Middle East

UAE strives to engage the young, gifted but bored

Emirati men with their falcons Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hunting with falcons is one of the many pastimes that young Emirati men can indulge in

Young people in the United Arab Emirates are among the most privileged in the world. Pampered from cradle to grave, they have good schools, excellent healthcare and access to well-paid jobs. But, as Bill Law reports, not everyone feels they lead a meaningful life.

Souad al-Hosani, a restless 26-year-old businesswoman, is a bundle of hyperactive energy, one of a new breed who are coming into their own in the oil-rich Gulf state.

"We do everything from A to Z for expat firms. I'm 24/7, I never stop," she says, adding that, with the exception of one brief holiday, she has not taken a break since setting up shop five years ago.

Her firm, Nexus Business Services, provides financial advice, contacts in the private and public sectors, and guidance on the cultural and social mores of doing business in the UAE.

She stands out against the stereotype of the region's rich, bored and work-shy, and she is not alone.

Life is good

Mohammed Baharoon, a Dubai-based analyst and policy consultant, tells me that the young people he is now hiring are more dynamic than ever.

"They are more active, more engaged. They don't want to sit at a desk. They want to jump right into projects," he says.

Mr Baharoon credits an improving education system that places greater emphasis on presentation and writing skills, and demands more from its students. That, he says, has made young Emiratis capable of taking on big challenges.

Image copyright Souad Souad al-Hosani
Image caption Young entrepreneur Souad al-Hosani

But it is the young women who stand out.

Of all the women who graduate from high school, 95% go on to university - compared with just three-quarters of men.

Mr Baharoon, who hires young graduates as researchers, says that women are "hard workers and graduate with higher grades than the boys".

When asked why the men do not share that reputation, he replies with a laugh: "They don't go hunting, camping and fishing as much as the boys do."

Nor do the women spend their weekends racing souped-up cars in the desert or the weekdays hanging out at coffee shops, feeling more than a little bored and unmotivated.

Wages are high but so is unemployment

Boredom aside, though, life is good for young Emiratis. They trust their government to look after them and seem untroubled by the well-documented and frequent allegations of human rights abuses by the authorities against dissidents that make their way into Western media but go virtually unmentioned in the Emirati press.

"They take these stories with a grain of salt or they are indifferent," says Mr Baharoon. "They don't see them as real allegations."

I ask Ms al-Hosani if anything troubles her. She pauses ever so slightly and then replies: "Nothing is perfect in life, nothing is ever completed, but we have amazing resources and amazing leadership. We have a happy life."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Traditional dress is favoured by many young Emiratis

Journalist Abbas al-Lawati, himself an expatriate from Oman, observes that young Emiratis have a sense of entitlement that comes from being an affluent minority in a comfortable and heavily state-subsidised society.

Many find work in the bloated public sector where even a lowly secretarial job pays 15,000 dirhams (US$4,100; £2,800) a month and wages are routinely, and very generously, boosted.

The last big increase came in 2013 when government salaries were raised between 30% and 100%.

"There is that sense that citizens can't be fired from a job, either in the state or private sector. It is a taboo. You cannot fire an Emirati," Mr al-Lawati says.

Mr al-Lawati notes that government quotas to get more UAE citizens into the private sector have led to companies hiring young Emiratis for "fluff jobs to follow government regulations".

A do-little-or-nothing job in government, or a private sector job where the employer says, "Here's a desk, do what you want", frustrates and demotivates those who really do want to work - and enables and rewards those who do not.

Yet despite this generous arrangement, youth unemployment is high.

Lost in their own country

Over several decades, the UAE, like the other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, has encouraged a tidal wave of expat workers - mostly poorly paid migrants but also professionals - to transform what were once Bedouin tribal communities into modern countries punctuated by futuristic megacities.

As a result, in a country with a population of 9.3 million, only about a sixth are Emirati citizens. Some feel alienated from a society that has changed so quickly, and among the young many are out of work.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption With money to burn and time to wile away driving fast cars are a popular past time

Young Emiratis risk "feeling lost in their own country", says Hassan Hakimian, director of the London Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London.

The GCC has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. In the UAE, Mr Hakimian says, one in five men between 15 and 24, and more than half of young women, are unemployed. The overall unemployment figure for young Emiratis is 28%.

But that is just for those looking for work. There are no figures for those who have given up or never bothered.

Government programmes and policies to encourage the young into work and reduce the reliance on migrant workers are "of limited value", says Mr Hakimian.

"In reality, the government is continuing down the same road," he says.

This is having a profound effect on the character of the country and its native population. Everything - from tradition to dress sense and the use of English in business and in government circles - is linked to the expat influx.

"Emiratis are a shrinking minority," says Mr al-Lawati.

National identity is being diluted and the young are reasserting their nationality. "They wear it on their sleeves, with their clothing," he adds.

'Know your barriers'

While young Emiratis are among the most avid users of social media in the world and they devour Western music, movies and other cultural influences, men continue to wear the traditional thobe, a long robe, and women the abaya, a flowing cloak.

As Ms al-Hosani puts it: "You need to know your barriers. I started in suits and went back to the abaya."

The government, hoping to reinforce a sense of national identity and address perceptions of feckless and spoilt youth, has introduced compulsory military service for men.

Those who have finished secondary school will serve nine months, while those who have not will be in the forces for two years.

"It is a way of making people do menial jobs like cleaning toilets, cooking meals, making beds - all the things that maids do in the family homes. It is a way of bringing discipline into the lap of luxury," Mr Baharoon says.

And while you might be excused for thinking young Emiratis would recoil in horror, the opposite is the case.

"It is an amazing idea," says Ms al-Hosani, who is exempted from military service.

"Everyone is doing it. It's a way of giving something back to the country."