More than 100 young leaders raise concerns about technology, security, the environment and humanity at a global forum in Dubai. Maysam Ali reports on how they are working to make a better tomorrow

Imagine the world around you. Imagine the good and the bad, and the future you will have to build in a world that seems beyond your control. Imagine your life in 2025.

Picture the kind of life you would like to lead, the people you would like to surround yourself with, your dream job, a clean, self-sustaining environment and a world in harmony with itself. In the circle of life, things are bound to change.

To a large extent, the youth can alter the kind of change that happens. This is precisely why young leaders from across the world came together last week in Dubai: to reaffirm their ability and willingness to live a better life.

The Middle East in 2025

One hundred and ten young leaders met at the Learning from the Future forum, a four-day workshop organised by the British Council and Young Arab Leaders. Their task was to address possible scenarios emerging in the Middle East by 2025.

Participants spoke about their hopes and aspirations for their future, the future of their country and that of the world. Most of them expressed similar goals and ambitions, only priorities differed.

The young people brought questions regarding the troubles of nations and societies. Although some questions were left unanswered as time ran out, participants were largely able to regain their faith in the possibility of change, peace and progress.

Discussions were mainly centred on three themes: sustainability, the advancement of technology and power relations in a multi-polar world. However, many more issues were raised, and by the end of the forum friendships had firmly taken root.

Twenty of the participants were selected to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East taking place in Sharm Al Shaikh, Egypt, from May 18-20. They will stand before the world's top decision-makers and state the young generation's point of view.

Regaining hope

Taking part in the forum was no easy task. Participants, mostly active members of their universities and communities, had to research, plan, train for and learn how to deliver effective, concise messages on the issues being discussed. Perhaps equally difficult was overcoming their disillusionment with world affairs and believing once again in their ability to bring about positive change.

Rahaf Al Marzouqi is a Saudi student at Reading University, UK. She is also an active member of a youth club in Saudi Arabia. "I had lost hope in finding positive people who believe in change. I felt alienated and alone," she said.

"But here, everyone has the same vision and mission. They all want to go on and work hard."

Lolwa Al Jefairi, a student from Qatar, believes change must first come from within. "I would start by changing myself," she told Notes. "I have to have good education, knowledge and understanding of people, and also respect my identity and country and its values."

Most of the international students said they felt an instant connection when they touched down in Dubai. Oxford student Maher Bitar, who is of Palestinian origin and lives in the UK and the US, said: "Perhaps it is the culture or the language, but there is definitely an instant connection."

Sahar Noor Al Deen from Aden University in Yemen said: "I want to meet as many Arabs as possible. I always see them in the news but now I hope I can meet them and be able to do something together because we have so many ideas and we have suffered too much from past generations' decisions. Suffering makes us creative. We have no boundaries here; it is like we knew each other from before."

Students from the UAE, in turn, described their interaction with international students as "smooth" and "wonderful" because of the convergence of their thoughts.

Personal vs. universal problems

The conference began with a lecture by Dr Tarek Yousuf, Dean of the Dubai School of Government (DSG). He spoke about issues of direct concern to today's youth: education, employment, security, marriage, family and housing. It is forums like these, he said, that constitute a venue for the youth to express their thoughts and concerns.

"This is the alternative to having young people talk and engage in debates related to society. How do they voice their concerns: at home, school, the workplace, cafes, clubs?" he told Notes. "There are no venues for them to express themselves because traditional Arab societies are top-down .... Society expects you to respect the division of authority."

He added: "Young people have to engage in global debates and in setting the agenda because if policy makers can't create harmony between what the youth want and what is being provided, they [the youth] may withdraw or rebel and the consequences are not beneficial for society."

Contrary to what people might believe, relations with the Western world are not one of the top five issues on the minds of Arab youth, according to Yousuf.

According to research done by the DSG, local and personal issues are more important to them than regional issues, he said.

