Safeguarding talent in the Gulf
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Safeguarding talent in the Gulf

Safeguarding talent in the Gulf

We examine how the the Gulf region is inspiring a new generation of business leaders


Much is made about the role of talent in business. Terms such as, ‘war for talent’ and ‘talent management’ have become popular buzzwords as companies attempt to evolve and grow during a tumultuous global economy.

But the role of talent in the Gulf is of particular importance, not just because the Middle East has previously relied heavily on outside investment (especially with regards to the workforce) but given the vast strides many countries in the region have made towards development on a global scale.

To continue innovating at such a rate is a challenge in and of itself, but to do so without the next generation of leaders and innovators is nigh on impossible. Fortunately, many individual businesses and governments in the Gulf have realised that to evolve and grow, local talent must be developed, and have put in place processes and procedures to help a new generation of business leaders get started.  But there are still huge challenges to be faced. Not all talent comes pre-prepared with the skills to become successful – and chief among them is support.

According to last year’s Arab Youth Survey, there are three main factors that young Arabs deem necessary to develop. The most common response was “a wide range of work opportunities”. In second place was “safety and security”, followed by “generous salary packages”. With living costs on the rise, each of these factors is deeply affected by the role regional governments play in the development of young talent.

Fortunately, the region boasts more than a few government-backed programmes and initiatives that aim to help companies helmed by young Arabs, as well as position budding entrepreneurs in places they can gain experience.

The Emirates Foundation, for example, has been one of the largest contributing factors to the UAE’s current standing as the number one country most young Arabs want to live in and emulate (according to the Arab Youth Survey).

“Over the last few years we have been very successful at developing programmes that are tailored to respond to youth needs across the UAE,” says Emirates Foundation CEO, Her Excellency Maytha Al Habsi.

“We’ve been doing it for many, many years now and I think the combination of empowering leadership and the love that we have as Emiratis for our country is the reason we have been able to achieve so much.”

The foundation focuses on a model that puts sustainability, collaboration and impact at its core. It is spread across a huge variety of programmes (everything from volunteer disaster response to science fairs), but one of its more successful initiatives has been the Ka’afat Enterprise Journey, which aims to encourage more youth to join the private sector by helping them become ‘job ready’.


Future leaders

The UAE appears to be leading the charge against those challenges. Foundations such as the country’s Youth x Hub and Youth Circles aim to connect young leaders together to improve dialogue and discussion. The Federal Youth Authority helps position future leaders within companies to help them develop. And the UAE Youth Ambassador Programme seeks to spread local Arab values within the private sector and international community.

But the most ambitious programme for youth development is surely the Youth Global Initiative, put in place by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, late last year. It aims to enhance the Emirati youth’s global role and introduce the country’s values and culture to the rest of the world.

Speaking at the launch of the initiative, Sheikh Mohammad stressed that the youth are the foundation of progress and development in all parts of UAE society.

“We are in a non-stop race with the world, and we can achieve progress through our investment in two basic pillars: science, and national quality that will lead the country in the coming stages. These two are the strategic choice of the UAE and its bet to achieve what it longs to,” the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince added.

The Youth Global Initiative aims to position the next generation of leaders within major international companies to gain that all-important experience. Part of the initiative will focus on empowering the UAE’s youth towards the country’s vision.

“We are in a country that has a broad and well-founded foundation of young people,” added Sheikh Mohammad, “who are inspired by the principles and values inherited from the founding fathers and has become a genuine national approach in the service of our country and belonging to its land.”


Solving unemployment

For many young people, one of the most concerning factors is the stagnation of unemployment figures, which have remained almost the same for the past decade. According to Jihad Azour, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department (MCD), unemployment is alarmingly high in the region.

“Almost 60 per cent of the Middle East’s population is under 30, and the level of unemployment at the youth level exceeds 30 per cent. This needs to be addressed,” Azour told the Associated Press.

With so much unemployment, the key to resolving this issue lies with the private sector. However, with the IMF predicting just 1.3 per cent growth in the region in 2019, there needs to be urgent and radical change.

“We need to accelerate reforms on the doing business side, reduce the impediments to investment and access to finance,” says Azour.

