I still remember waving off an old friend at the airport more than five years ago as she left Bahrain to pursue her undergraduate studies abroad. Eighty-thousand dollars and a bachelor’s degree later, she decided a few months after her return to open her own cupcake business. When I learnt the news, I honestly thought the idea was a joke. It turns out, the joke was on me.
Little did I know that selling cupcakes in the Gulf is big business. A number of local, homegrown cupcake shops and businesses have sprouted throughout the Gulf countries over the past few years, hacking at Khaleeji teenage girls’ slimness diets and gnawing at their fat budgets. What most often starts as an innocent attempt to perfect the dark art of bringing these sugary treats into existence in one’s own kitchen evolves into a tiny home business. Before you know it, with the aid of social networking and hoards of under-achieving Instagram junkies, the home business metamorphoses into a self-sustaining, successful bakery. Several can be unmistakably spotted with ease in shopping malls throughout the Gulf, largely thanks to the eye-blinding spectrum of flashy colors proud owners have chosen to decorate their stores and booths.
The phenomenon has also had its social ramifications. Cupcakes have made their way into social etiquette, and now constitute acceptable commodities in the age-old tradition of exchanging gifts. Cupcake entrepreneurs - as I like to call them - have become role models, and sadly, pictures of customizable cupcakes have become all too common a sight on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
On a more serious note though, young, educated Khaleeji girls faced with the real prospect of unemployment have often alarmingly turned to satisfying the insatiable cravings of cupcake fanatics as one among several other ways of keeping busy, earning money and achieving some social notoriety. A productive occupation seems discouragingly hard to find, given the region’s considerable youth unemployment levels. Reports claim that in Saudi Arabia, unemployment among 15-19 year olds was as high as 27.3% and up to 28% for those belonging to the 20-24 age category for the year 2012. In the UAE, youth unemployment was estimated at 12.1%, more than three times the general unemployment rate. In Kuwait, reportedly about 64% of the unemployed in 2011 were under 29 years of age.
To make matters worse, the problem of youth unemployment seems to affect females disproportionately in spite of their higher levels of education on average. In Bahrain, according to the 2010 census women constitute around 60% of Bahrainis enrolled in higher education. A 2010 report by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education claims women represent 56.6% of all university students in the Kingdom. Yet, despite these revealing figures, women suffer more from joblessness and are said to constitute up to 75% of job seekers in Saudi Arabia.
In the Gulf, it is all too easy to succumb to the temptation of catering to the population’s excessive tendency to consume as opposed to engaging in innovative entrepreneurship with an exportable added value. Already as it stands, a large portion of the Gulf’s merchant elites are hardly more than parasitic businessmen, benefiting from cheap imported labour, heavy government subsidies and spending, protection from outside competition and the absence of taxation. The incentive to innovate, as opposed to the incentive to recycle oil money, thus hardly ever stands a chance.
These cupcake sweatshops – alongside the plentiful fast food chains, doughnut bakeries, and so on – do nothing to help improve public health in Gulf countries where lifestyle diseases such as heart problems, high levels of cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure are rampant. One article for instance cites Kuwait as the world’s second most obese country, highlighting the increasing popularity of the gruesome practice of “stomach stapling” as a means for locals to keep their weight under control. The story in the rest of the Gulf is unfortunately not very different.
Most likely, the GCC-wide cupcake spree will eventually die down. But until a serious desire to implement far-reaching policies aimed at decreasing youth and particularly female unemployment, encouraging meaningful entrepreneurship and creating a greater public health awareness, young women will likely keep on selling their souls to please the overweight and the borderline diabetic, as opposed to putting their skills and education to good use.