In December 2021, an unprecedented event happened in Saudi Arabia: a rave just north of Riyadh. Men and women danced in mixed company, alcohol and marijuana were consumed openly, and there was even some representation by the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the MDL Beast Soundstorm event, estimated to be attended by more than 180,000 people on the first night alone—mostly young adults—appeared to be just another step on a path toward more openness and westernization, one that seemed impossible in Saudi Arabia just a decade ago when women still could not drive. Today, not only can women drive, but they can pose on the red carpet in sleeveless dresses. This is the vision of the millennial crown prince (aged 36) Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), proponents might say: to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.
Some youth may see opportunity in these hints of reform, but it is unclear if these social changes are sufficient to meet their genuine needs.
On the other hand, alcohol and drugs remain prohibited, and homosexuality and transgender expression are still not permitted in the kingdom—indeed, a blogger was sentenced to jail for 10 months for retweeting a video supporting gay rights just last year. Although women can now drive, one of the first women to push for this reform, Loujain al-Hathloul, was imprisoned for years and remains on probation and under a travel ban. It is known that MbS, whose ascendance several years ago was supported by western analysts as an opportunity for genuine reform in the kingdom, approved the order to kidnap and kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Clearly, while some things change, much stays the same. Some youth may see opportunity in these hints of reform, but it is unclear if these social changes are sufficient to meet their genuine needs. “We’ve never seen anything like this in Riyadh before – crowds, music, VIP rooms, unconventional clothing for the kingdom,” one attendee of the rave said to a press outlet. Yet, in a sign of recognition of her environment, she would only speak to the paper on condition of anonymity.
A number of the leaders of the MENA countries have enjoyed some form of power since the current young adults were children, and they have no plan to exit their posts anytime soon.
While Saudi Arabia is in a unique position politically and economically, few of the Arab states are prepared to meet the current needs of the youth, or the emerging needs as these millions of children and teenagers age in the coming decades. MbS remains an outlier in a region that is almost entirely run by aging or elderly men. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine, is 86 years old. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is 67, Kais Saied of Tunisia is 63, Barham Salih of Iraq is 61, and King Abdullah II of Jordan is 59. Few leaders in the region, aside from MbS, are younger than 50. At the same time, half of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is under the age of 24. The median age in Palestine is just under 21 years, similar to that of Iraq; in Egypt and Jordan, it is around 24 years, while in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, it is about 32 years. A number of the leaders of the MENA countries have enjoyed some form of power since the current young adults of their countries were children, and they have no plan to exit their posts anytime soon. Regardless of their age, many of them are stuck in calcified paradigms of governance that prioritize authority and control over genuine progress toward the needs of their people, and especially of Arab youth.
Arab states are experiencing 21st century problems with 20th century leaders who are not interested in solutions that threaten their power.
Challenges for Youth in the Arab Region
Unemployment. One of the most worrying indicators for Arab youth is that in many countries, despite high levels of educational achievement, there simply are not enough jobs to meet the demand of the region’s young adults. The MENA region reports the highest youth unemployment rates in the world; at around 26 percent, this is nearly double the global average. This figure does not even account for the most extreme cases: in the Palestinian territories, for example, close to half of the population aged 18-29 is unemployed. Libya reports youth unemployment at just under 50 percent, while Jordan and Tunisia report rates between 35 and 37 percent. Qatar is the only Arab country with youth unemployment rates below the world average; this is due to the high availability of public sector jobs for the relatively small population of nationals. Despite the strides made by women in the region in recent decades, they typically report much higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts, primarily due to social norms that place women at the helm of household duties, including child-rearing, and discrimination in the workplace. MENA is the only region where the unemployment rate actually increases with a higher level of education; this correlation is due to the lack of high-level jobs where there is fair competition between well-qualified applicants.
MENA is the only region where the unemployment rate actually increases with a higher level of education.