“Allow the private sector to be in the leading role and allow the state go from an operator to an enabler.”

One government-backed initiative to tackle youth unemployment from the ground up is the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders. According to Abdul Baset Al Janahi, CEO of Dubai SME the initiative “contributes towards achieving economic growth and the Dubai Plan 2021 by creating a supporting environment for youth innovations and entrepreneurial culture”.

It does so by providing support across the public and private sector, including handing out awards to business and entrepreneurs.

“We have provided consultancy services to more than 23,000 national entrepreneurs and supporting the establishment of 4,000 businesses since inception,” explains Al Janahi, who praises “the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum in supporting the youth march towards entrepreneurship”.

It should come as no surprise that entrepreneurial start-ups have their eyes on the region, not least because in late March global ride-sharing company Uber paid $3.1bn to acquire its regional rival Careem. The news drew praise from the likes Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who said: “Twenty years ago, we established an Internet and e-commerce city in Dubai’s desert. Many questioned the idea. Today, Uber acquired Careem for Dhs11bn. Recently, Amazon acquired, also a multibillion-dirham deal. These companies emerged from the ‘deserts’ of Dubai”.

But the country has always been quick to support entrepreneurs. In March, Abu Dhabi started a Dhs535m fund to support start-ups and venture capitalists. The Ghadan Ventures Fund, which is managed by state-run Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), includes programmes that aim to attract fund managers to operate in the region.

“We are helping new venture capitalists establish in Abu Dhabi to ensure local start-ups have access to more investors, while also driving the establishment and growth of start-ups,” says Elham AlQassim, chief executive of ADIO.

“Entrepreneurialism will be a key driver of Abu Dhabi’s economy,” she added.

Elsewhere in the Emirates, the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) has announced that it now has a 4,200-strong community of aspiring entrepreneurs across 30 incubators and 15 accelerators.

“Our aim has always been to nurture and built a thriving entrepreneurship ecosystem for the UAE,” says Najla Al Midfa, CEO of Sheraa.

Late last year, it was announced that the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce would partner with Sheraa to boost local entrepreneurship even further. According to Al Midfa, “this helps us achieve our shared vision of creating a vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem by providing entrepreneurs with the resources they need to succeed”.


Improving skills

While the UAE indeed looks attractive to younger talent, Saudi Arabia has taken measures to radically advance its initiatives towards getting its youth engaged and into work. Part of a wider 18-month initiative that saw the kingdom quickly open up to outside investment, last year saw the launch of the Alliance for Youth. It’s a programme based on a model created by Nestlé Middle East, but has since grown with partners such as Alawwal Bank, Ikea, Nielsen, Tamer Group and the University of Business and Technology.

The aim is to bring together young people with like-minded companies, to improve skills across the kingdom.

“We know from experience in other countries that concerted collective efforts through partnerships and collaboration amplify positive impact in society,” says Samer Chedid, general manager at Nestlé Saudi Arabia.

“This Alliance is set to further expedite efforts to prepare local youth for employment in multinational, regional, and local companies, and provide more of them with careers across the country,” added Chedid. The Alliance is set to impact more than 50,000 and employ 3,000 local Saudis by 2020.

Of course, one of the Arab world’s largest philanthropic education initiatives is the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education. The privately funded foundation has pledged $1.1bn to support gifted youth across the region through Khalifa University, American University of Sharjah, American University of Beirut and American University in Cairo.

According to Chief Executive Maysa Jalbout, the foundation has committed to impacting the lives of 15,000 promising young Arabs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I believe education is the greatest equalizer and the surest path to overcoming the region’s biggest challenges,” says Jalbout.

“Together with our partners, we aim to enable the Foundation’s beneficiaries to develop into empowered leaders in the UAE and across the region.”

In the new Gulf economy, competition is global, and capital is abundant. In that kind of environment, talent becomes ever more important, which means the Middle East needs to spend more time developing talented young people. Fortunately, there are a large number of both private and public initiatives in place that help local talent evolve and grow.

Thanks to the foresight of many countries in the region – as well as contributing private businesses and philanthropists – measures are in place to safeguard that talent development and help a new generation of business leaders get started.


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