The Distinguished Harvard Alumnus Keynote Address by
Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, at the Harvard Arab Alumni Association’s 2011 Arab World Conference
* Given on his behalf by Diplomatic Attache Fahad Mohammad Hajji
March 17, 2011
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Harvard alumni, I am honored to be here this afternoon to deliver the Distinguished Harvard Alumnus Keynote Address under the title of this year's conference: “Arab Youth of Today and the Arab World of Tomorrow.”
The timing of this conference is certainly relevant, but the choice of the places is a stroke of genius. Damascus is the most spirituous, sensational, and seductive city in the Arab world. It holds a glorious past and a promising future. Thank you for your brilliant choice.
I am reminded of my time at Harvard in the 80’s, where we had heated debate about the future of Arab regimes over macaroni and cheese at Lehman Dudley House. I remember the banner hanging over Widener Library saying, “behold Harvard graduates, you are about to change the world”. We were inspired by the Iranian revolution, only to discover that toppling a regime is one thing, while building a modern society is something else.
Since the 1970’s, however, the Arab region has stagnated in several areas.
While Arab countries did increase their Human Development Index by 66% in the past forty years, with significant improvements in literacy rates, health care, and overall standard of living, we remain lacking in the areas of political and economic modernization.
The population of Arab countries has practically tripled since 1970; but rapid urbanization, inefficient investment, and a failure to confront a surge in unemployment have contributed to near negative economic growth rates.
Since 1970, conflicts, wars, and displacement of people within the Arab states have created a hostile business environment, to say the least. This, coupled with an outdated educational system generating an unskilled labor force has forced the region to address the consequences of resistance to reform.
- Who are the Arab Youth of Today?
One cannot comprehend the Arab “youthquake” of 2011 without looking at some of the obstacles and challenges that face our future generations, and the factors that lead up to this quake.
The Arab youth of today make up the majority of our citizens.
With 65% of our populations under the age of 25, it is no coincidence that their influence is immediately palpable.
The interests, values, and ideals of this generation of Arabs may vary from one country to the next, but they do share a common purpose to affect their political futures.
They also share a new found awareness of the power of networking.
The majority of this youth demographic lives in an urban setting, with access to a variety of multimedia and social networking sites. They are technologically aware, and have become increasingly more active in their demands for political and economic opportunity.
It has long been recognized that the press is the "fourth branch" of government. In today’s world, I think technology is the "fifth branch".
It has given individuals and communities a medium to interact, exchange ideas, and to hold officials accountable. It has empowered this generation through social media websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. To put things into perspective, allow me to go over a few statistics: 75% of Facebook users in the Arab world are between the ages of 15 – 29, and the number of Facebook users in our region has shot up from 11.9 million to 21.3 million within the last year. If Facebook was a country, it would rank as the third most populous with 600 million users; Twitter would rank as the 6th most populous with 190 million users. Furthermore, 107 trillion emails were sent in 2010, that’s 249 billion emails a day. As for tweets on twitter, 110 million tweets are tweeted per day. As evident, our youth are increasingly becoming more involved in this “fifth branch” of government. And with good reason.
Censorship of the press, and the stifling of free speech and expression in our academic institutions have driven the Arab youth away from traditional mediums of print, television, and radio, and into the non-restrictive world of the internet where they could openly communicate their frustrations with the status-quo.
These frustrations have recently culminated in the popular uprisings witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt, where the youth came out to challenge the bleak socio-economic futures they foresaw for their generation.
- How Arab Governments can address these concerns
The challenges that face this coming generation of Arabs range from lack of economic opportunity, to inadequate educational systems, to limited access to the political establishment.
The Unemployment Dilemma
The first obstacle to youth empowerment and self-sufficiency is the disturbing rate of unemployment. Hovering at an alarming rate of close to 20%, the unemployment crisis will continue to impede our development if we do not create 51 million new jobs by 2020.
At this rate, the public sector cannot possibly absorb the influx of young workers. The private sector must be encouraged to create new jobs, to diversify, and to innovate. But without the tangible incentives to do so by their governments, companies cannot be expected to provide this employment for the masses.
Governments need to encourage entrepreneurship, recognize the need for more privatization, and remove the many bureaucratic obstacles already in place. According to the World Bank Group (2003), in order to open a new business in the MENA region it takes 50 days and 11 bureaucratic procedures. This is certainly a very lucrative way for corruption to thrive.
The private sector has the potential to provide the solutions and opportunities for our future generations. Furthermore, we are blessed with a young, booming generation that will provide the labor force of the future. The great Ibn Khaldoon spoke of labor as “the source of value, necessary for all earnings and value accumulation.” We have that labor he spoke of, coupled with the desire to shift to private sector employment; we shall attain the prosperity we strive for as nations. The status-quo is unbearable for our children, and this is where I urge the business leaders in this audience to rise to the challenge and give our talented youth the opportunities they deserve, I guarantee you the end return is promising.
