Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Arab demographics are a strength to be recognised

The Arab world's "youth bulge" presents many challenges, but with effort, the disproportionate number of young people can actually benefit economic growth.

The Chinese call them guanggun, or "broken branches": young men under 30 who, because of a cultural preference for male children and three decades of China's one-child policy, have little chance of marrying a Chinese woman. China has one of the most unbalanced gender ratios in the world: there are an estimated 40 million more Chinese men than women of marriage age.

Such an imbalance in a country's demographics can cause real problems. There is research to suggest a correlation between the number of young unmarried men and the propensity of a country to fight wars. At a minimum, there are social challenges of crime and violence.

After the arrival of the seven billionth human to share our lonely planet, thoughts have turned to the population increase in the region, in particular to what is known as the Arab "youth bulge" - that across the region, around 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old. This, combined with high unemployment rates, have provoked fears of social unrest and, perhaps, radicalisation of youth.

But the number of people is only half the story. As the example of China shows, the problem is not the total number of people, but an imbalance in the population. Too many young men and not enough young women; too many young and old people and too few people in employment.

In fact, the Arab youth bulge could be an opportunity. Properly managed, it could begin a long period of economic growth for the region.

Here's how: A country with a high proportion of teenagers and young adults and a relatively low proportion of elderly and children is ripe for economic growth: young people are innovative, mobile and have a high demand for manufactured goods and services.

As women increasingly enter the workforce - as they will increasingly in the Arab world, even in conservative countries like Saudi Arabia - the number of workers could double. Because of careers, families are postponed and when they do arrive, they are smaller, so workers stay in the workforce longer. At the same time, the revenues the state gains from taxing young workers is not spent on pensions or health care, because there are relatively few older people.

One of the reasons for China's extraordinary growth over the past two decades has been its youthful workforce. Contrast that with Japan, which is suffering from a combination of a low birth rate, later marriage and postponed families, and long life expectancies. That same situation is now occurring in western Europe, although - in contrast to Japan - European countries are trying to solve the problem with increased immigration.

Those problems may come to the Arab world. But for now, demography can be a bonus to the region, though only if governments act decisively and swiftly.

Part of the reason why the Arab world, especially Egypt, Yemen and North Africa, were ripe for unrest was the number of young people. With so many young people in these states and the economy stagnant, it was clear to economists and demographers that big changes would soon come, although no one could say when. Revolutions based on the Arab youth bulge were predicted for a decade.

But the reason was in the detail. It was not because of the number of young people in the Arab world, but because of the failure of states to offer them opportunities, that made the region so ripe for revolution. In Egypt and the Levant, the word "hayateen" is used to refer to those young men who have nothing to do and lean against walls all day. Other Arab countries have similar nicknames.

These men are testament to the failure of the state. There are not enough jobs and the costs of education, marriage and property are too high. This is not an exclusively Arab problem: many of the young people occupying streets across America and Europe would have similar complaints. But nor is it a given in a creaking worldwide economy: there are policy solutions and the new leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will have to find them.

The youth bulge will be easier to manage in some places: small Tunisia is better placed than big Egypt; the natural resources of the Gulf will ease the transition. Moreover, it is in the interest of rich Arab countries to help their lower-income neighbours, so that fewer of those citizens seek work across borders.

But there are common strategies that Arab governments can pursue to benefit from their young people. There are three things, in particular: first, focus on education, on building skills and knowledge. Then, get institutions working: corruption, lack of competition and too much concentrated power will sap the economy. And thirdly, utilise the whole potential labour force, which means giving women the skills and opportunities to choose careers.

These three things will not guarantee high economic growth. They are a best case scenario. Education without jobs will lead to frustration and emigration. A full labour force will not tolerate underpaid jobs for which they are overqualified. And the money to buy goods and services only benefits the national economy if those things do not need to be imported.

The youthful populations of Latin American countries have not translated into strong economies, mainly due to bad policies. But the youth bulge should be seen as an opportunity for the region, not a threat. Governments of the Middle East cannot easily control populations, but they can control policies, which is more important. Even with seven billion humans, the number of young people in the Arab world matters less than what those young people do each day.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Supporters of unseen India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, wave as he arrives to file his election nomination papers in Varanasi. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP Photo

Best photography from around the world April 24

The National View's photo editors pick the best of the day from around the world

 Sarah Geronimo. Courtesy: FLASH Entertainment

Sarah Geronimo brings her star power to Abu Dhabi this weekend

Ahead of her Abu Dhabi concert on Thursday night, we take a look at the Filipina singer Sarah Geronimo’s extraordinary career.

 Visitors look at the medieval inventor Al Jazari’s water-powered Elephant Clock. The clock is on show at the 1001 Inventions exhibition at Sharjah Expo Centre. Photos Antonie Robertson / The National

1001 Inventions: in praise of Islam’s gifts to the world

Down the centuries, from camera obscura to designing a sail that allowed early seafarers to tack into the wind, Muslim scientists have made many significant contributions to science. Rym Ghazal and Asmaa Al Hameli visit an exhibition in Sharjah that celebrates those contributions

 Mumbai Indians fans cheer they team on the opening match between Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2014 at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National

Earn cash back with the IPL cricket in the UAE

Dunia finance promotion allows cricket lovers to earn up to 6 per cent unlimited cash back on any spending they make on a day when an IPL match is played in the UAE.

 Iranian workers at the Iran Khodro auto plant in Tehran on March 18. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

Iran’s love of cars survives devastating sanctions

Sanctions and energy subsidy reductions might have hurt the Iranian automotive industry. But car makers at one factory are still optimistic, Yeganeh Salehi reports from Tehran

 This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.

Disney confirms that Star Wars: Episode 7 is filming in Abu Dhabi desert

Disney yesterday confirmed that the filming of Star Wars: Episode 7 is taking place in the desert in Abu Dhabi.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National