The demographic timebomb of more than 50% of Arab youths under the age of 24, along with the dramatic eruption of widescale political protest, has once again focused the minds of policy makers, businessmen and bankers, academics, journalists and others on the deep-seated economic problems facing many Arab countries. Pioneering approaches will be needed that combine innovation and investment with sweeping political and social reforms.
Young people in the Middle East aged between 15 and 29 years old constitute about one third of the region's population, according to Generation in Waiting, a study published last year by the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. At present, this age group is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, except for sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet, as the report noted, even before the tremendous upheavals which broke out this year, young people in the Middle East face severe economic and social exclusion due to substandard education, high unemployment, and poverty. The inclusion of youth is the most critical development challenge facing the Middle East today. Greater investment is needed, they maintain, "to improve the lives of this critical group".
Creating more jobs is equally vital: "Unemployment rates in the Middle East remain high, at nearly 11%." Among young people, the rate is double that, "averaging between 20 to 25%". Many unemployed youth, the study notes, "wait for two to three years for their first position. Young women often face the most daunting prospects in securing a job."
Other knowledgeable observers, particularly in the Arab countries themselves, regard some of these figures as an underestimate, as the widespread unrest, and the swiftness of its spread, seems to confirm.
In Saudi Arabia, a recent report by the Central Department of Statistics stated that unemployment amounted to 10.5% in 2009, the last year for which figures are available. But, as some observers noted, even assuming the figure is correct, it is still too low to absorb the 13.7% increase in new university graduates that is expected between now and 2013.
The Middle East Youth Initiative (MEYI), a Dubai-based partnership between the Dubai School of Government and the Wolfensohn Centre for Development at Brookings, set up in 2006, estimates that unemployment may range "from 20 to 30% in the most countries in the region, but exceed 45% in some countries" such as Algeria and Iraq.
The Brookings study, which covers an area from the Maghreb to the Levant, also goes on to point out even more significant implications for the younger generation. Their poor job prospects "have led to delayed marriage and difficulties securing housing. These challenges," the authors report, "are reinforced by weak financial markets that do not allow opportunities for young people to leverage future earnings in order to purchase housing. Rental laws," the study adds, "create disincentives for landlords to provide affordable living opportunities to young families."
The Arab Human Development Report, published by the...