Monocultural youth; bane or boon?

January 18th, 2010

Many people keep asking me about my views on Arab youth. So I decided to give it a good think, before writing my latest article. I noticed that when I would go to the malls I would find a very distinct resemblence in youth from all over the world. Their gestures, hairstyles, fashion sense and even sometimes language are all very similar in nature – sometimes to a point where I cannot tell where they originate from. Not quite sure if this is a good or bad thing, I am however sure of one thing – media plays a big role in influencing our youth. Read on for more…

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 15th January, 2010
As I sipped my cappuccino at Jumeirah Beach Residence on a pleasant summer morning, I couldn’t help but notice the young Emiratis in front of me.  Long haired boys in kanduras listened to their iPods, others sported baggy jeans and Ed Hardy caps. A group of beijing girls on the adjacent table took one another’s photos on their digital cameras and I could tell they were uploading them on their blackberry Facebook accounts every five minutes. The scene was familiar, I thought to myself, so familiar in fact that it took me back to one summer morning in Barcelona as I watched a Spanish group of teenagers. This recent uniformity of the global youth is a fascinating equivalent to a Rubik’s cube – a juxtaposition of different colours that come together as one strong identity.

Western and Middle Eastern youngsters seem to have very similar consumer and lifestyle habits; they indulge themselves in similar activities and use similar technologies. I see this uniformity in our youth as a global phenomenon driven by globalisation. Yes the world may be flat, and our youth’s attitude and behaviour are the result of this flatness. The omnipresent influence of media such as MTV, Time Warner and Showtime are some of the most powerful drivers in shaping our youth. At a time when Hollywood and its affiliates now generate $10.6 billion dollars annually, one cannot deny the significance of this influence. This development has a huge impact on the metamorphosis of a generation who are perhaps inclined to view the West as an inspirational utopia. Even in developed markets such as Japan, the highly popular Anime cartoons with large eyes and light coloured hair have a huge impact on the appearance of their youth; although these cartoon characters have more western features and no longer resemble ethnic Japanese. It is hard to differentiate your average teenager walking the streets of Tokyo from his or her counterpart strolling down Fifth Avenue; bane or boon?

With history as a guide, in the eighteenth century, when novels were first published many were concerned that readers, especially the young, would be corrupted by the licentious and immoral behaviour described within. By the twentieth century the potential causes for concern had proliferated dramatically. Today media experiences seem to multiply month on month, and while much concern about their influence on young people may represent older worries in new forms, the media ecology of today’s youth presents a new frontier that offers unique challenges.

A child born in the 1930s might have spent as much as several hours a week listening to the radio, reading comic books, newspapers or magazines. Since television was first introduced in the 1950s the number of hours young people spend interacting in some way with media have increased to an extent far beyond the youthful imagination of today’s grandparents. According to Nielsen’s Media Research today young people spend up to five hours a day interacting with electronic media.

The effects of the growth in power wielded by the media are colossal. In conservative countries behaviour such as cultural abandonment, identity crises and generally negative attitudes are cause for concern. In the Middle East parents may not necessarily want their children to adopt the social behavioral patterns of Western counterparts.  Regardless of its positive or negative connotations, it might prove to be difficult to impede, as to many youth these elements define being young. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled the youth to all be part of that big Rubik’s cube.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Absolute uniformity of any society is rarely a positive outcome and although we may deem it necessary to go out of our way to teach new generations about our culture and history and guide them in terms of their identity, in doing so the media can be a powerful ally. At a recent TED talk UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “We are at a unique moment in history, we can use today’s interconnectedness to develop our shared global ethic – and work together to confront the challenges of poverty, security, climate change and the economy.” I find todays Arab youth (which make up 60% of the population) to be both creative and technologically proficient .Take Firas Shamsan – he started a ‘Life is beautiful without smoking’ blog in Qat-stricken Yemen and reached thousands of people from all over the Arab world and helped many overcome their smoking addictions. To add, the creation of new organizations such as Young Arab Leaders means the youth are given an identifiable, positive standard to aspire towards . These social initiatives all address important issues and are equally facilitated by technology. A well designed and executed media strategy not only draws on a populations creativity but, with proper oversight, can also encourage our youths pro-active approach in positively shaping their future.

