One of the speakers at a private session of Middle East leaders at the WEF in Davos put the issue succinctly: “What has happened in the Arab world over the past three years has been an economic revolt. It is not about elections, it is about construction.”
What he meant was that the turmoil that has engulfed many countries in the region was primarily caused by governments’ failure to meet the economic expectations of their people, rather than a call for wider political democracy. “Most people in the region are not concerned about human rights, they just want the lights on,” the speaker explained.
That may be a contentious argument in some circles, but not even the most enthusiastic advocate of liberal democracy can deny that economic under-achievement was, and continues to be, a major factor in the “Arab Spring”.
And at the heart of the economic problem is unemployment, which has become one of the central concerns of the leaders gathered in Davos. Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder and chairman, spoke of the “600 million jobs challenge in the next decade.”
The world needs to create that many jobs over the next 10 years. Globally, there are currently 200 million people unemployed, including 75 million young people.
The Middle East has become well aware of the problem, as a high number of the participants in street demonstrations across the region are members of the great army of the young jobless.
The worry expressed by policymakers at Davos is that unemployment will become a structural, systemic problem, rather than a consequence of the economic downturn from which the Middle East, and the region, is emerging.
It is not a problem that governments alone can resolve, though in countries like the UAE, initiatives to encourage nationals into private-sector employment are having some effect.
As the Davos speaker said, what is really required is a realistic initiative of a socially responsible and enlightened private sector.