Can the Great Middle East Platform make a difference for Arab youth?

The Great Middle East Platform’s recommendations offer a long-term holistic strategy.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Investing in youth. Sylva van Rosse (L) and two young participants in the Great Middle East Platform. (Great Middle East Platform)
Investing in youth. Sylva van Rosse (L) and two young participants in the Great Middle East Platform. (Great Middle East Platform)

By 2020, the Middle East and North Africa will need more than 60 million new jobs. Currently, youth unemployment is as high as 30% in some countries in the region. Unemployment is understandably a source of much concern: People under 30 represent 60% of the Arab population and they live in a politically and economically torn region.

Somewhat outrageously, Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform (Dutch for “The Great Middle East Platform”) sees the problem as eminently solvable.

Led by Vanessa Lambrecht and Sylva van Rosse, the independent foundation from The Hague has cobbled together a go-local strategy for the Dutch government to execute in the Middle East. Next stop, the European Commission in Brussels.

The foundation said stakeholders should support local networks and NGOs that boast sizeable youth participation and influence and that stakeholders should fund alternative media that showcases young people, especially women, as role models.

“We need to hear stories from diverse people and invest heavily in young role models,” Lambrecht said.

As a long-term strategy, the foundation recommended a laser focus on vocational education and online learning, particularly in Arabic, to democratise learning in the region. A Dutch-Arab partnership at the higher education level would help with knowledge-exchange and the creative growth of young people in the region.

“We have met many young people who are eager and willing. Unfortunately, many young people cannot afford to be creative because they are too busy surviving,” van Rosse said.

Fair enough but how is the overall approach different from any other Western talking shop’s recommendations on the Middle East?

Its specificity, van Rosse suggested. “Instead of writing a 1,000-page recommendation that won’t get implemented, we wanted to provide Dutch Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag (with clear steps) to be discussed with policy-maker counterparts in the region,” she said.

No one is sure if the Dutch government and the European Commission will agree to follow those clear steps but it’s true that the Great Middle East Platform’s recommendations offer a long-term holistic strategy rather than the short-term reactive policies adopted in and for the region.

The foundation takes pride in the brevity and succinctness of its recommendations. These were put together after consultations in February with 30 Dutch Middle East experts and four young representatives from Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Jordan and regional non-profits.

The guiding principle was “Arab Dawn,” whose author, Bessma Momani, specifically aimed to dispel Western negativity about the Middle East.

Her young Arab students, said Momani, a political science professor, give her intense hope. That hope, Momani said, stems from “a fundamental intergenerational change.” The Great Middle East Platform’s recommendations also drew upon the UN Development Programme “Arab Development Report 2016” because it focused on enabling youth to shape their own future.

The Great Middle East Platform says investment in the region is key and Dutch companies should lead the way with construction, water management and renewables companies that have in-built training programmes for young locals.

It is a bright and hopeful proposal but even the foundation’s relentless optimism admits there is a big roadblock on the path to change.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How much room do young people have to participate?’” van Rosse said. “We felt that there was very little space for people in the region to develop themselves. We understood that so many brilliant minds are boxed in and tired by the lack of support.”