The new generation and the future of the broader Middle East

In the wake of the Arab uprisings some governments may have changed but the challenges remain the same. The recent rise to power of untested Islamist political parties means that they will have to tackle issues for which previous governments have failed to find solutions.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
27 January 2013

The region encompassing the Arab world is amongst the youngest in the world. This has presented both a challenge and opportunities to the governments of the region. In the wake of the Arab uprisings some governments may have changed but the challenges remain the same. The recent rise to power of untested Islamist political parties means that they will have to tackle pressing problems for which previous governments have failed to find solutions. Whether these Islamist parties are able to provide solutions remains to be seen. Here is an overview of some of the more pressing problems.


The region’s youth suffer from high levels of unemployment reaching up to 25 percent on average. Some of the unemployment numbers are staggering. In Egypt for instance, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics estimates that those between 15 to 29 years old constitute up to 77.5 percent of the 3.4 million unemployed. Nor are the wealthier Gulf States immune to this phenomenon, according to estimates by the World Bank that states that their 40 percent youth unemployment is amongst the highest in the world.

Egypt’s tourism sector that employs one in eight Egyptians has suffered greatly since the January 2011 uprising. Last December alone, usually a bumper season, tourism numbers fell by 40 percent. Egypt’s new Islamist parties have also been sending discouraging messages to tourists including talk of a dress code and alcohol laws, thereby threatening the recovery of this vital sector. 

Furthermore, the unemployment rate for women in Egypt is put at 24 percent, almost three times that of men, while the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia women is put at at 34 percent, almost five times greater than the official rate for men.

Education standards                               

A recent report by the OECD on world education standards ranked various Arab states, including wealthy Gulf countries, in the lowest category. Most education systems produce, “unemployable” graduates who end up working in sectors that they did not train for. The skill-job mismatch is likely to continue unless there is a radical change in these education systems that would promote critical thinking, the use of technology and curriculums that reflect the needs of the market.

Freedom of expression

Ironically, freedom of expression has witnessed a regression in the wake of the Arab Uprisings. There is an increased fear within the governments of the Gulf States concerning the use of social media, a major tool of communication for the region’s youth, to “promote dissent”. Over the past few months the Gulf States have sentenced individuals to lengthy jail terms for “insulting” the monarch online, “damaging the reputation of the state” or “spreading of false news”. Many Gulf States have introduced restrictive online media laws that are purposely kept ambiguous in order for them to be malleable towards these states' requirements. Egypt’s new constitution has also come under heavy criticism for provisions that will very likely be used to suppress freedom of speech. In fact, the prominent Egyptian human rights defender Gamal Eid claims that there were four times more ‘insulting the president’ lawsuits under Morsi in his first 200 days than in Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

Brain drain

A survey released by Qatar’s Silatech in the spring of 2010, a year before the Arab uprisings found that a third of young employed Arabs would like to leave their country permanently. A 2004 UNDP study found that, “54 per cent of doctors, 26 per cent of engineers and 17 per cent of scientists graduating from Arab (and African) universities migrate to Europe, the US and Canada, and half of African and Arab students studying abroad never return”. The estimated brain drain cost to the Arab world in 2007 was put at $1.5 Billion; today it is likely to be much higher.

International diktats

Interestingly the Muslim Brotherhood which has ascended to power in more than one Arab state is promising youth more of the same. In Egypt the FJP are touting the same neo-liberal policies that were recommended by the IMF and World Bank that prompted the Egyptians to revolt against the regime, this time to be implemented by an Islamist government rather than a secular government. It may take years to find out whether the failure of these policies was due to corruption during their implementation or because they were not studied thoroughly enough or were found to be fundamentally inapplicable.

Arab youth are victims of other huge sources of deprivation and backwardness, including poor health care, a dearth of women’s rights and a democratic deficit, amongst many other issues. Sadly the governments, whether new or old, Islamist or secular seem to be unable to deal with these challenges. But over the past two years the youth in the Arab world have kick-started what my fellow columnist Amro Ali recently referred to as a process to rise to their challenges, one that may take an entire generation to succeed.

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