Of a city-state built on sand and credit,
detractors have long asked which will give way first.
Unfortunately, for the nation’s youth, the answer may be neither.
Those arriving at Dubai International Airport would be well advised to make sure they visit the restrooms before joining the queue at passport control.
As you inch ponderously towards the desk you’d be forgiven for wondering why the pace is so slow. No third-world backwater this with paper lists to check or make-work red tape to clear. The desks are efficient and computerised. Those operating them, on the other hand, are not so efficient.
Welcome to Emirati youth.
The entitled generation
A recent front-page report in the Khaleej Times, covered the end of the UAE Careers 2013 job fair with the headline “Young Emiratis struggle to find jobs“. The first interviewee in this story tells of sitting at home and looking for work for several months. She also tells of turning down a Dh6,000 salaried call centre job because she wants to use the skills she was trained for and because it doesn’t pay enough to live comfortably.
To jaded “western” eyes, this story is all to familiar of an “entitled” generation who believe their bright, shiny future should be handed to them on a plate rather than them having to work hard for it. If you can’t do what you want – and even in the good times career-freshers often can’t – then you do what you can to make a start. Instead we seem to have a generation emerging from education who expect to start out at the CEO’s right-hand.
They get awfully petulant when they find out life doesn’t work that way.
The interviewee in the Khaleej Times story claims it’s hard to get a job if you don’t have a senior contact in the company. She presumably views this as a failing of the company rather than the exploitation of personal advantage to jump the queue that it in fact is.
Faced with two graduate candidates, one who had been sitting on their backside for months since leaving university and another who had been scrubbing toilet bowls to pay their own way, make their own money and take responsibility for themselves, as a recruiter I’d be taking bog brush boy every time. Set against the indignities many young job-seekers have to face in the current global economy, with its record-breaking youth unemployment, that call-centre job was a peach. Moreover, taking it would show a healthy attitude (or conceal an unhealthy one).
A recent article in The Economist highlighted the continuing trend of young Emiratis ending up in the bloated public sector as a result of their ongoing difficulties in finding private sector roles. Which explains the staffing you’ll often encounter at passport control; an experience that does little to refute my somewhat dismissive initial view of the Emirati youth work ethic.
The cuckolded generation
My view though is at least partly unfair for one very big reason. Of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai in particular wasn’t built but bought. Less than 10% of the population are local citizens and this economy has rapidly reached its size and scale by importing everything it needs. Unlike countries with a more organic growth profile much of the private economy has developed without the culture of bringing in fresh graduates and training them up. The cycle of fresh starts to replace retirees hasn’t had time to develop – job-leavers fly home as their trained replacements fly in.
Moreover, given the massively distorted demographic, surely few businesses are motivated to run graduate recruitment programmes as there are too few locals to make it worthwhile. And even if they did they may well run up against a bizarre and rather ironic team-fit problem. Emiratis in Dubai are foreigners in their own land and would be a conservative drop in a liberal and internationalised sea of other workers. The locals are the cultural outsiders here.
The sold-out generation
From the window of my hotel room I can see a billboard from which Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum gazes benevolently down on his country. Only from the ground beneath it doesn’t seem to be his country anymore but one which belongs to the melee of world citizens he has imported in the name of progress and in the name of growth.
Nor does he seem to be gazing benevolently on his nation’s youth, or perhaps there are just too few of them for him to notice.Their homeland seemingly usurped as a profit-engine for global business and pleasure-engine for global tourists, one wonders how much longer they will meekly sideline themselves into the public sector. Will they ever want to do something about taking their homeland back?
It seems to me that, when compared to other countries, while Emirati youth may have comfortable lives they have a rough deal making those lives their own. While I’m no fan of market-distorting affirmative action laws, maybe the benevolent sheik would be wise to call in a few favours from the many global businesses he’s allowed to profit from his nation and make them take local graduate recruitment more seriously.
I came, I saw, I got a little drunk…
Favourite watering holes fit us like a tailor made suit, moulded to every contour of our nature and our needs. Be it a raucous downscale town centre boozer, a slick city chill out bar, a cheery village local or the plush and peaceful luxury of a traditional club, finding your bar is like finding your partner – after much searching you come across the one that just, well, fits you.
Knoweth the man, knoweth the bar. Get to know someone well enough and you can tell the sort of place they’ll be found drinking. You couldn’t picture them anywhere else.
And the opposite is just as true. Knoweth the bar, knoweth the man. If you know the sort of places a guy enjoys a drink, you can tell exactly the sort of guy he is.
So, by way of a little background, and in no particular order, here are a few of mine.
Does Kim Jong-un want a war because he thinks he could win,
Or does he want a war because he knows he will lose?