An agent of change

Although students, when asked about the most pressing issues facing them, bore out the research findings, they also expressed their concern about global issues.

Ebrahim Al Bastaki, Dubai Men's College student, said: "We are all here to discuss what will happen in the future. I want to discuss social and ethical issues, education in the UAE and how to develop it."

Shurouq Al Taher, Zayed University communications and media science graduate, said that she wanted to learn about the concerns of Arabs in the region and come up with solutions. "I can't change the world but I can change things around me," she said.

Ines Chermiti and Malek Jamoussi, of the Medical University of Tunis, said the forum provided a platform for participants to speak out. "We have the opportunity to tell the leaders we are here. Don't forget us, we can have a better future and this is an opportunity we can't miss."

Noor Kamali, UAE national and student at Al Ain Women's College, said that the forum was an eye-opener in several ways. "The world is not only about us; this is an opportunity to think globally and pay attention to other issues. The workshops are more informative than traditional classrooms and have a better approach. They teach us to think for ourselves, and this is something that should be encouraged in all colleges in the UAE," she said.

Education and illiteracy

For Yusra Taha, a student at Cairo University who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, the most pressing issue facing the youth today is the quality of education. And Taha is not alone in raising the issue.

Marwan Tarazi, director of the Continuing Education Centre at Bir Zeit University, said: "The level of education in the Arab world is very low and the education system is failing miserably because it produces people who can memorise and repeat but can't innovate."

There is no culture of research, reading or innovation despite the positive quantitative indicators and the availability of funding, he added.

Communication, solving problems and critical thinking skills are crucial to battling today's illiteracy. "The less education a person receives, the more prone he is to extremism and the less concern he would give to the environment and global issues," Tarazi added.

The environment

Another hot topic at the forum was the environment.

Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, described two possible scenarios in 2025 – one decidedly gloomy and the other optimistic.

The first was described as an "age of insurgencies", mass rebellions in different parts of the world, problems in oil-producing countries, climate change implications, terrorist attacks and counter-terrorism measures.... "By 2025, the Middle East is sadly more divided," Rogers said.

In the optimistic scenario, there is awareness about climate change and poverty. There are more labour rights to deal with the problem of sweatshops and a huge move towards renewable energy, with the new generation relying on solar energy.

"You have 60 years ahead of you to make that change," Rogers told the young leaders. But the question is how.

"Knowledge is power," Rogers told the audience. "Develop a clear understanding of the kind of knowledge you have; be an optimist. . . start making changes in your own personal lives."

Rogers also highlighted issues in the UAE. Speaking to Notes, he said: "For the UAE, the most pressing issue is how to use oil wealth for the long-term benefit of the community. The UAE has immense potential to research and develop solar energy."

Like Rogers, students also spoke about their fears about their countries' depleting natural resources and the urgent need for conservation. While participants from the region spoke about the use and preservation of oil, students from Lebanon and Jordan were concerned about water conservation.

Sarah Al Gadani of the Oman College of Management and Technology said that resources must be monitored and conserved because the future generations deserve the same quality of life as the present generation.

She had a message for world leaders. "I'd tell the leaders of today to listen to the youth because they have a bright future and an ability to change the world," Al Gadani said. "The status of the world today is scary; we would like to live in peace and comfort."

Heated debates

On the second day of the conference, Gerard Russel of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office discussed the reality of the multi-polar world of today, and more so of tomorrow. He spoke about rising powers such as China, the growing demand for natural resources, energy and security issues.

The forum discussion often sparked heated debates during lunch and other break times.

"Would you vote for a Republican or Democratic president?" Nasser Al Oqaili from Kuwait asked his friend Armin Staeli from Switzerland over lunch.

Al Oqaili voiced his concerns on changes that should be effected in his country and in the Arab world. "I hope there will be more coordination and less tension among Arab countries. They should stop interfering in each others' internal problems and solve their problems in a peaceful way" Al Oqaili told Notes. Al Oqaili wished that his country would experience more advancement and integration with today's technology.

