Crowd with raised flags
From Spring to Winter. Image ©

AK Rockefeller, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0 and adapted from the original.

May 2016

There are some 300 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Tens of millions of them have no jobs, no opportunities, and no voice. This represents an enormous challenge – but also a huge potential dividend if their energies can be harnessed positively by their societies. Two new pieces of research have shed light on the aspirations of young people in the region and how they can be supported.

Since the Arab Spring there has been turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, with continued political unrest in Egypt and Tunisia and on-going violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. This in turn has contributed to refugee crises, instability, and the rise of the so called Islamic State or ‘Daesh’. Hopes for reform have often been crushed. Only 36% of young people in the region now say they agree that things are better after the Arab Spring, down from 72% in 2012. 

Yet the factors which contributed to the protests are getting worse. The back-drop to much of the unrest in the region is an unprecedented demographic bulge at a time of economic dislocation, which in turn feeds high youth unemployment and disaffection. This is further exacerbated by disenfranchisement of young people and inadequate education systems.

Over 50% of the population of many countries in the region is under 20. These economies will have to create millions of new jobs simply to maintain current employment levels. Yet continuing security problems have weakened economic growth in countries which already have startling inequalities, perhaps limiting GDP by 20%. Weak global growth, low oil prices, falling tourism revenue, and corrupt or nepotistic labour markets have further affected economic opportunities. Many states are now less able to flex their public sectors to soak up unemployed graduates, who will increasingly have to create their own employment opportunities. This is a particular challenge in a region whose education systems do little to foster creativity or entrepreneurial skills. All this contributes to a growing gap between the aspirations of young people and their actual opportunities. 

Young people already constitute over half of the total unemployed population in the region. Youth unemployment across the Middle East and North Africa was 25% in 2011. It is now 30%. That is more than double the world average (The Economist 09/01/16). Given that fewer than half believe they have decent prospects in the jobs market, young people in the region face frustrated aspirations - a common cause of instability and radicalisation. 

All too often, they are also being excluded from meaningful political participation or representation. In Jordan the gap between the average age of the population and their politicians is 43 years. In many countries there is a profound intergenerational divide, with younger generations are increasingly cut off from their elders by different experiences of education, employment, and the political occurrences of the last five years. This is also evident in different media consumption patterns, with only 7% of young people in the region now getting their news from newspapers (down from 62% in 2011), compared to 45% from online news and 32% from social media.

The word on the street

These factors lead to wide-spread disconnection and discontent amongst young people, and are widely viewed as contributing to the popularity of Daesh. But it should not be assumed that support for insurrection or violent extremism is the norm. New research suggests a more nuanced picture. 

According to the Arab Youth Survey 2016, 77% of young Arabs are concerned about the rise of Daesh. But they largely view radicalisation as a product of marginalization, and Western pre-occupation with Daesh as reflecting too narrow a focus on one symptom of the much wider issue of youth frustration. Indeed, they identified lack of jobs as the top factor amongst recruitment drivers for Daesh. They also understand the risks of heavy-handed security responses to unrest adding to tensions in already divided communities where inequalities are rife.

The majority now favour stability over democracy

However, although 67% want their leaders to do more to improve their personal freedom and human rights - including rights for women – the majority now favour stability over democracy (by 53% : 28%). By contrast, in 2011 92% chose democracy as their most important desire: a blunt reflection of the huge change in attitudes brought about by recent events. 

With so many young people lacking jobs and opportunities, there is a popular view that education lies at the heart of their problems and is key to potential solutions. There is a perception that states do not care enough about quality of education or its relevance to the labour market. Education systems are not providing the skills needed to harness the next generation’s potential, contributing to a serious ‘brain drain’. This is not just a question of funding. A relatively high 17.5% of government budgets across the region are spent on education, but this is not feeding through to high attainment levels, good English language knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, civil values, or the other skills necessary for employment and good citizenship. 

Re-engaging young people

The Young Arab Voices programme delivered by the British Council and the Anna Lindh Foundation aims to address some of these issues head-on, aiming to engage young people in the region by involving them in debates on the issues that affect them. It has reached over 80,000 young people in the region, encouraging alternative perspectives and critical thinking in a region where deference, one-way communication, and rote learning are often the normal expectation. 

External policymakers and funders should encourage authorities in the region to genuinely listen to their young people

New Chatham House research into the impact of the programme describes it as ‘one of the most successful examples of a skills transfer and training initiative’. It recommends that external policymakers and funders should encourage authorities in the region to genuinely listen to their young people and be responsive to their needs, bridging the gulf between generations and empowering those currently disengaged. This is something which governments focussed on stability can be cautious of allowing, but may ultimately be in their interests

One participant in the programme commented that many of her contemporaries had not been equipped to learn how to ask questions and find credible information from credible sources in order to resist simplistic narratives they encountered on broadcast or social media. She felt the programme helped people to over-come this. Another delegate said it had ‘changed his life’ and inspired him to work in civil society to give others similar opportunities.

There was widespread agreement among the research participants of the importance of acquiring debating skills to increase social and political cohesion and counter intolerance. Participants saw such programmes as instilling a strong sense of shared values. The report suggests that developing ‘soft skills’ helps ‘foster a culture of dialogue, enhances critical thinking, increases resilience to radicalization, and even strengthens effective social and political engagement’. 

The report also found that such skills and training programmes help address the prevailing culture among young people in the region of expecting the state to provide them with a job. One interviewee linked this lack of initiative to an absence of ambition and aspiration. Another accepted that a substantial shift away from expectations of the state would take a long time, but believed that capacity-building initiatives such as Young Arab Voices were required to lay the foundations; this would help to embed a culture in young people of assuming and accepting responsibility themselves for bringing about positive change. 

The ‘youth bulge’ could be seen as a potentially destabilising challenge for Arab societies – or as a potentially valuable resource, if the energies of their young people can be properly harnessed. As the Chatham House report shows, the Young Arab Voices programme is one effective platform for young people, and offers a model for other ways of engaging positively with the region’s disaffected youth.

David Knox, Director Society, and Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council

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