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Patient capital in an impatient world

October 30th, 2009

After reading The Blue Sweater I felt truly inspired to look at philanthropy from a whole different persepective. The author writes beautifully about her life in Africa – the struggles and hardships coupled with the moments of joy and satisfaction. After meeting Novogratz I felt a sense of  immense positive energy. I was surprised to find that instead of much of the conversation being about her, it actually was about me. She was interested and curious to hear all about my life and what I do. I am honoured to have met someone who has had an impact on millions of people all over the world. The following article is dedicated to Jacqueline Novogratz and her great achievements..

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 30th October, 2009

Philanthropists and charities are coming around to the idea that it is better to teach a man to fish than to simply feed him.

The past month has found me deeply engrossed in a book named after a rather understated garment — The Blue Sweater. What the book lacks in glamour it zealously makes up for with impact and outright humanitarian verve. It speaks about patient capital, an interesting and novel philanthropic strategy that the author, Jacqueline Novogratz, has dedicated much of her very interesting adult life to. Today, Novogratz is the CEO of the Acumen Fund, a not-for-profit venture capital fund (not an oxymoron as you will see). With the backing of hundreds of individuals and a few large organisations such as the Gates foundation and Google, Acumen has helped build companies that have created jobs for more than 20,000 poor people in various parts of the world, such as East Africa, Egypt, India and Pakistan.

Billions of people still live well below the poverty line with no access to clean water, health care or shelter. Although charity has evolved over the years and become both bigger and more institutional, there are good reasons to believe that the charity model is in need of a make-over. I don’t contest that traditional charities have always had their hearts in the right place. However, their attempts to solve time-honoured problems such as access to health care, housing and sanitation all revolve around conventional aid handouts — be it money, food or other tangible goods. Many large organisations and wealthy people donate to these charities, and they consequently alleviate suffering. However, this usually just provides short-term respite and should money run out there is little that those initially helped can do to sustain their standard of living, and they find themselves back at square one.


A significant oversight is made in traditional ‘giving’ to those affected by poverty. Receiving aid is a passive act, and does little to empower the receiver. In this light, I see a vacuum — a yawning one — and growing poverty levels are the result.

The stage is set for patient capital, or perhaps we should call it charity 2.0 — a new paradigm with the potential for greater, more sustainable success. To put it simply, donations are collected by a fund like Acumen that then makes numerous small equity and credit investments in entrepreneurial initiatives and businesses that serve poverty-stricken communities. A wonderful example is that of Duterimbere — the bakery that Novogratz helped build in Rwanda. The Rwandan word duterimbere means to move forward with enthusiasm, and upon finding a group of influential women wanting to aid this project, Novogratz took it upon herself to teach a group of single mothers the core business skills they needed to operate. While creating jobs and teaching skills, this remarkably changed the lives of these women — instilling in them a sense of dignity and self-worth, giving them choices in life and, more importantly, creating financial security. This story and that of the Malaria preventative bed-net business that Acumen helped fund, which now employs over 7,000 people in Tanzania, are both fascinating examples of the wonders of patient capital.

I realise how integral enterprise is to the solution of poverty. With the help of small doses of philanthropic capital within a capitalist framework, entrepreneurs who have a vision and are aided with the skills and tools for business are able to develop long-term sustainable solutions to local problems. This also establishes accountability — an inherent part of patient capitalism.

Having lived in the UAE my entire life, I have had the privilege of witnessing our country and region develop to the point that we have established our own charities and non-profits, such as Dubai Cares. As I recount the many interesting stories told to me by my father from his book, a bygone era of pre-oil when times were difficult, I see parallels in that people were faced with similar challenges across health, water and sustainable development. We are currently in a position to help people around the world that face the issues we overcame decades ago. In 1954, when Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum had a vision to secure Dubai’s future prosperity by initiating the dredging of the creek, he secured financial support from the government of Kuwait. We are now able to lend financial support to others. Oil has certainly been a blessing and has allowed us to finance initiatives that address global issues.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Novogratz here in Dubai over breakfast. I went to meet this remarkable woman, her book in hand to be autographed, not knowing exactly what to expect. Her humility was overwhelming, her daring yet calm character quite contagious. After getting to know each other very well, this powerful and highly independent woman made me realise that patient capital is much needed in our impatient world.