He had full confidence in the role that the youth can play in bringing about change. "Youth organisations in Kuwait contributed so much to society. . . . The youth voice has to reach the government because something can be done," he said.

Students discover cultures

Lolwah Al Rifae from Kuwait said that the conference had helped her liberate her mind and think out of the box. "I had preconceptions about people from the region, thinking they are close-minded. It's pleasing to see that in reality they are not," she said.

"This is an unprecedented first step," said Maher Bitar. "They did a good job in creating leadership and coping with regional cultural constraints," he said. "This is an outlet for people to express themselves."

Reconnecting in a better world

The forum is perhaps a chance for all of us to reassess the quality of life we are living and the one we can have if we make the right decisions and act upon them. Perhaps imagining a fearful world in 2025 will help make us better human beings.

As the conference came to a close, among the last scenes Notes saw were students taking group pictures and exchanging emails and Facebook profiles to be able to reconnect in the online world. As they left the venue they carried with them the hope that some day they would meet again and exchange good news on how positive the change they are helping to bring about is turning out to be.

Destination Sharm

The winners showed excitement about their mission in Egypt. However, underneath their smiles was the awareness of the huge responsibility they had to deliver the message of the youth to world leaders.

Watched by millions of viewers across the world and in front of the world's greatest policy-makers, the students will have the chance to speak. So what will they say?

Al Ain Women's College student Noor Kamali will be representing the UAE. "I am happy but frightened because I have a big responsibility ahead of me. If I were to raise an issue about my country at the World Economic Forum, I would discuss the preservation of national identity and culture given the vast population growth in the UAE," she told Notes.

Other students brought issues related to their countries to the fore.

Yoo-sun Andrea Choi from South Korea said: "I am so excited but I have a lot to prepare . . . . At the WEF, I'd bring up the issue of the hyper-linked world and the digital divide among people." Gaith Mohammad, a student of medicine from Iraq, could join the forum only towards the end because of visa complications. His colleagues couldn't come for the same reason. "I want to address the problem of terrorism and unemployment in my country. . . . All we want is security," he said.

According to Sa'ad Halwani, programmes manager at the British Council, the Dubai forum is the first step in the three-year programme. The WEF session will be the next step, and similar projects will follow, he told Notes.

Training for WEF

The four days included rigorous training for the upcoming World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East. For hours, students trained themselves to talk, listen, prepare media clips, negotiate and deliver their messages to the world. Some students chose to record video messages while others opted for radio, newspaper or other media outlets.

Students then voted for 15 representatives from their country groups, while the British Council selected five.

To be elected, students prepared and presented a one-minute speech addressing a world leader at Sharm Al Shaikh, Egypt, where the WEF session is scheduled to be held this month. Peace, unity, culture, solutions to poverty, the digital divide, terrorism, insecurity, unemployment and requests for further knowledge and advancement were some of the topics the students spoke about.

The 20 student representatives will attend the WEF session from May 18-20.

An international perspective

Students from South Africa, Switzerland, Brazil, the Philippines, China and other countries joined their Arab counterparts at the four-day Learning from the Future forum. Most have an interest in the Middle East and believe the region impacts their country and their lives. They came to Dubai to learn first-hand what the youth in the Middle East are thinking and how they are shaping the future.

"The Middle East will change European policies more than we are currently aware of," said Armin Staeli from Switzerland. "There's a huge clash between left and right political parties in Switzerland and issues of hate and defeat. In addition, 22 per cent of our population is made up of foreigners so there are problems of migration and racism. The youth address these problems in many forums."

He added, "As for the Middle East, there is a huge unemployment rate although there are millions of expatriates. Why is this the case?"

Jason Gavina, a student from the Philippines, said he would like to raise awareness about the issues faced by Filipino workers. "There are so many workers and they face problems with human rights and the economy," he said, adding he hoped there will be more youth relations between countries to facilitate better understanding between cultures.