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Oman’s youth unemployment problem is a harbinger for wider Gulf | Business and Economy News



In late May the Gulf nation of Oman was rocked by demonstrations as young people took to streets in cities across the country to protest a lack of jobs and economic opportunity.

The unrest fell just weeks after the government, led by Oman’s new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, introduced a 5 percent value-added tax (VAT) as part of a long-delayed fiscal reform package that included other cuts to state spending and plans to introduce an income tax.

The austerity measures are designed to rein in Oman’s widening budget deficit and skyrocketing public debt after its public finances – among the region’s worst – were brutalised by last year’s coronavirus pandemic disruptions and oil price crash.

Demonstrations over economic grievances in the Gulf’s most indebted state have occurred sporadically since the 2011 “Arab Spring”. The country’s previous ruler, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, managed to quell protesters by offering them generous state handouts.

The new sultan responded to events in May in a similar fashion, promising nearly 15,000 public-sector jobs and another 15,000 jobs in the private sector to be funded by a $500 government stipend.

But that strategy will likely delay reform designed to trim bloated state budgets and jump-start the country’s private sector to generate more jobs.

“Some of the measures and reforms under the tawazun [or] ‘fiscal balancing’ plan will likely be scaled down, postponed, slowed, or sequenced in a more politically sensitive fashion,” Adel Hamaizia, a Gulf expert at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

While Oman has less breathing room than its wealthier neighbours to successfully reform its economy, the delicate balancing act playing out there between reining in state spending and creating economic opportunities for young people lays bare a dilemma facing other Gulf nations.

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said responded to last month’s protests by promising nearly 15,000 public-sector jobs and another 15,000 jobs in the private sector to be funded by a $500 government stipend [File: Sultan Al Hasani/Reuters]

These states have built their economies on oil and cemented their social contracts and security through state largesse funded by petrodollars. But the global march towards green energy is heralding a not-so-distant future of waning fossil fuel demand just as legions of Gulf youths are entering prime working age.

“A youth bulge is coming into the labour force at a time when the ability of Gulf societies to continue in the traditional pattern of offering public-sector jobs is diminished,” Gerald Feierstein, Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“In the Gulf, people have a certain level of expectations about what government is going to do for them,” he added.

The clock is ticking

Although petroleum industries accounted for more than 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019 and made up nearly 65 percent of its total exports a year earlier, according to the World Bank, Oman’s undersecretary of state for oil and gas said in a 2019 interview that the sector only employed just shy of 15,000 Omanis in 2018.

Muscat is now grappling with the reality that the comfortable state jobs it offered to the fathers and older brothers of young protestors just a few decades ago are no longer an option.

In 2019, the World Bank estimated Oman’s youth unemployment rate at 49 percent. The pandemic has almost surely worsened it. The hope is that by diversifying the country’s economy, the private sector can fill the gap in unemployment that the state can no longer afford and the petroleum industry doesn’t have the capacity to meet.

To accomplish this, Muscat is seeking to improve education and diversify the country’s economy by promoting job growth in sectors like tourism, manufacturing and technology.

Muscat is seeking to improve education and diversify the country’s economy by promoting job growth in sectors like tourism, manufacturing and technology [File: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg]

This is the idea behind the country’s National Program for Enhancing Economic Diversification (Tanfeedh). Although Oman’s finances are less healthy than those of its wealthier neighbours, the central planning proposals and desire to compete globally on sectors besides fossil fuels echo efforts made by other Gulf Cooperation Council members.

“You can say that Oman is in some sense a guinea pig,” Feierstein said, describing how the country’s fragile fiscal state may be indicative of the greater pressure other Gulf economies could find themselves under in the coming years as the global economy transitions away from fossil fuels.

Like Oman, Saudi Arabia faces an acute problem of creating jobs for young people. Half the population is under the age of 25 and nearly 60 percent of unemployed people are under the age of 30. Although youth unemployment has dropped in recent years, it’s still hovering at a blistering 28 percent.

Diversifying the economy and creating private-sector jobs for young people, in a country where two-thirds of nationals are employed by the state, is a central pillar of Vision 2030, the blueprint to transform the kingdom’s economy championed by the country’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).

