x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Middle East needs a new revolution in youth employment

More employment opportunities hold the key to a stable Middle East.

As the Arab spring celebrated throughout the world comes into the heat of summer, many analysts and policymakers are watching events unfold and wondering how to stabilise the shifting seas they see before them. There can be little doubt that the calls for change in the largely youth-led uprisings reflect a demand for dignity and freedom from a generation that will no longer be ignored.

Gallup has been working with Doha-based Silatech to study the opinions of young people (aged 15 to 29) each year in 20 countries in the Arab League and the Somaliland region of Somalia. Through our work, it is clear that the most important catalyst for sustaining change and turning the tide for young people is a focus on job creation. If we can get young people working and integrated into the economies of their home countries, we can give them the dignity they deserve and show them the respect they have earned.

Inequity and injustice overshadow the economic and social realities that ordinary Arabs face in their daily lives. In Egypt and Tunisia, the only two nations that have successfully overthrown their former leaders, GDP has consistently increased over the past five to eight years. Traditionally, classical economics would see this increase as a positive sign of growth. Over the same period, however, Egyptians and Tunisians reported rapidly declining wellbeing in Gallup worldwide research, underscoring the vast inequalities in these two economies.

Such realities lead to revolutions and the toppling of governments. Across the Arab world, majorities of young people in 2009 said the lack of wasta, or connections, is the primary obstacle to finding a job. In such situations, a connection to a government official or private-sector executive leads to a job or assistance in launching a business, providing the individual with a significant head start over the vast majority of peers who lack connections to decision makers or influential people.

A recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) explores the relationship between employment and GDP growth using classical economic measures. In "Global Employment Trends 2011", the ILO argues that even in the context of recovery from the global financial crisis, it is evident that worldwide economic growth has failed to spark a corresponding expansion of employment opportunities in many countries.

In fact, of the countries it analysed with comparable quarterly employment and GDP data available, only Turkey saw a decrease in unemployment by more than 2 per cent. Perhaps this is another trend that reforming economists in countries like Egypt can look to as a benchmark for future success.

About one-third (30 per cent) of the young Arabs surveyed in late 2010 say they would like to migrate permanently from their countries of origin if they had the chance, and the most influential factor in convincing them to stay is finding a job or a better job than the one they currently have. The country most favoured by young Arabs for future emigration outside of the Middle East and North Africa region is the United States. Analysts have documented this significant potential for brain drain for decades.

The Silatech Index, however, highlights that those who express an intention to start their own business within the coming 12 months are more likely to desire to leave their countries permanently. As small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurial ventures are the skeletal structure of any successful economy, there is real risk that the SMEs needed in the Arab world are slow to start and grow because many of those who express an interest in starting a business may also be trying to leave their home countries permanently. So SME drain is another factor to be reckoned with by policymakers already dealing with civil unrest.

These economic challenges cause frustration not just in the political orbit, but also in the personal lives and growth trajectory of the region's young people. The "waithood" realities - the stagnation period for young people in the Middle East after graduation - are crippling to the cohesion of communities and families in economies like Egypt's, where the period between graduating with a secondary education and settling down to get married and start a family is significantly prolonged. It is hard for capable and educated young people to feel respected and dignified when they live with their parents and are unable to marry because of the lack of job opportunities in their communities.

If I ran into a head of state in a lift and had two minutes to argue for Arab youth, I would say: "Sir, there is great need across the region for collaboration to: one, increase financing to SMEs through vehicles that ensure extensive business development support for enterprises and entrepreneurs to grow; two, propagate skills development programmes that are linked to job placement and career development; three, change regulations such as financial insolvency laws that inhibit innovation and enterprise development; and four, respect young people, listen to them and give them the opportunity to bring about the change you wanted for this region when you were young."

The time has come for smart interventions by coalitions of organisations and governments to alleviate the very real challenge of unemployment among young people and their general economic and social integration and inclusion into the mainstream. If we don't engage in such action, young people will simply leave or fail.

 

Ahmed Younis is a senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the director of strategic partnerships and communications at Silatech