The Gulf Cooperation Council Turns 31 – Part 5 – Engaging Youth

Published: May 31, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

Today we present part five from the “Gulf Cooperation Council at 31: Implications of Trends and Indications for GCC and US Interests,” a symposium presented last week in Washington, DC, by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

In this presentation we learned about the youth engagement initiatives and young leader outreach efforts at the U.S. State Department from Mr. Andrew Rabens, Special Advisor for Youth Engagement in the Bureau of Near East Affairs (Middle East and North Africa).  He talked about the current environment — demographics and unemployment issues — and the Department’s tools to reach youth in the region to affect these challenges.

Additional reports from the symposium are at the links below with the remainder of the presentations appearing separately over the course of this week.


The Gulf Cooperation Council at 31: Implications of Trends and Indications for GCC and US Interests (Part 5 – Engaging Youth) – Andrew Rabens

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
Washington, DC
May 24, 2012

Part 1 – Dr. John Duke Anthony – Introductions and Ms. Molly K. Williamson – Overview
Part 2 – Dr. Odeh Aburdene – Economics
Part 3 – Ms. Randa Fahmy Hudome – Energy
Part 4 – Mr. Joshua Yaphe – A Question of Union


Andrew Rabens, US State Department (Photo: NCUSAR)

[Mr. Andrew Rabens] Thank you, Dr. Anthony and let me begin by saying I am truly humbled to be on a panel with this distinguished group of practitioners and also in the room with this group of experts and fellow practitioners as well.

I am currently the Special Advisor for Youth Engagement at the State Department in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. I have been in the State Department for about four years focusing on youth engagement for that time, first in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, then in the Bureau of Africa Affairs and now in the Bureau of Near East Affairs. And I was asked to come today and give some of the youth perspective, the youth demographics that we’re up against in the Gulf and the MENA region at large.

So I’d like to focus my time today on three areas. One being, I want to discuss the kind of environment that we’re operating in from the youth perspective. Two, I want to showcase some of the best practices, tools, programs, and infrastructure that the U.S. Government already has in place in the MENA region and in the Gulf. And then three, I want to take advantage of all of you being here and brainstorm — and this will bleed into the Q&A section — and start talking about how we can better tackle some of the youth related challenges that we face in the Gulf.

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But let me begin very quickly by saying that at State Department and the U.S. Government as a whole, we’ve been trying to make the case more recently that youth engagement is not just a demographic box to check but a powerful means, a powerful vehicle of tackling your key foreign policy priorities. About a year and a half ago the State Department launched a youth engagement, a youth policy framework that produced a document that was released last summer. They also then created a new Global Youth Issues Office at the State Department that’s spearheaded by a young 24-year-old youth activist named Ronan Farrow, and the Secretary has backed up her interest with action this past February, February 25 in Tunis gave remarks where she said, “Young people are at the heart of today’s great strategic opportunities and challenges, whether it’s building or rebuilding the economy, combating violent extremism, or building sustainable democracies, youth are at the forefront of these issues.”

And while she was talking in a global context in Tunis, these issues apply even more acutely, I’d argue, in the MENA region and in GCC countries as they’re trying to deal with repercussions of the Arab Spring, underlying demographics, current economic conditions, culture, and fast-moving change. Yet there are incredible opportunities and challenges. So let’s dive right in.

Current engagement environment. Ms. Williamson referenced earlier, the massive youth demographic. Sixty percent of the world is below the age of 30. Sixty-five percent of MENA populations are below the age of 30. High levels of school enrollment have taken place and high levels of graduate rates have taken place in recent years in the MENA region. Positive development. I think the U.S. Government, including many of the folks in this room, can pat themselves on the back a little bit in terms of helping to spur that along. But the problem is that trends in the youth labor market haven’t kept up with the rising graduate rates and the rising education rates. Brookings estimates right now that about 20-30 percent of eligible youth workers in the MENA region are unemployed. In places like Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, we’re talking 40-50 percent of eligible youth workers are unemployed. In places like Bahrain, one of the GCC countries, a number we keep hearing, that a number of youth grads, very qualified, youth graduates of college remain unemployed.

So it creates a critical gap between expectations and opportunities. Many of our youth contacts in the field are doing the right thing. They’re going to school. They’re getting an education. They’re working hard. They’re graduating. They’re trying to enter into the labor market. They’re trying to enter into the political process and the jobs just aren’t there. But it’s not just that the jobs aren’t there, because if you don’t have jobs you probably don’t have a living wage. You probably aren’t going to be able to move out of your parents home. If you can’t move out of your parents home well you might not be able to court the person you’re trying to date and get married. If you can’t get married you’re probably not going to have kids. Can’t get kids? Well you’re probably not going to move to the next transition of adulthood.

So it creates this immense, understandable frustration, heightened instability, and also the real potential for exploitation from external factors — Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula and other external forces. So there’s a U.S. imperative, a critical U.S. interest in tackling this gap between expectations and opportunities.

