UAE’s youth minister Shamma Al Mazrui on the challenges she faces and how she is building bridges between her generation and the government
By Leila Hatoum
EARLIER this year in February, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum appointed Shamma Al Mazrui as the country’s youth minister. The news would have been like any other cabinet shuffle, had it not been for the fact that UAE’s 22-year-old Mazrui had become the world’s youngest minister.
Two years after graduating from the New York University (NYU)-Abu Dhabi with a degree in economics, and just after she’d earned her Master’s from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, Mazrui was selected to lead the country’s younger generation and forge links between them and the country’s public entities.
In a resource-rich region where tens of millions of people under the age of 25 are unemployed, and where gender inequality and poor access to education persists, it is no wonder that appointing the fresh-graduate Mazrui is what dreams are made of.
The demographic youth bulge, according to a report by the World Economic Forum, constitutes the region’s greatest opportunity and challenge at the same time.
Arab Gulf countries have high youth unemployment rates, with Saudi Arabia’s rates touching 30 percent, according to the G20 organization.
Unemployment rates among the youth are three times that of other age groups in the Arab world. Moreover, unemployment among females in the Arab world is a staggering 43.4 percent when compared with 12.7 percent globally.
The minister spoke to Newsweek Middle East about her plans to help tackle the challenges facing Emirati youth.
How do you feel as the first Emirati to represent the youth in the Federal Cabinet? Do you feel under pressure to live up to the expectations of the leadership that appointed you? Or do you feel more pressure from working on representing your generation?
I was working in private equity and company valuations when I saw His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s tweet. He was searching for the UAE’s next Minister of Youth, and I thought to myself that it was an amazing idea.
After I applied, I didn’t think much of the matter and was rather surprised to see my name among those who were shortlisted as a serious candidate. That took me aback a little. I was later interviewed—and they really grilled me. I was asked about my skills, and where my strong points lay.
Once it had all sunk in and we started to work on the ministry’s first 100-day plan—which defines the focus and deliverables of the Emirates Youth Council—I began to feel excited. It’s not really about feeling that I am under pressure, but rather feeling that we have a mission that truly can shape our future. Our leadership has expectations and our youth have aspirations, and here I am working on bringing both together, and helping achieve my generation’s ambitions.
It is not a secret that bridging the gap between our youth and the government is a great task.
A large number of people, not only in the UAE, but also elsewhere across the globe, welcomed your appointment and saw it as a positive step towards engaging the youth in decision-making. However, there are also skeptics everywhere who claim that your appointment was merely for show; that you don’t have any real decision-making power and are unable to introduce change. How do you respond to that?
I don’t buy that view for a second. For a start, it is the UAE’s leadership who created this opportunity for myself to engage with our youth. The best example is the work that I am doing today, with the help of other young Emiratis trying to build bridges between the generations as well as between the youth and the government.
If the UAE did not believe in its youth, it wouldn’t have given them the chance to shape the country’s future. We want to define our challenges, face and overcome them.
To this end, we have already set up youth councils across the seven emirates, and met with hundreds of young people.
This month, we set up the first, of many consultative meetings in the form of youth circles. This first circle discussed issues of skills and talent development. It also explored advanced concepts in cognitive thinking, artificial intelligence and other areas we want to venture as part of defining a comprehensive roadmap for skills’ development. That gave us two immediate outputs: one is information and ideas to share with government bodies, which would contribute to further developing these areas. The other is to build capacity in areas where we believe we can profit from such ideas.
In building a National Youth Strategy, we are aiming to create a solid connection between our youth and our government where the responsibility is shared by both. That’s hardly a staged show.
Every minister usually sets a work agenda to follow. Can you walk us through your 100-day plan that you have recently submitted to Sheikh Mohammed?
Our youth represent 40 percent of our nation. It is in that sense that our 100-day plan for Youth Affairs maps our vision for youth inclusion into a reality. It also builds upon initiatives that give a voice to the younger generation. And by voice, I mean a realistic and action-based approach to defining a tangible role for youth in national decision-making.
