x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Unemployment is the region's real challenge

Leaders who fail to respond to the employment demands of their nation will only be met with anger and resentment that could trigger further unrest.

Jordan's Queen Rania once called it the Arab world's "ticking time bomb", and this month in Tunisia, one bomb went off. Protests by the country's young and unemployed helped drive the Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power. As one demonstrator in Tunis put it, "the root of the problems" is a lack of jobs for university graduates.

High rates of youth unemployment, in Tunisia or elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have been a concern for years. Queen Rania, for one, was addressing the issue back in November 2008. But in the wake of recent political upheaval, the jobless trend has taken on a new relevance.

As The National reports today, the region's failure to reverse youth unemployment is prompting fears that unrest could ripple. Regional joblessness hovers at around 10 per cent, according to figures from the UN's International Labour Organisation, while unemployment for youth in some MENA countries approaches 40 per cent. Youngsters in North Africa are among the hardest hit.

Clearly, reversing these trends is in everyone's interest, but there is no one-size fits all for doing so. In Gulf states, opportunities for the young are bolstered by the governments' ability to provide for education and other career opportunities. The challenge becomes to encourage people into jobs in private industry, and not just giving them jobs. As is the case in the Emirates, financial security allows for long-term economic development and efforts to expand private sector investment.

Elsewhere, however, the challenges are more fundamental. In Tunisia, rampant corruption has been seen as a driving force behind the unrest. The belief that rulers profited while the educated suffered has proven a caustic mix. Unemployment and a sense of disenfranchisement are concerns cited throughout North Africa and the Levant, where protests also continue.

To reverse these trends, economic growth must diversify away from hydrocarbon revenues and governments should encourage spending in education, and the private sector. Job training programmes are urgently needed, and career guidance and vocational opportunities must be incorporated into broader economic policies.

More importantly, though, leaders who rule with a tight fist must realise that they will only be met with anger and resentment should they fail to respond.