The challenge is playing out in real time. By the end of this decade alone, Saudi Arabia will have to create 4.5 million jobs in order to keep up with the number of young people entering its labour market.

To spur this along, MBS announced in March of this year a programme that plans to invest $3.2 trillion in the Saudi economy by 2030.

“Their ability to make the transition in the time they identified is going to be very tough,” Feierstein said. “It’s not that they are wrong in their analysis of what’s needed, but do they have the capacity to follow through?”

By the end of this decade alone, Saudi Arabia will have to create 4.5 million jobs in order to keep up with young people entering its labour market [File: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg]

Changing the psychology

A primary step in following through is replacing foreign workers who staff the vast amount of jobs in Gulf economies with the respective countries’ own nationals.

Oman is a country of just five million, with expats accounting for more than 38 percent of the population. Filling the roughly 80 percent of jobs held by foreigners in the private sector is critical to the government’s economic transformation plans.

The pandemic helped catalyse that process. According to the World Bank, the number of expat workers in Oman’s private sector decreased by 14 percent between 2020 and 2021 amidst an intensified “Omanisation” push by the government. Muscat has recently passed laws making it more costly to hire foreign workers while also implementing nationwide training programmes to address skills gaps with Omani nationals.

That dynamic is playing out in other Gulf nations.

“Saudisation” is a cornerstone of Riyadh’s Vision 2030. With 75 percent of workers estimated to be foreign, the government has made an aggressive effort to fill positions in sectors ranging from retail and education to the taxi business with Saudi nationals.

Hamaizia says that the process is as much about changing national psychology as it is about creating jobs, “Saudi attitudes to the job market had been previously characterised by Saudis wanting management positions,” he said.

With 75 percent of workers in Saudi Arabia estimated to be foreign, the government has made an aggressive effort to fill positions in sectors ranging from retail and education to the taxi business with Saudi nationals [File: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg]

While younger people are coming around to the idea of taking positions that might lack impressive status titles, “there remains a perennial wage and skills mismatch in many — particularly value-add — areas of employment,” Hamaizia said.

A demographic that has been more willing to take jobs in the private sector, particularly in Saudi Arabia, is young women. “They have shown themselves much more eager and capable of taking on jobs,” Feierstein observes.

For decades, women, legally barred from driving and living under draconian guardianship laws, were prevented from taking part in economic life. Now young Saudi women are the first generation to enter the country’s job market.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, between 2018 and 2020 the share of women in the Saudi labour market increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. But there is still far to go. The youth unemployment rate for Saudi women still stands at around 60 percent, and women continue to face discrimination such as wage differentials.

The challenge of convincing young people to take jobs done by expats highlights how moving economies away from oil and a dependence on public spending will require buy-in not just from governments, but Gulf citizens as well.

“Change is happening faster than anyone anticipated,” Feierstein says of the region’s attempt to move beyond petrodollars. “But the clock is ticking.”

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Nic Dlamini is set to be first black South African at Tour de France




South African cyclist Nic Dlamini
Nic Dlamini is set to become the first black South African to ride the Tour de France

Nic Dlamini will make history at this year’s Tour de France by being the first black South African to compete in cycling’s most famous race.

The 25-year-old will be one of the eight riders for Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team Qhubeka-Assos at the Tour, which runs from 26 June until 18 July.

He will be the only African on the team that will be jointly led by Australia’s Simon Clarke and Austrian Michael Gogl as well as including the Italian 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru.

“Being selected to ride in my first Tour de France is an absolute dream come true for me,” Dlimani said.external-link

“It’s always been an childhood dream and now that I’m about to live it makes it feel surreal.

“I think it speaks to what the team is about, the Ubuntu spirit [I am because we are], and how we change people’s lives because it is honestly a very special moment: to come from a small township and then to go to the Tour de France.”

He becomes the latest rider to progress from the South African-registered team’s development squad and onto the UCI WorldTour.

Humble beginnings

South African cyclist Nic Dlamini

The 25-year-old, who grew up in an informal settlement in Cape Town, first caught the eye as a runner before moving into cycling where his talents saw him move to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

“Considering where I come from it would simply have been impossible for me to have the opportunity to ride at the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Team Qhubeka-Assos,” he explained.

