The Middle East has a youthful population, especially compared to the greying West.  With more than half its 369 million inhabitants under 25 years old, the region stands to benefit from a large working age population and a low dependency ratio.  However, the youthful populace could turn into a liability rather than a youth dividend if an environment in which youth aspirations can be fulfilled is not created, an October 2014 World Economic Forum report warns.

A worrying warning given that the Middle East has the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world, and the sharp decline in oil prices over the past 15 months is expected to cause unemployment levels in the oil-exporting countries in the region to grow further as governments cut spending.  The region’s unemployment rate stood at 28.2 per cent in 2014, compared to a global youth unemployment rate that has stabilized at 13 per cent following the period of rapid increase between 2007 and 2010.

According to the World Bank, over 50 million new jobs need to be created in the MENA region in the next decade to ensure political and social equilibrium. Commentators, such as Mohamed Abdel Ahad who is regional director for the Arab States at the United Nations Population Fund, consider that governments in the Arabian Gulf need to provide more attractive jobs for young people.  There has historically been a focus on government jobs which are predominantly filled by older workers and hold little attraction for young people. 

Many are now hailing a greater investment into technology and the digital economy as a solution to such high rates of youth unemployment.  Guest Forbes writer Hala Fadel comments that:

The Arab world has the highest video consumption per capita in the world on YouTube and Facebook, twice the world average. Smartphone penetration is one of the highest in the world and adoption of social media platforms, from Twitter to Snapchat to Facebook and Instagram, is rocket high. With 70% of the population under age 30, the Arabs are a hyper social and hyper digital population.

… Constructive change can come from investing in Arab innovation in an economic revolution that will benefit the entire region. Over the past 10 years, more than $10 trillion has been spent on construction and infrastructure in the Arab region. Can we invest 0.1% of that in our youth and its economy, the digital economy?

At the recent Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity, Yousef Tuqan, apparently one of the Middle East regions most experienced and respected technology entrepreneurs, argued that:

…in a region plagued by sectarianism, strict border controls and government bureaucracy, a new revolution is underway. Arab startups from across MENA are using the internet to connect and empower the Arab Digital Generation through platforms, tools and technologies. These new startups are creating jobs, creating wealth and creating good news in a region that is sorely in need of all of them. 

Tuqan cited e-commerce sites such as Souq.com as being the region’s biggest success stories, saying

 Most retailers today in the Middle East are flatlining, even if they won’t admit it. Very few are seeing significant growth. But these people are growing 90 per cent a year. Souq.com employs over 3,000 people across the Middle East. And what’s incredible is that 70 per cent of purchases made in Saudi Arabia are done by mobile phone. They are a real success story and a real bellwether for the industry overall.

The World Economic Forum also agrees that enabling youth employment will require decision makers from government, the private sector, academia, and civil society to collaborate to better equip both students and workers with ICT and e-business skills, and create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship and small-business job creation.

Societies everywhere need to consider how to support young people into purposeful work.  The problem is a particularly pressing one in the Middle East, where youth numbers are high.  Demographically, it is an economic opportunity for the Middle East that most other countries around the world do not have.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...