Nations are constructs. Like any other structure they need building blocks to be sustained. Education is key to this process in particular for “young” nation-states such as the countries of the Arabian peninsula. Thrown into the international system suddenly in the early to mid-20th century, educational institutions play a key role in engineering an idea of what it means to be Omani, Bahraini, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari or, more recently, khaliji. The same political mechanism applies to indigenising the workforce. In particular, the smaller Arab monarchies, with national populations smaller than a large town, have been hard put to create a local labour force with the benefits of sustainable capacity building or national taxation (as opposed to capital flight overseas).
Until very recently, the Arab monarchies were almost entirely dependent on foreign labour in almost all aspects of their socioeconomic set-up, in particular in the higher education sector, to the detriment of the development of a national workforce. Once expatriates settled in and occupied jobs, it became that much more difficult for the younger generation to come through. This is one of the factors why unemployment rates have increased in all monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. As data from the World Economic Forum and the G20 indicate, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have persistently high unemployment rates. The highest number can be found in Saudi Arabia where unemployment is about 30 per cent. The political ramifications were obvious in the Arab Spring, which affected every country of the region, as I have discussed in my On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution. Youth unemployment is a powder keg in West Asia and North Africa and pretty much everywhere else in the global south. Throw in a good ideological match and it will cause another huge explosion.
Countries such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates have attempted to pursue constructive policies aimed at nationalising the workforce, including in the higher education sector, even before the political upheavals that have scarred the region. Policies dubbed “Omanisation” or “Emiratisation” have been introduced to diversify the national economies and to employ citizens in the private and public sector. For instance, in Oman, the population is growing by about 3 per cent per year, and about 40 per cent of the population is aged 15 or under. About 600,000 pupils are enrolled in schools; that is about 15 per cent of the overall population of the country. They will enter the job market very soon and the Omani economy does not seem to be ready to absorb such staggering numbers. In the United Arab Emirates, the figures are equally alarming. As a response, several state-sponsored initiatives such as the Tawteen UAE, Emirates Nationals Development Programme and the Abu Dhabi Tawteen Council have been actively pursuing Emiratisation by training high school students and graduates in skills required for the labour market. In the educational sector, the efforts are particularly focused. Institutions such as the Emirates Foundation offer competitive research grants themed along the Emiratisation campaign.
Yet efforts to pursue these nationalised policies are hampered by the continued overreliance on specialised skills from abroad and cheap foreign labour, with all the tragic stories of exploitation that have repeatedly made the news. In addition, there are “softer” factors such as a discrepancy in language between graduates educated in English and an old guard speaking in Arabic. As one academic from the UAE put it during a recent education conference in Abu Dhabi: “They struggle when they go to the workplace and are asked to deal with documents in Arabic, to present in Arabic and attend meetings in Arabic, based on the emphasis on English language during their higher education.”
This language barrier is particularly pronounced in the higher education sector, not at least because it is dominated by Anglo-Saxon institutions such as University College London (Qatar), New York University (Abu Dhabi), the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Bahrain), Herriot-Watt University (Dubai), the two American University branches in Kuwait and Sharjah, and an additional six branches of US universities in Qatar’s Education City. This “borrowed” culture stunts efforts that are aimed at nationalising the workforce; hence, a national labour regime is that much more difficult to institutionalise.
Building a nation needs patience, especially within a context that is economically invasive, politically charged and culturally fluid. Unless there is a compromise between the pressures of globalisation and the demands of national governance and sovereignty, current efforts at nationalising the work force will continue to be hampered, both in the GCC countries and throughout the global south.