutions will help develop the human capital for the GCC’s future.
In the GCC’s quest for economic diversification, education is of paramount importance as it contributes to capacity building and human development; and, above all, constitutes the catal to become a real innovation hub in the region. A quick look at their achievements so far will help draw a picture about the progress made to accomplish the GCC’s reorientation towards an innovative economy.
Oman along with Bahrain and Qatar have launched their National/Economic Vision for 2020 and 2030 respectively, with a particular focus on raising performances in the education system, encouraging innovation and developing human resources. Likewise, Saudi Arabia developed the “Tatweer” Project to prepare students for a knowledge-based economy. In Kuwait, the Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences has adopted the promotion of scientific, technological and intellectual progress through grants and training programs as its main objective. As for the UAE, the “Government Strategy” of 2007 calls, among other things, for a high-quality education in line with international standards.
In addition to these strategies, several promising projects have been developed or are under construction, which aim to establish research centers and technology parks in a clear demonstration of the region’s commitment to innovation. These projects include, for example, the King Abdullah Institute for Nanotechnology and the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Science Park (KASP), which was established in 2002 and encompasses a number of R&D facilities supporting the development of energy-related technologies; the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT) in the UAE; Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Techno Park project; the Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM) established in 2003 in Oman as well as the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) which opened in 2009. These projects represent important opportunities for foreign investments and partnerships, since national innovation efforts provide higher returns when they receive adequate support from external partners.
The EU and the GCC already enjoy a history of cooperation in the fields of research and education, specifically through the INCONET-GCC, the exchange of students via the ERASMUS MUNDUS Programme, as well as through people-to-people contacts currently taking place under the Public Diplomacy Project which offers relevant training opportunities for GCC academics and students.
But cooperation in the service of youth can be taken to a higher level still. At the World Innovation Summit for Education held in Doha on October 29th 2013, Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, clearly called for stronger partnerships in education and culture and for more exchanges of students, artists and university staff between both regions.
This could be an additional step towards strengthening our cooperation in areas that directly concern our younger generation. The EU’s experience in this field is of particular interest to us.
The EU can invest in the ongoing research projects mentioned above, establish joint ventures with the GCC’s private sector; and both sides can promote contacts and exchanges between researchers from both regions in order to share best practices and experiences. On the other hand, the GCC is counting on its international partners for training opportunities, transfer of knowledge and technologies or even scholarships on the subject of innovation.
Cooperation in the fields of youth and innovation unequivocally represents added-value in our long-lasting partnership!

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