Arab youth should be a source of hope, not concern
There is every reason to see the Middle East and North Africa region’s youth as a factor of hope. They are numerous — more than one-quarter of the population in most of MENA’s 22 countries is aged between 15 and 29.
Deep socio-economic problems compounded by failed policies were at the root of uprisings that rippled through a number of Arab countries in the early part of this decade. A new UN report sees those protests as costly — $614 billion in lost growth since 2011 — and as having exacerbated debt, unemployment, corruption and poverty.
With the help of social media, young people have made their voices heard. However, the real problem is that most of the issues that had fuelled youth discontent remain unaddressed. The fraying of authority in several Arab countries and civil strife in others make the challenges even more daunting.
The young dream their dreams, as they must. The MiSK Global Forum on youth empowerment in Riyadh pointed out that “36% of Arab youth claim they intend to start their own business within the next five years”. Many hurdles, including bloated bureaucracies, a lack of financial resources and inadequate government policies, stand in their way.
Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN secretary-general’s first envoy on youth, pointed out at the MiSK conference that conditions make any attempt by young people to start new businesses “almost a mission impossible”.
The young are frustrated by the lack of jobs and opportunity. Not too long ago, the International Labour Organisation said Arab countries have the world’s highest youth unemployment rate — more than 30%. The rate among young women is even higher.
Young people are still, in many parts of the region, largely ignored by the older generation that controls the political, social and economic levers of power. As Alhendawi pointed out, the region’s average age is under 25 but most of its politicians are around 58 — more than twice as old on average.
Alhendawi, in whose home country Jordan a staggering 70% of the population is under the age of 30, put it rather well in Riyadh. “This is our region,” he told the delegates. “We have to reclaim it.” MENA must offer an enabling environment, where the young are seen “as an asset, not as a liability.”
The regional and global economic situation has had adverse effects on the MENA region. Other trends in the West are a source of concern.
With an Islamophobic nativist nationalism sweeping the United States and parts of Europe, MENA’s young despairingly see the wider world closing itself off, while their own is yet to properly open itself up. Is it any wonder there is a palpable sense of despair? To many, Donald Trump’s election victory may have been the sound of the door to the future clanging shut.
It is not. Not by a long shot.
Juggling domestic and outside factors is a difficult task for MENA governments but the demands of the young must be a priority. Addressing them properly will make youth a true source of hope.