Sheikha Al-Zain: testament to youth

As undersecretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs, Sheikha Al-Zain Sabah Al-Naser Al-Sabah is responsible for national policy to empower Kuwait’s youth. Here, she talks exclusively about social enterprise and modern philanthropy

The message is a stark one, directed firmly at the youth of the Middle East, those who hold the future of the region in their hands. “It’s an element of do or die at this point,” says Sheikha Al-Zain Sabah Al-Naser Al-Sabah. “Either we step up to the plate or we don’t and we fall behind. And I don’t think anybody wants to fall behind.”

As the undersecretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs in Kuwait, Sheikha Al-Zain carries direct responsibility for the future of the 61 per cent of her country’s population that is aged between 14 and 34. It is a task that grows more essential by the day: her colleague Sheikh Salman Sabah Salem Al-Sabah, minister of state for Youth Affairs, last year warned that “ignoring [young people] is a death sentence”. Providing an environment of exploration and innovation, he added, would help “tackle radicalism, fanaticism and tribal division”.

According to The Brookings Institution, the Middle East is experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge, with more than 30 per cent of its population aged between 15 and 29. This translates into more than 100 million youth, and the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history. So, to the “do or die” moment: can nations implement sound economic and social policies that channel this demographic shift into a tangible dividend that generates lasting benefits?

In Kuwait, this challenge is embraced by the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs, which is tasked with creating an environment in which innovation, civic engagement and entrepreneurship, can flourish. To that end, Sheikha Al-Zain is in the process of examining the budgets, legislation and services available to Kuwait’s youth today. She will help draft a national policy that, she says, will help bridge the “huge gap” between what is available and what is required, and begin to address the “dichotomy of old and new” attitudes to youth development.

“We hope to be able to not just adapt, but to excel in all developmental sectors and fields,” she adds. “Having youth as a partner moving forward is essential for any kind of development down the line.”

"We are seeing the emergence of what some might describe as a true philanthropic sector in Kuwait"

In recent years, Kuwait’s humanitarian landscape has undergone a quiet transformation. The licensing process for new NGOs has been accelerated and legislation has been clarified: as a consequence nonprofit and volunteer groups are now able to operate more flexibly and more efficiently.

“There’s a new wave on that front, with youth volunteer groups getting official licensing, moving forward with their activities in the service of the community at large,” says Sheikha Al-Zain. “What we are seeing is more organised volunteer movements, and the emergence of what some might describe as a true philanthropic sector in Kuwait.”

Sheikha Al-Zain is able to leverage her own private sector experience – as a film and television producer and social entrepreneur – and also her ongoing work with of a string of media and youth-charged organisations, including the advisory board of the United Nations Development Programme.

She also founded the Youth Outreach Program, an initiative designed to help integrate talented Kuwaiti youth into various regional media sectors, and is raising funds for ADASA, an organisation that will support modern visual storytellers by providing them with studio space to realise their projects. Finally, she is working to increase youth participation in the private sector, and leading calls for the establishment of a so-called “third sector” to spur job creation in the region.

“We can’t depend on governments any longer to offer jobs for youth,” Sheikha Al-Zain contends. “Even the private sector is now getting quite congested. However, what we can look to achieve is to start investing in the region’s wider youth community, and start building an alternative ‘third sector’ underpinned by social entrepreneurship, volunteer projects and civic engagement.

“This new sector could have both nonprofit and for-profit elements, but its main purpose would be to serve the community,” she adds. “This could be really effective in welfare states where we have the luxury of free healthcare and education, but where in most cases the quality offered is quite low. A third sector could help provide better services, such as in education and medicine, and make a critical difference to communities.”

"Our youth have grown accustomed to being handed things and now expect these things to just come naturally"

The Middle East and North Africa region has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world at 27.2 per cent, according to World Economic Forum data. There are some 40 million youth without jobs in a region where more than half its 369 million inhabitants are under 25. While most Gulf countries have enjoyed budget surpluses and significant prosperity relative to their regional neighbours, thanks to their hydrocarbon wealth, the sharp drop in the price of oil since 2014 has placed unemployment back at the top of the political agenda. According to the International Monetary Fund, unemployment levels in oil-exporting countries across the region, including the GCC, are expected to soar over the coming years, as governments prepare to cut spending deficits.

In this new post-windfall world, governments have highlighted social enterprise and the creativity of youth as potential future economic drivers. First, though, a mindset shift is required in those Gulf nations built predominantly on the welfare state model. The current system, says Sheikha Al-Zain, is one-sided and requires reconfiguration into a “full circle” state-citizen partnership.

“It’s important to start at home, to understand that there is no such thing as taking and not giving back,” she explains. “Unfortunately, in our societies, especially in the GCC, our youth have grown accustomed to being handed things and now expect these things to just come naturally. That needs to change.

“What our countries must change is not their giving. [They must] repackage the idea of giving to make our communities, the recipients of these gifts, understand that our governments are investing in them rather than just giving [hand-outs],” she continues. “We are investing in their welfare, in being part of our communities, in their future in our countries. So when we invest in a Kuwaiti citizen, we hope they will bring the benefits of this investment back to the community, and this will have a positive impact on the country for generations to come.”

Today the majority of Gulf nationals opt to work in the public sector, a trend Sheikha Al-Zain is attempting to reverse. She sees cause for optimism: there has been a steady increase in the number of startups in the region, especially in the technology sector. Sheikha Al-Zain says she is “flabbergasted by the incredible projects and initiatives” from Kuwaiti and regional youth that land on her desk. And global innovation players are paying attention to the region, too: Google recently opened AstroLabs Dubai, a hub designed to serve as a launchpad for tech startups with high potential.

"I urge everyone who works in the educational field today in the Middle East to think outside the box"

“You see lots of different volunteer-backed and IT-based companies, small and medium enterprises, mushrooming around the region,” notes Sheikha Al-Zain. “A lot of those companies leave an imprint not just on a local or regional scale, but you see them really transcend boundaries and move on to the European and Asian markets as well.”

Yet, despite these encouraging signs, significant obstacles litter the path towards sustained youth development. 

“In the majority of our countries, our education systems need a lot of work,” she warns, suggesting that the solution lies in education systems that are based “on making mistakes and learning from them, on creative thinking and innovation, and on education through entertainment”.

“We tend to gravitate towards old-school models that don’t allow for trial and error,” she says. “I urge everyone who works in the educational field today in the Middle East to think outside the box, to start coming up with creative dynamic solutions for education.”

Likewise the region must find new approaches to systemic challenges around outdated infrastructure, inefficient administration, regulation that suffocates small businesses, and legislation that fails to meet the needs of youth or the globalised world in which we now live.

“These different obstacles make for quite a hostile environment when you talk about youth and where they’re going,” she notes. Progress is being made, however slowly, and she is realistic in her short- and medium-term expectations. Just as it took “decades to build those systems, it’s not going to take a day or two to deconstruct in order to reconstruct” them, she says.

“It needs to move at a grassroots level first, and be embraced by our community first, before our leaders can take the initiatives moving forward. In the meantime, we really need to start thinking that everyone matters, that everyone can contribute to his or her community at large. That’s how you start little tiny movements that we hope will snowball into a much larger movement for the region.”