Education in Question
With the emergence of a highly aware and informed youth, comes the essential demand for an equally challenging and inspiring educational system. The modernization and reform of our region’s inadequate educational institutions is critical to our developmental plans. Our current schools are not producing the caliber of competent workers needed to compete in today’s global market.
Further, it is estimated that 10 million Arab children between the ages of 6-15 are not enrolled in school. This is unacceptable.
So, before being able to successfully liberalize our nations, we need to seriously tackle “the knowledge deficit” to which the United Nations Arab Human Development Report referred.
And without the enhancement of our learning establishments, and the investment in new innovation in teaching and technology, we cannot support the growing demand of new business for a skilled and capable workforce.
Young Arabs have legitimate political concerns that must be addressed.
Now forming the majority of the Arab population, this generation is a formidable partner in determining the region’s sociopolitical future.
As I mentioned before, young Arabs today are involved in their world through the many forms of social media available to them. They are aware of the power of the media, and the influence of popular opinion.
They are leaders of community organizations and volunteer groups, and they encourage their peers to be equally involved.
Their concerns stem from the disconnect they feel with the political process, and the perception that they lack the necessary influence on government policy.
This is rapidly changing, as young Arabs emerge into the sphere of politics through social media and grassroots campaigns. They are immersing themselves in civil society, and affecting a reform movement from the bottom up.
Their most pressing demands are those for more democratic freedoms in the economic, political and social fields.
Political and economic reforms are interdependent, and serve to make democratic practices a part of the solution. We cannot affect political reform without taking into account that without a free and decentralized market, true democratic opportunities will remain limited.
On the social front, young Arabs are not unreceptive to traditionally Western ideas of freedom of religion, non-discrimination, and the equality of the sexes. On the contrary, this generation is more accepting of differences, as young women are emerging as leaders within their communities.
Nonetheless, women are still disappointingly underrepresented in government and business, and their disempowerment is another hurdle we must overcome.
- The Kuwaiti Effort
We in Kuwait foresaw several years ago the discontent felt by the average Arab, and for that reason proposed the idea of holding an Arab Economic Summit biannually to address the social, economic and development concerns and obstacles facing our peoples.
Education, housing, infrastructure and healthcare were the forefront topics for such a summit, and Kuwait successfully held the first summit in 2009.
One of the many initiatives put forth by His Highness the Amir was the establishment of a $2 billion fund, to which Kuwait contributed $500 million, specifically aimed at financing medium and small businesses.
It is initiatives like these that impact the everyday Arab, providing those with an idea the sufficient capital to fulfill it.
We recognize that it is our duty to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, as both hold the keys to future progress.
Furthermore, I, as Foreign Minister, chair the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the first of its kind in the developing world.
Established in 1961, the fund has allocated assistance worth over $15 billion to more than 100 countries, and this aid is specifically aimed at development projects in order to help societies prosper. Our target is not to give handouts, but to teach the fisherman how to fish.
The majority of our development aid goes to our friends in the Arab world, and I am proud to say we have helped educate the young, eradicate disease, fight hunger, provide shelter, and build essential infrastructure for millions in the region and around the world.
Going back several decades, Kuwait also established the Future Generation Fund in 1976 whereby 10% of our oil revenue would be
set-aside for the future generations, essentially taxing our current generation in order to prepare for the future after oil.
Our largest civilian employer is the oil sector, which employs over 15,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Kuwaiti nationals. And while this industry does create about 500 new jobs each year, and a new refinery project is expected to employ between 1,000 and 1,500 people, there are still over 15,000 new workers estimated to be entering the workforce every year.
Employment figures in Kuwait have climbed steadily over the past few years, and today, I am proud to say, Kuwaiti women make up about 50 percent of the workforce.
Additionally on the local level, Kuwait passed a labor law that offers more protections and incentives for citizens to move from public to private sector jobs. The government currently employs about 80 percent of the Kuwaiti workforce. But last year alone, over 50 percent of new job positions were provided by private companies. And we hope to see this movement continue to intensify in the coming years.
I leave you this afternoon with a few words to reflect upon by Gibran Khalil Gibran:
"Youth is a beautiful dream, on whose brightness books shed a blinding dust. Will ever the day come when the wise link the joy of knowledge to youth's dream? Will ever the day come when Nature becomes the teacher of man, humanity his book and life his school? Youth's joyous purpose cannot be fulfilled until that day comes. Too slow is our march toward spiritual elevation, because we make so little use of youth's ardor."
So let us not neglect the passion and commitment of our youth, and let us not ignore the link of knowledge to their dreams.