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Breaking through the glass ceiling

October 1st, 2009

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 1st October, 2009

Arab women are making tremendous progress in the corporate world in a striking example of how inspired leadership can help to shape societies.

I was recently asked if, as a female professional, I had ever come up against a ‘glass ceiling’. The question intrigued me as fortunately I had not, in both my careers in the corporate and non-profit world. However, there are many women out there who have.

Women’s rights have been a debatable topic since the days of Virginia Woolfe and Huda Sha’rawi, the Egyptian feminist who broke new ground in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, the emancipation of women was one of the most controversial topics. As Woolfe put it, “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself”. Although at the time the issue was in its embryonic stage, it caused a great uproar and consequently Woolfe went down in history as one of the most influential people of her era.

Today, the debate continues. The United Nations Development Fund for Women provides us with an interesting quote: “Countries that do not fully take advantage of one half of the talent in their population are misallocating their human resources”. This is certainly an issue that we in the UAE do not face.

Fortunately, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has been at the forefront of empowerment by encouraging the youth, and particularly women, to take advantage of the many options available to them in education. In terms of university education, the figure for female university enrolment is far greater than that of their male counterparts. Arab women today fully realise the importance of their roles in society and the economy. With education increasingly available for women in all Arab countries, they have gained independence and status and entered the professional and business spheres. I see this as a striking example of how inspired leadership can affect the shape and progress of a population’s workforce.

I have noted similar progress within our government. Statistics reveal that 22.2 per cent of the Federal National Council (FNC) in the UAE is made up of women, making this the third-highest-ranking country in terms of female parliamentarians in the world. These women are among the 20 nominated members of the 40-member house. The importance of the FNC lies in its role as an advisory body, formed under the Provisional Constitution of the UAE in 1971 as a permanent component of the country’s governance structure.

Dubai’s youth, and particularly women, have also been encouraged to participate in each and every economic field. In the 1970s, women in the UAE worked predominantly in the education sector. I have gathered strong anecdotal support for this fact from conversations with my family. It is obvious that this situation has changed quite dramatically, with women now working in health, banking, telecommunications and civil aviation (in the UAE, six per cent of the workforce in this sector is female). Although the above reflects the progress professional women have made in the UAE, I am well aware that many challenges remain. The ratio of female to male professionals in the workforce is still very low. The reasons for this are predominantly rooted in cultural gender-orientated attitudes.

The lack of encouragement women receive from family members to join the working world is usually due to there being no real financial need for them to do so. In addition, some businesses are known to discriminate against hiring women, on the assumption that they are more likely to quit their jobs to start a family. Many companies do not like to offer flexible working hours, discouraging even those who would like to stay on after child birth. I also believe that there are women who are uninterested in working for private and semi-government sectors, though this issue is prevalent across both genders within the UAE.

Personal experience and conversations with Arab nationals lead me to believe that imbalances exist throughout the Middle East. With less than one third of Arab women participating in the workforce there is no question that they remain a hugely untapped resource. I will, however, highlight the fact that many of these women stay at home to nurture their children, and this is a choice that I personally have the deepest respect for. Recently, I participated in a study conducted by Dubai Government’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority focused on women’s development in the region. I noted that one area of constraint was the lack of professionally staffed daycare centres for working mothers with children. I cannot stress enough that times have changed and, with them, so have working hours. It would be very difficult for a mother to leave her newborn child for a significant part of the day unless daycare centres are provided. Legislative support from the government is certainly needed to face these challenges.

On a positive note, I would like to cite extraordinary examples of Arab women. Topping the Forbes Top 50 Arab females list is Saudi businesswoman Lubna S. Olayan, a principal of The Olayan Group and CEO of Olayan Financing Company. This inspiring woman is a major investor in the Saudi economy and Olayan Financing is consistently ranked in the top echelon of Middle Eastern companies. Clearly, Olayan’s multi-faceted personality has seen her to be active in the World Economic Forum, serving on both its Arab Business Council and Women’s Leadership Initiative. Although such success stories may be rare, they are likely to become more common now that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz recently appointed the first female minister to his council.

Breaking through the glass ceiling may sometimes prove difficult for women, but I believe Woolfe and Sha’rawi are smiling as a result of the recent progress Arab women have made.

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