Now Is The Time To Tap The Entrepreneurial Zeal Of Arab Youth Young entrepreneurs require a hand up, rather than a handout, to make their way in the world– specifically, less red tape, more vocational training, and more affordable (and accessible) finance.

By Sunil John

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In 2008, when we launched the first edition of the annual ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey, two themes dominated the discussion from Dubai to Davos: the Middle East's "youth bulge," and its "untapped youth dividend."

15 years later, and despite the Arab world population becoming younger, realizing this so-called "youth dividend" still appears a distant prospect.

Youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa has worsened, and at 26%, it is higher than the world average by around 13%.

According to the World Bank, one in three young people (32%) aged 15 to 24 are neither employed, nor in education or training, and the United Nations reports that the region must create some 33.3 million jobs by 2030 to absorb the vast number of young people entering the workforce.

Source: ASDA'A BCW

Without question, this is a daunting task for governments. The challenge is further exacerbated by the declining confidence of Arab youth -particularly those in North Africa and the Levant countries- in the ability of their lawmakers to solve their most pressing concerns, notably, unemployment, and rising living costs.

However, the old order is starting to change. Instead of looking to others for support in an increasingly uncertain world, today's generation of Arab youth are learning to rely on themselves. And while this is, in many ways, evidence of the failure of regional governments to provide a secure future for the next generation, it is also a heartening sign of the determination of Arab youth to chart their own course.

According to the findings of the 15th ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey, nearly half of young Arab men and women across the region plan to start their own business in the next five years. GCC youth appear to have the most entrepreneurial drive (53%), followed by their peers in Levant (39%) and North Africa (37%).

Related: He Was Born in 1949, But He Built A City For 2071: Entrepreneurial Lessons From The Dynamic Dichotomy Of The Ruler Of Dubai, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

This is unsurprising, considering the sums GCC governments have invested in startups and incubator initiatives, from Hub71 in Abu Dhabi to the US$100 million venture capital fund for startups announced by Dubai. In Saudi Arabia, the number of small businesses, many of them women- and youth-led, has more than doubled to 1 million, since the launch of the Kingdom's Vision 2030 program in 2016.

Source: ASDA'A BCW

Outside the GCC, the will to start a business may be there, but the way is still unclear for many. About three-quarters of Arab youth in North Africa (73%) and Levant (79%) say it is difficult for young people in their country to start a business, compared with 42% of GCC youth who say so.

Young entrepreneurs require a hand up, rather than a handout, to make their way in the world– specifically, less red tape, more vocational training, and more affordable (and accessible) finance. Our research also found that Arab youth most want to start their business in technology, e-commerce, and the creative industry.

Source: ASDA'A BCW

Running alongside this rising trend in entrepreneurialism is the increasing desire of Arab youth to pursue a career in the private sector, rather than the government. While nearly half of the participants in our 2019 study said they would rather work in the public sector, less than a third (30%) in this year's survey say they prefer a government job. A full 33% of Arab youth want a business career instead, a 13% jump since 2022.

These findings are a call to action for both government and the private sector. Governments must introduce the necessary regulatory frameworks, and invest in the infrastructure required for the entrepreneurial ambitions of Arab youth to thrive. Businesses must provide better access to the workplace for young school-leavers and college graduates, and the right career development pathways for the region's rapidly evolving Arab national workforce.

Arab youth are increasingly ready to go it alone- and for this, they deserve support as well as praise. Governments and businesses must play their part to ensure their potential is fulfilled.

Related: Priceless Advantages: Why We Need To Nurture Emirati Talent In The Hospitality Industry

Sunil John

President – MENA, BCW, and Founder, ASDA’A BCW

Sunil John is the President – MENA of BCW, and the founder of ASDA’A BCW. He has been leading the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey since its launch in 2008. 

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