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Future of Work

3 ways Arab nations are leading the skills revolution

The Arab region's young population, eager to learn new skills, are 'agents for change'

The Arab region's young population, eager to learn new skills, are 'agents for change'. Image: Freepik

Wael bin Nasser Al-Mubarak
Minister, Ministry of Municipalities Affairs and Agriculture, Bahrain
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  • 1 billion jobs will be transformed by technology by 2030.
  • The Arab world is susceptible to automation, but its young population gives it an opportunity to adapt.
  • The region's numerous reskilling programmes point the way to the future.

It’s crunch time: A reskilling revolution is crucial if we don’t want workers to be left behind by automation.

The World Economic Forum predicts 1 billion jobs – a third of all jobs worldwide – will be transformed by technology by 2030. Inevitably, traditional sectors will be displaced as demand shifts to emerging tech including data analysis, generative AI and software development.

By 2025, half of all employees will need new skills to stay relevant, with creativity, emotional intelligence and complex problem-solving increasingly in demand alongside technical competency. Reskilling is about giving individuals the tools to thrive in the industries of tomorrow. This is good policy at any time, given the world of work is in constant flux from new technology and demographic shifts.

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Right now, it’s especially relevant to the Middle East and North Africa: 46% of work activities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and 52% in Qatar, are susceptible to automation. At the same time, half the region’s population comprises children and young people; “agents for change” yet to enter the workforce. If there’s pressing need to evolve, conditions are ripe to do so.

Accordingly, cutting-edge training programmes are thriving in Arab states, fuelled by collaboration between government, business and academic institutions. Here’s what upskilling looks like, why it’s transforming the region and how each sector can leverage its expertise to best effect.

1. Develop and invest in a vision

In Saudi Arabia, the Vision 2030 national strategy is powering economic diversification, with $6.4 billion in technology and start-up investment announced in 2022 alone.

Vision-backed projects include The Garage (dubbed a Saudi Silicon Valley) and zero-carbon smart city NEOM, which are in turn boosting demand for digital expertise. Building the necessary workforce isn't being left to chance either, as a partnership with IBM aims to upskill 100,000 young Saudis over five years, and engage government agencies and their employees with emerging tech to meet the growing demand for digital expertise.

Similarly, in Bahrain, the government aims to train at least 20,000 citizens on cybersecurity as part of its information technology strategy under the Economic Recovery Plan. Additionally, a partnership between government agency Tamkeen and Bahrain Polytechnic will train 100 residents in Swift and iOS app development, a highly sought skill in the country. On completion, there’s access to a month-long internship to gain job experience and career connections.

This 360-degree approach to reskilling – from training to career path – reflects the circular benefits of effective policy and investment. Individuals gain skills to secure stable or more rewarding job opportunities, while the region’s rapidly expanding tech industry gains a pool of highly skilled candidates right on the doorstep.

2. Activate the skills of the future today

Like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the UAE is hand-rearing a future workforce. In 2021, Dubai partnered with companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Cisco to train 100,000 computer coders over five years, and ultimately to establish 1,000 digital companies in the region. Notably, the National Programme for Coders is open to those both within the Emirates and abroad, and seeks to double the value of the digital economy to AED200 billion (Emirati dirhams). But if industry expertise is a critical part of teaching tomorrow’s work, its influence is just as important in modelling what the digital shift looks like today.

Bahrain’s Cloud Innovation Center (CIC) programme, a partnership between Tamkeen, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Bahrain Polytechnic, launched in 2019 to fast-track the digital transformation of the public sector. It does so by inviting public agencies, the private sector and academic institutions to solve their most pressing challenges through collaboration, and using AWS technologies.

Projects include an interactive ChatBot that can issue proof of address certificates online instead of customers needing to attend in person. There are time and productivity benefits to automating such routine tasks, both to customers and employees. But equally, it’s an effective way of introducing unfamiliar tech through practical applications: Encouraging interest in the jobs of tomorrow surely starts with this.

3. Teach attitude as well as aptitude

It is critical to cultivate a positive attitude towards learning and problem-solving alongside technical skills, as it prepares students for the dynamic and rapidly evolving job market, where adaptability and innovation are highly valued.

In a bid to equip students with in-demand skills and prepare them for the digital age, GEMS Education and IBM collaborated in 2020 to launch the IBM Digital-Nation platform. This cloud-based platform offers courses in emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain, IoT and cybersecurity to over 2,000 students and 70 teachers across the UAE. The platform aims to provide a comprehensive approach to closing the digital skills gap and helping students become digital-ready. The IBM Digital-Nation platform not only focuses on aptitude, but also emphasises building a positive attitude towards learning, innovation and problem-solving, making it an excellent tool for preparing students for the future.

Finally, Dubai Future Academy models how upskilling might roll out to older people and career-switchers. The programme offers free, online digital courses to participants in the UAE and around the world. Crucially, these are available on-demand rather than to a fixed schedule. Notably, while it focuses on emerging tech (blockchain, IoT), the programme also covers concepts such as foresight and future communication skills. That is, it goes beyond industry or job-specific competencies, and introduces a future-proofed mindset open to lifelong learning. Ultimately, that’s likely to be the biggest necessary skill of the future.

Many of the region’s most successful upskilling initiatives are the result of collaboration by public, private and academic institutions. This makes sense given they represent three critical components of change: policy, expertise and education. Together, they’re creating the potential for the broadest social and economic transformation and establishing Arab nations as a hub of flexible and future-proof solutions.

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Related topics:
Future of WorkJobs and SkillsDavos Agenda
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