Afshin Molavi

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and co-director of the emerge85 Lab, an initiative that explores the dramatic global transformations emanating from the 85% of the world’s population that lives in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. He is also a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he was co-director of the World Economy Roundtable, an ambitious exercise to re-map the global economy in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. He also writes a regular global affairs column for Newsweek Japan, and frequently contributes to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, and other global media.

The Middle East has changed dramatically since the Arab Spring, six years ago. Long-serving dictators have fallen; a civil war has raged in Syria; Daesh came seemingly from nowhere to unleash new levels of depravity in Iraq and Syria; from Tunis to Cairo to Manama, the old political order has furiously battled new challenges – and deep social media penetration has reflected and refracted this historic moment of transition.

One thing, however, has remained stubbornly constant: unemployment. The Arab world retains the number one ranking in youth unemployment in the world. In fact, the problem has actually deteriorated since the Arab uprisings, ticking upward to 30 per cent today from 27 per cent five years ago, according to the World Bank.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rising emerging world, fueled by rapid urbanization, dramatically growing physical and technological connectivity, and growing middle classes. Thus, from Chile to China, Saudi Arabia to South Africa, young people are connecting to the world in ways unimaginable even a decade ago, and finding ways to create and innovate despite the odds. Most importantly, what we are seeing around the emerging world is a revolution of aspiration: simply put, young people expect – and demand – a better life than their parents, and aspire in ways their parents and grandparents hardly could have imagined.

This is no different in the Arab world and that is partly why the youth unemployment problem is so tragic, and has such impact. On the one hand, a rising emerging world coupled with technology has opened new vistas of opportunity, but strained public sectors and weak job growth in the Arab world have failed to leverage what should be an Arab demographic gift of educated, connected, motivated young people, and have instead made it into a demographic burden.

Large-scale youth unemployment and underemployment corrodes societies, fuels unrest, and inhibits the economic growth needed to create the virtuous circles of development that help people achieve fulfilling, meaningful, healthy lives. While there is much talk of unemployment leading to extremism or social ills, the reality is that the majority of people affected by this trend do not take up arms in jihad or enter a life of crime; rather, they struggle to eke out a living, seek to migrate and take their talents and energy elsewhere, or simply live a quiet, tragic life of squandered potential.

There is, simply put, no single public policy issue more pressing to Arab leaders than the issue of youth unemployment. Consistent failure to make any meaningful impact on an issue of such tremendous import reflects poorly on an Arab political class that could hardly have failed to see the scale of the problem over the years.

Every year, when ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller asks young Arabs to list their top concerns, unemployment has always sat at or near the top of the list. Young people have consistently delivered the same message: they want jobs, economic dignity, hope for their future.

This finding is not surprising. If, over the last 20 years, you sat in any coffee shop in north Africa, spent time in any university in the Levant, or probed beyond the headlines of economic modernization in many of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, you would have heard widespread concerns about youth unemployment.

There have been a few exceptions: the UAE and Qatar have done a better job at employing their youth. This is not only a matter of oil or gas wealth or small populations (both help – though they didn’t help Libya much). Instead, a reading of the key competitiveness indexes from the World Bank’s Doing Business Index to the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index to various innovation, investment, and transparency indexes, demonstrate that the GCC states – notably the UAE – are ahead of the rest of the region in creating a regulatory environment of opportunity.

What young people want most in the Arab world and beyond is simply a fair opportunity.

Young people are not looking for wasta (Arabic for ‘connections’) to get ahead, rather they want a wasta-free environment that will reward hard work, innovation, merit and playing by the rules. This might help explain why young people consistently choose the UAE first when asked where they would live if they could live anywhere in the world. They see it as a place of opportunity.

This also helps explain why young North Africans flock to Europe: there are opportunities there, they feel, even in a sluggish Europe. Or why so many young, professional Arabs seek jobs in the GCC states: a job is a job, after all, and many of the world’s leading consulting firms, hotels, banks, universities and industrial players have grown their footprints from Dubai to Doha, Muscat to Manama.

Ironically, the current troubles over unemployment and underemployment in the Arab world owe something to the success of the past six decades in expanding access to education, improving public health, and developing more – albeit still limited – opportunities for women. The massive expansion of university education opportunities has created a new generation of graduates without jobs.

Young Arabs beyond the GCC states also worry that their current education fails to prepare them for jobs of the future.

The GCC youth feel differently, with 80 per cent saying their education system prepares them well, though I do not think they should be so optimistic. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution dramatically transforms the way we will live, produce, consume, and connect, few universities anywhere in the world are adequately preparing young people for jobs of the future – let alone GCC universities.

This leads to a final, perhaps ominous point. The surefire way to create large numbers of jobs has always been industrialisation and manufacturing. East Asia’s tigers rode industrialisation toward job creation and economic development. But rising automation means the next wave of industrialisation comes with fewer manufacturing jobs.

Still, for the foreseeable future, the world will still need industrial products. While building an ammonia plant may not be as exciting as creating a technology company, “old-fashioned” industry will still employ a lot more people, and will be vital to solving this problem.

There is no skills shortage in the Arab world. Young Arabs have plenty of skills, and plenty of drive. There is an opportunity gap, and bridging that gap, above all, must be the driving force for policymakers over the next generation and beyond.


Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including lack for job opportunities and the threats posed by extremism.

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