World Economic Forum official says Mideast pays price for gender gap

Omar Alghanim, co-chair of Jordan forum, said bringing more women into workforce would spur economic growth

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Bring more Arab women into the workforce, invest in “bite-sized” infrastructure projects and get the private sector more involved in training young job seekers – these are the prescriptions of a leading Gulf entrepreneur for growing Middle Eastern economies and combating rampant youth unemployment.

Decision-makers long seemed paralyzed by the sheer size of the troubled region’s economic problems, but attitudes have changed in recent years, said Omar Alghanim, co-chairman of this week’s regional World Economic Forum (WEF) conference and a leader of private sector efforts to tackle youth unemployment.

“When you talk to government officials about this, they are a lot more turned on to these issues, and I think they acknowledge the size and significance of these issues,” Alghanim told The Associated Press on Friday. “As compared to five years ago, I see a lot more attention - which is great.”

The Middle East and North Africa have the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment, with 29.5 percent, up two percentage point from over a decade ago, according to the International Labor Organization. Unemployment is particularly high among young women, in part because of the constraints placed on them by traditional societies in many parts of the region.

Alghanim said that bringing more women into the workforce would spur economic growth.

Citing figures by the International Monetary Fund, he said the gender gap in the Middle East is three times bigger than that in most developing economies. If the gap were narrowed by just one-third, the regional GDP would grow by $1 trillion a year, or 6 percent, said Alghanim, a former investment banker who now heads Alghanim Industries, one of the largest privately held companies in the Gulf.

“So there’s a real economic cost here to the gender gap and finding women to get more engaged in the economy is crucial for us as a region, crucial for our competitiveness as a region,” said Alghanim, who heads the Regional Business Council, a group with 30 member companies trying to help reduce youth unemployment.

Alghanim did not say how cultural constraints can be overcome, but suggested change needs to be gradual.

One of the causes of youth unemployment is a disconnect between the skills young people acquire in schools and universities, where learning by rote tends to be the norm, and what modern private companies look for in potential employees.

Alghanim said the private sector must get more involved in training young job seekers and encourage future entrepreneurs.

Nine of the business council’s member companies participate in a program aimed at affecting the lives of 100,000 young people in the region over a two-year period. In one effort, volunteers go into schools and universities to hold entrepreneurship contests in which participants set up small companies, he said.

The program is on track, he said, adding that many of the winning ideas for new companies come from young women.

Experts agree that growing the region’s economies will put more young people to work - a tough challenge at a time of low oil prices and protracted conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The World Bank has predicted tepid growth for much of the region, including wealthy oil exporters in the Gulf.

Alghanim said governments need to invest more in infrastructure projects to spur growth and increase productivity. The region spends only 5 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, compared to 15 percent in China, he said.

Some infrastructure projects move slowly because they are too ambitious and “not bite-sized,” he said. “What happens is that the plans get a bit too grandiose and then it becomes difficult to execute them.”

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