The following opinion column was published by The World Economic Forum. Co-written by Andrew Baird, CEO of EFE, and Nour Kamel, Director of Partnerships and Communications. View the full article online.

The IT revolution promised to close the education gap between the Global North and South; it has not. The IT revolution promised to provide income opportunities to disadvantaged populations and narrow economic gaps; again, it has not.

Will the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution change this narrative or will it further exacerbate wide disparities in wealth and education? The answer: it depends.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where youth unemployment rates remain the highest in the world, there is an opportunity to be seized but it will require deliberate and intentional action. Initiatives must be put in place to ensure that disadvantaged communities have access to the necessary infrastructure and educational resources to reap the economic benefits of AI.

n today's fractured world, where issues of economic instability, political conflicts and social divisions threaten our security and cooperation, the importance of addressing youth unemployment and fostering job creation cannot be overstated. Unlocking the potential economic growth from AI projected by the Pushing Forward report – a staggering $320 billion by 2030 in the MENA region – will require committed, long-term efforts from governments, education providers, civil society and the private sector.

Governments must quickly prioritize developing the infrastructure and IT backbone that will encourage and attract investments in sectors that are poised to harness the potential of AI. Policy environments must encourage innovation without penalizing those who may learn from initial setbacks or failures.

While wealthier MENA countries like Saudi Arabia lead in creating AI-friendly environments, not all nations have followed suit. Saudi Arabia has made public its ambitious strategy and created a dedicated company that handles all things AI. Its Vision 2030 plan, which includes a focus on economic growth driven by AI, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation, demonstrates the potential for a substantial impact on unemployment rates and economic growth. If successfully implemented, Saudi Arabia’s policies could cut its unemployment rate by more than 5%, effectively halving it by the year 2030.

Egypt established an AI strategy that aims to take advantage of technology for national development, but there remains a pressing need for incentives that foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Governments in MENA must confront the existing challenges in the region's digital transformation, including costly hardware and broadband plans, as well as outdated, poor and sometimes non-existent infrastructure in rural areas. Intentional investment is imperative to ensure internet accessibility and pave the way for an AI revolution in the region.

Government infrastructure investments are critical but not sufficient; sustained growth also requires a skilled and adaptable workforce. While the United Arab Emirates’ AI-dedicated university and AI programme in partnership with the University of Oxford seek to create top AI talent, there is a pressing need to introduce basic AI education at an earlier stage.

There is a compelling case for curricula reform that introduces and engages young minds in the use of AI across multiple disciplines. However, this will require nearly unprecedented coordination across academic institutions, from primary to tertiary. Considering the typically sluggish pace at which most academic institutions implement curricula change, there is an imperative to instil a sense of urgency.

As wealthier states invest in workforce preparation, financially constrained countries will need to rely on civil society organizations to help fill the gap. Youth training non-profit Education For Employment (EFE) has identified a strong need for introductory AI modules among the youth it serves in MENA. As such, supply chain services company Agility and EFE are investing in AI training for unemployed and out-of-school youth, giving them a leg-up in their job search and skills to stand out in the workplace.

More needs to be done. NGOs working in education and employment programmes have a broad reach in the region and must participate in providing training that prepares youth with the knowledge needed to succeed in high-growth industries where AI will be a critical skill. Additionally, EFE's research of current AI-related training programmes found a majority were exclusively offered in English. A significant investment in English-language proficiency, coupled with more educational materials available in Arabic, will be necessary to enable disadvantaged populations to access these opportunities.

The private sector's commitment is equally essential. Establishing a culture of practical learning, apprenticeships and internships, engaging in curriculum design, and embracing competency-based hiring are critical steps. Public-private partnerships prioritizing skill development can bridge the gap between education and professional life (as seen in the Applied Technology Schools model in Egypt or Germany’s dual education system).

The AI revolution holds promise for helping to address the long-standing crisis of youth unemployment, in the MENA region, but success hinges on a concerted effort and commitments from governments, educational institutions, civil society and the private sector. By seizing this opportunity, the region can not only close existing gaps but also foster a more inclusive and resilient workforce for the future, and change the economic trajectory for many of its lower income countries.