Similarly, we’re making a hard pressed effort at our embassies throughout the MENA region, in the GCC, to find out, to work with our youth contacts and to find out where that mutual interest lies. Are you all familiar with Venn diagrams from high school? You’ve got your big circles — so you’ve got your circle of U.S. interest. Then you have your circle of young, GCC youth interests and those are found through your coffees, your relational meetings, your contacts, your built up relationships over time. And then there’s that sweet spot in the middle of those two circles where those are the interests that are overlapping, and that’s the area we’re really looking to play ball in in.

We’re looking to team up collaboratively and move forward together. And in places like Saudi Arabia or UAE, Bahrain, wherever else, where it’s imperative that the government is involved as well. Well maybe you have a third circle below. That sweet spot becomes a little smaller, but we still have plenty of room to move forward collaboratively, to play ball in.

Some of the current engagement tools. I’m going to make the case that State Department has a number of powerful tools in its quiver. We have programs and exchanges broken into two categories. Our bread and butter programs are Fulbrights, our international visitor leadership program exchanges, our “Yes” exchanges for high school students, our Middle East Partnership Initiative young leader exchanges, and our access English language scholarships. We work in 15 NEA countries and train over 11,000 students annually in English.

I found out recently that Dr. Anthony actually was, he and his wife, were early Fulbrighters out in Yemen and I’m sure had a significant role in terms of building people to people capacity in relationships there.

And then we have our innovative new programs. Programs such as Tech Women and Tech Girls that bring young women in the tech business to Silicon Valley or New York for summer internships. Programs such as youth entrepreneurship summits like the one we had last year in Istanbul and in the future upcoming in December there’s going to be our big entrepreneurship summit in UAE and we’re hoping to have some sort of youth component there as well.

There’s an effort to have a global youth jobs alliance. We’re having a Coca-Cola partnership this summer for a number of college and graduate students from the MENA region. So a number of programs, innovative new programs, that we’re trying to push forwards.

We also utilize alumni. Alumni of these exchanges go back to their home countries and then we try to utilize them and help them move forward in their respective fields. And then finally, from a State Department programmatic standpoint, we’re trying to launch youth councils, youth councils at our embassies throughout the world and particularly in the NEA region. And the idea here is that over time we’ve built up this amazing “Rolodex” and contact list at our embassies through State Department, USAID, Defense Department, our political and econ sections, our public diplomacy folks. And now we’re trying to really bring them together, interconnect youth that we know, interconnect youth that may not know each other from different embassies or different countries around the Gulf and around the MENA region, and have them actually advise the ambassador, advise our country team on programs, on needs, on the way in which we can better effect their lives through programmatic aspects.

And I’d like to just close by raising some other youth engagement challenges I mentioned earlier, and Ms. Williamson did as well — the massive youth demographic and unemployment issues and that critical gap between expectations and opportunities. But there are many others in the Gulf right now. Booz and company did a really nice report that came out recently and they noted a few of these. The high cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, dissatisfaction with the education system in certain countries, low participation in community development and volunteerism, discrepancies in gender expectations.  Women in the Gulf in GCC countries seem ready to lead, ready to take on positions of power and influence and it’s a question of whether those men in all cases are ready to allow them to come into the fold.  So how do we address those? Also, the entitlement culture. There’s an entitlement culture for exchanges that we find in terms of trying to foster more exchanges to the United States.

So in conclusion, the GCC has immense opportunity to harness the creative and economic potential of this youth demographic. As was mentioned by Dr. Aburdene earlier, as Gulf countries try to transition from that oil-based economy into that knowledge-based economy, your youth are the source of inspiration, innovation, experimentation. They can be the next Bill Gates, the next Mark Zuckerburg, the next Jack Dorsey at Twitter. How do we reinvest in Gulf countries and partners in that youth demographic, so that we’re taking a positive dividend from this youth demographic?  I really look forward to the Q&A portion and again thank you so much for allowing me to be here.


Mr. Andrew Rabens

Mr. Andrew Rabens is the Special Advisor for Youth Engagement at the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Near East Affairs (Middle East and North Africa), Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  He focuses on regional youth engagement initiatives and outreach to young leaders in the Middle East and North Africa.  Mr. Rabens previously worked on youth engagement efforts in the Bureau of African Affairs and in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Mr. Rabens has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Africa and has done short stints abroad at the U.S. Embassies in Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Gaborone, Botswana; Tbilisi, Georgia; and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.  Prior to joining the State Department, Mr. Rabens attended the London School of Economics to obtain his Masters Degree in International Relations.  While in London, Mr. Rabens worked as an organizer for the Barack Obama Campaign in the UK and in the UK Parliament for the Rt. Honorable Ed Miliband, who currently serves as the Labour Party Leader.

Mr. Rabens is a former staffer for Senator Dianne Feinstein on Capitol Hill and a former intern for both Senator Edward Kennedy and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  He dis his undergraduate work in Government at Harvard University (where he also played on the Men’s Varsity Tennis Team) and is from Berkeley, California.

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