We also aim to define new approaches to entrepreneurialism across government bodies. We are building youth councils and other platforms for crowd-sourcing new ideas, looking for different approaches and targeting disruptive and opportunistic innovation. We seek to inspire and attract the participation and collaboration of the younger generations. In that sense, we want to search for and nurture national talent.
What is the top issue on your agenda to help Emirati youth reach their full, productive potential? And subsequently, what are the key targets in the coming years?
Our focus is the future of our youth. Our aim is to represent our youth and our challenge is to create connections between them and the various public entities. Our clear mandate from Sheikh Mohammed and the cabinet is to develop and take ownership of a long term strategy for youth which gives our young people a strong voice in policy-making and shaping the national agenda.
We’re taking a holistic view across all fields. We want our youth to enjoy opportunity and give them the chance to be the best they can be. We want to help them build entrepreneurialism, launch new careers and find their talents and invest in their skills.
Our work is not only about finding problems but also taking collective ownership of solutions.
Who do you work with to reach Emirati youth?
We are working across the board to ensure youth involvement is woven into our government. You understand, I’m not talking about opinion or representation, but involvement. It’s our future, and we have been given a clear opportunity to even define our role in that future.
One example of that integration would be my membership of the Supreme Council for Human Resources and Education. That shows a serious commitment towards integrating our youth in these important long term policy-setting bodies.
In your opinion, how can the UAE create opportunities for young people who wish to bring out their entrepreneurial skill and put their education into practice?
The UAE is already doing a lot, with small and medium enterprises’ support initiatives, incubators and a range of strategic initiatives, particularly in key areas of innovation such as startups, space sciences and avionics. Our focus, although we are implementing practical initiatives as well, is on changing mindsets. We’re also set on giving young people control, ownership and the skills they need to build new opportunities and create value for themselves.
We have already been working on this, with the Endowment for Youth Projects, which bring a wide ecosystem of support to bear on building startups, including free set-up, access to funding, mentoring and access to incubators and accelerators. We will undoubtedly do a great deal more in this space as it is one of the areas we have already identified as key and strategic to our work moving forward.
The UAE is a melting pot for cultures. How do you see that affecting Emirati youth? Given that celebrating and maintaining the Emirati identity is a keystone, would you work to increase the level of interaction between Emirati and expat youth?
That interaction is already there. You can’t have a nation host up to 200 nationalities as the center of global trade and commerce and not promote its cosmopolitan nature. I think Emirati youth is already exposed to a wide range of influences from world cultures.
The question of identity is core—and I believe my generation is generally more aware of its role in the wider world and embraces its values, from inclusion and tolerance to helping others.
Can we reconcile our Emirati identity with a view of ourselves as global citizens? Of course. Our nation was built on tolerance, on inclusiveness and on welcoming people from the wider world to our shores.
Hope, happiness, and tolerance are broad notions, which vary from one person to another. What is the key target you’re aiming for towards a satisfied and productive young generation?
We are all in this together as a nation. We understand the world around us and the challenges we face. But we also know that we can shape our destinies with our own hands. Our forefathers have shown us this; building the UAE from almost nothing within a single lifetime. “An easy life does not make men, nor does it build nations. Challenges make men and it is these men who build nations,”—to quote Sheikh Mohammed. And there is undoubtedly a new spirit to this nation’s youth, a dedication to our nation and to defining our roles as citizens.
In the UAE, the rulers lead by example. How would you engage Emirati youth in volunteer work, among other social issues?
It is for the Emirati youth to define what social issues they feel are most important, what engages their passion and what they feel we should be building towards. Our role is to work with them in that respect, relay their views to government and to help them make a difference. We’re not here to tell the youth what to do, but to find out what they want to do.
One initiative we are working on at the moment is a youth support database. It specifically harnesses volunteerism in support of national initiatives. We have so many young people with amazing skill sets who are ready, willing and able to contribute to the development of our nation.
What is the message that you have for young Arabs elsewhere in this region, whose countries are facing hard times, especially the youth in conflict zones?
It is hope that defines and unites us, not despair. As young people we can create change—positive change for a better world. We can use compassion and care, positivity and optimism. We can build where others break and celebrate achievement over despair. These qualities are not weaknesses, but enormous strengths. Our greatest, most sustainable source of energy is the energy of our youth.