Bellicose, belligerent, high-pitched and shrill are among the increasingly exhausted list of superlatives used by exasperated observers to describe the warmongering rhetoric emerging from the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) over the last few weeks.
The same old excuses are being trotted out by way of explanation. It’s just the usual ham-fisted Big Brother guff played primarily for the domestic market and to bolster the regime’s hold over its people in the run up to celebration of founding father, Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Cue footage of the top-brass nodding approvingly as they inspect their “missile” and reports of increased agricultural production and other glorious national achievements straight out of the pages of 1984. Or it’s the immature, grumpy-toddler-like posturing we’re all so used to, resulting from the fresh round of sanctions and condemnations following their recent missile testing and rocket launch.
But actions such as openly threatening South Korea and America with “thermonuclear” war (however ridiculously beyond its means) or closing the Kaesong industrial park, one of the hermit kingdom’s few sources of hard-cash, seem some way beyond their usual level of diplomatic incompetence and bureaucratic ineptitude.
Of course the world has repeatedly underestimated both of these, and the old excuses may well hold good again. But I can’t help wondering if Kim Jr. Jr. has something else in mind this time around.
Perhaps we’re underestimating North Korea’s podgy, pugilistic premier.
Pimp my dictatorship
For just a moment, put yourself in Kim Jong-un’s shoes. A thirty-year-old, basketball loving guy, educated in Switzerland who has seen a bit of the world and who has seen North Korea from the outside in, for the basket case of a country it is.
Perhaps you respect the achievements of open, developed societies. You admire and envy the prosperity of the South.
Perhaps you too see your country’s administration for the global laughing stock that it is, and you know your father was a whack-job pilloried throughout the world. Perhaps you don’t fancy history remembering you the same way.
Maybe you’d like some of those achievements and comforts of open, developed societies for your own people.
And, as a child of the MTV generation, you’d like them rather quickly.
Conveniently you now find yourself – amongst a plethora of other titles – the Supreme Leader of your country, the perfect position from which to bring that change about.
Perfect that is, until you starting working out how you’re going to do it…
The Myanmar solution
Following the death of Kim Jong-il, many a doveish wonk hoped the new man at the helm would lead the country down the path of reform and openness, that Kim Jong-un would follow in the footsteps of Thein Sein, Myanmar’s former military leader and now president in a slow and steady liberation and liberalisation of his country and his people.
But Kim is no Thein Sein. Myanmar’s president is a time-served 68-year-old man well used to leading his country and with the power, the sway, the soft-skills and the connections to negotiate a process of change with the nest-feathering, self-interested old guard around him. By contrast Kim is merely a boy amongst men, wet behind the ears and with no political capital to spend. His name is his only skin in the game.
Try to negotiate and the seasoned regime leaders surrounding him will run rings round him with counter arguments and obstructions. Try to impose and those same seasoned regime leaders will doubtless assassinate him, pinning the crime on South Korea or America to bolster their position still further.
The Tunisia solution
How about a North Korean blossoming of the Arab Spring? Could the downtrodden masses be motivated to rise-up against the regime and demand reforms, with Kim their stool pigeon helping them from within?
Fat chance. North Korea isn’t Tunisia, or Libya, or Egypt. The people are too docile, too downtrodden and too indoctrinated. And while those countries show what the people can achieve against a withering regime, events in Syria show how badly it can turn out against an entrenched one; tens of thousands dying while the rest of the world stands by like onlookers at a auto-wreck; shuffling uneasily and avoiding eye contact with each other.
The Iraq solution
If you can’t reform your regime and your people can’t reform your regime, you only have one option left.
Get someone else to do it.
Instead of blowing against the North Korean wind, blow with it. Ratchet up the warmongering until you finally cross the line with the outside world and they invade your ass. In one fell swoop the old hierarchy are swept away and a new country can be built.
Okay, externally imposed regime changes have a miserable track record. Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly models of reinvigorated development after all. But the North Koreans aren’t the Iraqis nor the Afghans, their country is not a hot-bed of religious fervour or jihadist activism. An Iraq solution doesn’t mean an Iraq result. Something more like the unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall seems rather more likely.
What Kim wants
It may sound far-fetched to you, hey it does to me too, but the sad and simple truth is that there are no painless routes to liberation for North Korea right now, and you can’t rule out the possibility that Kim wants liberation and knows he hasn’t got many options to get it.
If a war were to happen on the Korean peninsula the innocent will suffer and the innocent will die. But the innocent are suffering and dying anyway and will go on suffering and dying until things change. At least this way it’ll be quick.
Joining the likes of Saddam Hussein in the history books probably isn’t what the young Kim dreamt of when he was at school in Switzerland, but is it that much worse than joining the likes of his Dad? And at least finally there’d be a Kim who was a true liberator of his people.