DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A billionaire businessman from the United Arab Emirates launched the Arab world's largest education fund on Wednesday, setting aside $1.14 billion (4.2 billion dirhams) in grants for underserved youth from the region.
The Abdulla al-Ghurair Foundation for Education said it plans to provide scholarships for 15,000 Middle Eastern students over the next 10 years. The recipients will be students in need of financial assistance who also qualify for entrance to the region's top universities.
Fund Chairman Abdul Aziz al-Ghurair said his family has allocated a third of their wealth for the initiative. He said the endowment is likely to grow over the coming years as the family's business revenues increase, with the scholarship fund intended to continue well beyond its initial 10-year mark.
"It has to be significant in size. It has to make an impact in the region," al-Ghurair told The Associated Press, describing the foundation as a "perpetual endowment."
The al-Ghurair family has stakes in a number of businesses, including the Dubai-based Mashreq Bank, as well as in iron and steel, packaging, cement and insurance companies.
In the presence of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the foundation signed its first agreements Wednesday with The American University in Cairo, The American University of Beirut, The American University of Sharjah and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.
The first batch of students will be receiving scholarships as early as this upcoming fall semester, said the fund's CEO Maysa Jalbout.
"We're looking to have young people who are well-rounded, who can think critically, who are creative," Jalbout told the AP. "We're hoping to help them enter the top universities, both in the region and globally, so that they can be competitive and be able to compete on a global level for the jobs of the future."
More than half of the 369 million people living in the Middle East are under 25 years old, but unemployment runs high in part because many do not have access to quality education or jobs.
According to a Brookings Institute paper co-written by Jalbout and Columbia University doctoral candidate Samar Farah, Arab governments have struggled to meet the needs of young people, with the pace of development trailing behind.
The Middle East had the world's highest youth unemployment rates in 2014, with 46 percent of women and 24 percent of men unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization.
The paper notes that in Sudan, for example, 39 percent of youth were either unemployed, not in education or not receiving training. In recent years that rate was around 28 percent for Egypt and the Palestinian territories, and roughly 25 percent for Joran and Tunisia. The figure for Saudi Arabia was 19 percent, despite the kingdom having the region's largest economy and spending billions to boost education.
Additional challenges face 640,000 Syrian refugee children, and those from Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Yemen who do not have access to education due to war.
According to the Brookings paper, "youth are held back from achieving their next milestones, such as finding employment, getting married and buying a house." In some areas, despair and a lack of opportunity has made Arab youth susceptible to radicalization and extremist recruitment.
Al-Ghurair said the fund is essentially about providing a better future for the region's youth because "the prosperity of the Arab world can only come through proper education."
"Our legacy is we made our wealth from this region, from the UAE, and we want to contribute to the society," he said.