In February 2016, during the annual World Government Summit in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the ruler of Dubai, announced the UAE’s 29-person cabinet. Including eight new ministers and nine women, it was the biggest shake-up in the federal government’s history and represented the emirate’s focus on the future, youth, happiness, education and climate change mitigation.
A few days earlier, Sheikh Mohammed had also announced a smaller, more streamlined structure for the government, which, he noted, “comprises fewer ministries but more ministers handling national, strategic and dynamic files”. Among the changes was the creation of two new posts: minister of state for happiness and minister of state for tolerance.
Perhaps the most notable appointment, to the position of minister of state for youth affairs, was Shamma bint Souhail Faris al-Mazrui. At 22, she is the youngest minister in the world. Al Bloom, Vice-Chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), al-Mazrui’s alma mater, congratulated her on behalf of the university. “She drew profoundly on her NYUAD education in not only receiving a Rhodes Scholarship but taking leadership in the community of the world’s Rhodes Scholars over the past year, and she will continue to draw on the qualities of that education in serving the UAE and the world, with wisdom, compassion and remarkable impact,” he said. She also received widespread media attention.
Al-Mazrui gained a Bachelor in Economics with a concentration in Finance, graduating in the top 5% of NYUAD’s class of 2014, according to her profile on the Emirati cabinet website. In 2014, she was the first recipient of the UAE Rhodes Scholarship, which is awarded to outstanding students, enabling her to study for a Master in Public Policy at the University of Oxford. She graduated with distinction in 2015.
Al-Mazrui was extremely active throughout her university days. During her time at NYUAD, for instance, she was among the initiators of the al-Nahda Institute, which provides a framework for examining social and gender equity.
She also interned as a research analyst at the UAE Embassy in Washington DC, worked as a public policy analyst at the UAE Mission to the United Nations, as a ministry policy analyst with the Prime Minister’s Office and as an education policy researcher at Tamkeen (UAE Strategic Affairs Authority). Prior to being appointed minister, she worked in private equity at one of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds.
Despite this impressive CV, the process of her appointment was nevertheless peculiar. In 2016, Sheikh Mohammed tweeted several universities in the UAE, asking them to nominate three outstanding men and women under the age of 25 for ministerial jobs. This was part of a new government policy aimed at empowering the nation’s youth.
Al-Mazrui was one of those selected, assuming the responsibility for leading the country’s young people into their future and the future of the country.The position is no sinecure. While some Western countries with an aging population struggle to increase birthrates or are considering opening their borders to highly educated young migrants, youth in the Arab world face oppression and few opportunities.
In 2010, on the eve of the Arab Spring, total and youth unemployment rates in the Arab world were the highest of any region, at 10% and 27% respectively. These figures have since risen further, to nearly 12% and 30%. The demographic youth bulge constitutes both the region’s greatest opportunity and challenge, according the World Economic Forum.
So when Sheikh Mohammed went in search of a youth minster, he made sure that whoever was chosen was able to shoulder the responsibility of representing the concerns and ambitions of this group. He tweeted, ‘The youth have hopes and aspirations, challenges and concerns. With them, societies can advance or crumble and in their own hands we can witness either achievements or failures.’
In an interview with Newsweek Middle East, al-Mazrui laid out her vision for youth inclusion. She addressed the challenge of bridging the gap between her generation and the government, and, in response to a question about how much decision-making power she would actually have, she expressed confidence in the Emirate leadership and the freedom she would be given to operate.
One of her first initiatives was the establishment of youth councils across the seven emirates. These are run under her guidance and aim to create connections between Emirati youth and the various public entities. The councils hold regular consultative meetings to discuss issues such as skills and talent development, as well as advanced concepts in cognitive thinking, artificial intelligence and other areas the government is keen to explore as part of defining a comprehensive roadmap for skill’s development in the nation.
Al-Mazrui also addressed the mandate that the prime minister had given her, saying that the main aim is to develop and take ownership of a long-term strategy which gives young people a strong voice in policy-making and shaping the national agenda.
Most recently, at the sidelines of the 2017 World Government Summit, al-Mazrui chaired the Arab Youth Forum. Made up of 150 young men and women from 22 Arab countries, the forum spent three days in closed sessions and eventually came up with the Arab Youth Strategy, which was announced by Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister, in the summit’s closing session. The strategy aims to assist the youth of the Arab world in overcoming the challenges they face and realizing their ambitions.