“The platform that they’ve provided me, and other riders from Africa, to compete at the highest level in cycling has been critical.

“I really hope that this will serve as a reference of hope and inspiration to many young South Africans, and people around the world, who have been working really hard to reach their dreams. My hope is that they take from this that anything is possible.

“I want to race the Tour to inspire more kids on Qhubeka bikes to follow in my footsteps and to experience the world like I have, for more kids in communities to put their hands up for bikes to work hard like I did, to dream big.”

According to the team “Dlamini’s style of racing will likely see his talents deployed in the offensive strategy the team will look to pursue during the race, while also playing a key supporting role in the flatter stages.”

The team is completed by Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, Max Walscheid of Germany, debutant Sean Bennett of the USA and Colombian Sergio Henao.

Qhubeka-Assos’ team principal Douglas Ryder also hopes that Dlamini’s inclusion is a special moment.

“For Nic, what a moment though; his story is simply an incredible one and for him to have earned this opportunity shows that dreams really do come true, and for the team to have provided that opportunity makes me incredibly proud,” he said.

“He’s always been an individual that has stepped up and taken the opportunities that he’s fought for; and he does so again as he lines up at the startline in Brest on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the world.

“This will culminate in an incredible moment for him, South Africa and especially for our team.

“His selection speaks to everything about what we’ve created and built with this team through providing hope, an opportunity and then ultimately the platform to be on the biggest stage of all, the Tour de France.”

The only African rider to have worn the Tour de France leader’s famous ‘yellow jersey’ is Dlamini’s compatriot Darryl Impey, who wore it for two stages in 2013.

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In COVID hit Asia, mixed messages on refugee vaccinations | Coronavirus pandemic News




Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

The refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were spotted huddling on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.

By June 5, just a day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Nasruddin, the humanitarian coordinator of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to refugees.”

Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.

Hard line

When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members who were already living there, while others were under the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbours.

Some of the Rohingya refugees who arrived in Aceh earlier this month. They told NGOs that they had wanted to go to Malaysia because they had family there or thought it would be more welcoming to refugees than other countries in Southeast Asia [Cek Mad/AFP]

But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including Rohingya.

“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interest of pandemic recovery all foreigners would receive vaccination free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, the co-founder and international director of Geutanyoe Foundation who is based in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“The COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as coordinator of the vaccination programme, have been vocal advocates of this approach.

“However, the recent statement of the minister of home affairs that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with renewed crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s earlier position and will simply drive more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.”

Malaysia went into its second strict lockdown at the beginning of June after cases of coronavirus surged – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.

The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently stressed that the programme will include everyone living in the country.

But as it did during last year’s first lockdown, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.

Malaysia’s Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has declared that PATI – the acronym for undocumented people in the Malay language – will be detained and sent to immigration detention centres.

This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before they would be vaccinated.

In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after they had been detained.

Last week the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page – styled like a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Ethnic Rohingya migrants are not welcome”. After an outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Monday expressed concern at “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians” and urged the government to rethink its approach.

“Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” it said, stressing the clear differences in the situations of migrant workers, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia closed its borders during the first strict lockdown last year when immigration officers carried out a number of raids on areas under ‘enhanced’ lockdown. Rights groups fear more raids will deter people from coming forward for the vaccine that is crucial to Malaysia ending the COVID pandemic [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Rohingya made up about 57 percent of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.

Unofficial estimates suggest the country may have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Widespread problem

The mixed messaging on vaccinations for refugees is not exclusive to Malaysia.

In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that a shortage of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region was putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.

“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.

There are almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has increased dramatically in the last two months.

As of 31 May, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar has yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mahecic added that, in many countries in the Asia Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to go around, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being sidelined.

The UNHCR had observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.

Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to address the problem.

The UNHCR says COVID-19 has begun to accelerate in the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, but no Rohingya living there have been vaccinated [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau Province in early June in collaboration with the local government.

“IOM applauds the response of the City Government of Pekanbaru for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, the national media and communications officer of IOM Indonesia told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.

“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.

“The virus knows no borders or nationality; and neither should our solidarity.”

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Why Ethiopia’s 'alphabet generation' feel betrayed by Abiy




PM Abiy Ahmed swept to power after mass protests, but his Oromo community still feel like outsiders.

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