Unemployment throughout the Middle East and North Africa is a serious concern for policy-makers around the world. Demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and even Bahrain have largely drawn their government-toppling mettle from the energy of disaffected urban youths, whose education has shown them the benefits of living in the modern world but whose job prospects don’t match up. Limited in their options by politically oppressive ruling factions, these young people have taken to the streets in shows of anti-government anger on an unprecedented scale.
The trends that helped bring out youthful ferocity are not present only in the nations that have seen rebellion. Similar demographic and political conditions are present from Iraq to Morocco, and suggest that the so-called “Arab Spring” may not yet have run its course.
In some of the oil-rich areas of the Middle East, the people are kept acquiescent by the largesse of the political regime. Using oil revenue, governments ensure peaceful streets by dispensing well-paid and secure state jobs in exchange for less freedom. Saddam Hussein, like the rulers of the modern Gulf States, disguised weak employment and minimal opportunity in the private sector by offering jobs in the public sector. Over many years, however, the public sector became the only viable sector of the economy. Almost the entire bulk of reasonably talented Iraqis went into government work, and the vast majority of the middle class made their living in Saddam’s bureaucracy. When the United States ousted him and laid off thousands of government employees, these people lost their only source of income. However, because the existing private sector was so weak, and because the culture of entrepreneurship had been so atrophied by years of the brightest individuals working in the public sector, private sector growth turned into a major disappointment. With the significantly slimmed-down government cutting out old public jobs, many people have found that there is no opportunity anywhere save the informal economy.
Exacerbating the unemployment problem caused by the loss of jobs in government has been a jump in the fertility rate between 1975 and 1990. Children born during those years are coming to working age when the economy is least able to absorb them into meaningful employment. And though they don’t have the same volatile mix of university education and no opportunity that plagued Egypt and Tunisia, they have experienced the disappointment of promises for a better tomorrow not coming to fruition. Employment problems fall particularly hard upon the young, who often find when they grow up that the best jobs are already taken or have disappeared.
To fill that gap, international and Iraqi projects, both government sponsored and non-government sponsored, are working to rebuild the country. Many of them have chosen to focus their efforts on the youth as a way to simultaneously overcome scars of the past and foster an environment of entrepreneurship that will hopefully keep creating jobs—and a more prosperous Iraq—well into the future.
Update: This UN article suggests a brain drain if nothing is done about unemployment, which could make matters even more difficult.