Turmoil fuels unemployment and poverty in Arab region
Amman - Regional turmoil, militant violence and the swelling numbers of refugees are driving up unemployment figures as well as poverty and desperation across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
With conflict engulfing several countries in the region and violence by Islamic State (ISIS) militants broadening in Iraq and Syria, capital is emigrating to safer areas in the Gulf Arab region and Asia, leaving tens of thousands of Arabs jobless.
This economic reality along with a lack of social justice, high taxation, government bureaucracy, nepotism and corruption as well as inadequate health care, education and other state services in much of the Arab world leaves youth, especially, desperate and frustrated.
Young people under 25 years of age make up more than half of the Arab world’s population of 423 million. They are fertile ground for extremists such as ISIS, which offers them marriage bonuses and free housing as well as salaries to their families if they die in battle.
“Poverty and desperation are the two most dehumanising factors of being unemployed,” Khaled Muhiesen, general manager of Amman-based National Microfinance Bank, said.
Some people, especially unemployed youth, “feel victimised, humiliated and angry” at their governments, “which can lead them to do anything” to avenge, Muhiesen added.
Globally, more than 201 million people are unemployed, and the number is expected to rise in the next five years, warned the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency.
More than 61 million jobs have been lost since the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, and the number of jobless is forecast to reach more than 212 million by 2019. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip have the seventh highest worldwide unemployment rate at 25.3%. Worldwide the highest ranked country is Mauritania with a rate of 30.9%. Qatar at 0.3% has the lowest jobless rate worldwide, according to the ILO.
Unemployment for global youth is approximately 13%. Regionally, more than 30% of young Arabs are jobless because of unrest and insufficient investment in several Arab countries, Mohammed Luqman, director-general of the Arab Labour Organisation (ALO), said in recent remarks.
“A major problem for the MENA region is obviously youth unemployment, but adult unemployment is also at an incredible high rate,” Luqman said. He estimated the number of unemployed Arabs at 20 million, two million more since the 2011 “Arab spring” revolutions that swept across the region and toppled four of its leaders.
Unemployment in the Arab world reached 17% in 2014, which was three times higher than the global average, and is expected to rise through 2016, a figure that is compounded by the fact that many graduates fail to find jobs because their specialisations are not needed by the private sector, according to ILO.
Nationalisation of private ventures in the MENA region has had a debilitating effect on the private sector, hindering expansion and the creation of jobs, Muhiesen wrote in an email.
Add to that instability in the region scaring off investors, ever-growing security allocations eating up already depleted budgets at the expense of development, non-payment of pledges from the Group of 7 and Gulf nations to “Arab spring” countries, social unrest and work stoppages — all lead to downward trending economies with lost jobs and no growth to sustain, Muhiesen said.
“This is a very vicious cycle, and we need to collectively address these issues, which are all intertwined,” the banker added.
According to the ILO, labour markets in the MENA region haven’t recovered from the political instability that surfaced in 2011 while petroleum-rich Gulf countries managed to buck the trend.
Unemployment in the MENA region rose to 11.6% in 2011 from 10.8% the previous year and is expected to remain at approximately 12% through 2015, the ILO report said.
The region’s joblessness continues to be the highest in the world, with youth unemployment standing at 29.5% in 2014. It is expected to rise to 29.8% in 2015, hindered by the growing size of the comparatively young population.
Compounding the unemployment problem are the Syrian, Iraqi and other refugee crises across MENA countries, especially Jordan and Lebanon.
Syrian refugees are replacing more expensive local labour in Jordan and Lebanon, where unemployment rates are swelling, wages are plummeting, and working conditions are deteriorating.
Mohammad Abu Salem, a Syrian refugee from the southern border town of Daraa who fled to Jordan three years ago, is working in a restaurant in Amman.
Abu Salem said after leaving a Jordan-based camp for Syrian refugees, he travelled to Amman, where he took a low-paying job that allowed him to rent an apartment for his wife and four children.
“I do not mind any job, any payment, as long as I can feed the hungry mouths I have,” he said.
Husni, an Amman restaurant manager who preferred to go by his first name only and not have his restaurant identified, said he “started to hire Syrians because they have no qualms working long hours and doing anything I tell them.”
A young Syrian refugee, who works at an Amman fast-food restaurant, said he earns 5 Jordanian dinars ($7) a day, about half the wage of Jordanians. “I am fine with that,” he said, insisting on anonymity.
“Whenever there are government raids, I flee from the back door.”