Poverty. For youth too young to work, economic concerns persist. Poverty affects children throughout the region: about 52.5 million of the region’s children report moderate poverty, and 1 out of 4 experience acute poverty (about 30 million). Most of these children live in Sudan, Mauritania, Comoros, and Yemen. Half of all children in the region live in insufficient or overcrowded houses, and between 25 and 33 percent live with some level of nutritional deprivation. In fact, half of the humanitarian funds requested by UNICEF, the UN agency for children, in 2020 was for the MENA region, primarily due to the needs created by armed conflict, poverty, and economic stagnation. This amounted to a staggering $2.5 billion, with more than $500 million for the children of Yemen alone and another billion for Syrian children, including those who have been displaced by the ongoing war. In 2019, only half of the requested funds were received, and that was prior to the global economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that many needy children in Arab states will not have their basic needs met this year.
Arab youth live in non-responsive states with deeply entrenched systems rife with corruption, inefficiency, and obliviousness to the needs of many.
Lack of political representation. The youth of the Arab region today live completely different lives from those of their parents and grandparents. The earlier generations were alive before many of the states they live in today existed. Today’s youth are more educated, healthier, and have access to the rest of the world through the internet and social media in extraordinary ways. They also have the generational experiences of a region that has been highly active in political, economic, and religious movements, with mixed results. Yet for the most part, Arab youth live in non-responsive states with deeply entrenched systems rife with corruption, inefficiency, and obliviousness to the needs of many. Inequality is high, nepotism and elitism reign, and social mobility is low. The Arab region creates new businesses at rates much lower than most of the world, while authoritarianism or conflict (and often both) persist throughout the region. State-level elections, the only way youth can supposedly make their voices heard without risk of detainment, arrest, or worse, occur infrequently (or never, in the case of the monarchies) or seem to be decided before the ballots are cast. This leads to high frustration and lack of institutional trust, which fractures the social contract between citizen and state. Thus, youth who are positioned to bear the brunt of the region’s challenges—from climate change to economic inequality to rebuilding after protracted conflict—are those least represented in the political concerns and policy choices of their countries.
Youth who are positioned to bear the brunt of the region’s challenges—from climate change to economic inequality to rebuilding after protracted conflict—are least represented in the policy choices of their countries.
How Can We Meet the Needs of Arab Youth?
Few countries in the MENA region take the challenges facing their youth seriously. Less than half of Arab countries offer policies or guidance specifically for youth. Attention has been given to quantitative indicators like literacy and vaccination rates, both of which have increased significantly in many populations across the region. But less attention has been focused on the holistic lives of children and young adults, from the need for play and creativity to accessible post-secondary programs that provide opportunities for a secure and dignified life.
The region should modernize school curricula to meet the intellectual and economic needs of today’s students and must embrace technology, support entrepreneurship, and create inclusive workforces that are free from discrimination and nepotism.
While employment is not the sole outcome of education, the discrepancy between the expertise of current graduates and the needs of the region poses long-term individual and societal problems. Many students in these countries receive an education using outdated techniques or concentrating on fields that do not provide them jobs upon graduation. Schools (from primary to tertiary education) across the region, and especially public schools, should modernize their curricula to meet the intellectual and economic needs of today’s students. This includes both critical thinking skills, to support students as they envision the creative solutions to today’s intractable problems, as well as practical skills that allow for social mobility and keep human capital within the country by preventing brain drain. The World Bank estimates that the MENA region will need to create 300 million new jobs by 2050 to keep up with demand as the current youth sector ages—this means more than 800,000 jobs per month, starting immediately. This is a daunting goal and one that is impossible if countries depend solely on the public sector, as too many in the Arab world do. The region must embrace technology (which includes widening accessibility to electricity and the internet), support entrepreneurship, especially in youth, and create inclusive workforces that are free from discrimination and nepotism. The creativity and opportunity needed to develop functional and just economies are lacking in too many of these countries, factors that will result in even more severe unemployment issues by the time today’s infants are of working age.
The creativity and opportunity needed to develop functional and just economies are lacking in too many of these countries, factors that will result in even more severe unemployment issues by the time today’s infants are of working age.
Poor governance contributes to a lack of societal engagement and outreach, important aspects that could help keep these populations cohesive and resilient. This is especially evident in the health sector. As part of the broader development of the region, Arab youth are increasingly engaging in behaviors like substance use, smoking, risky driving, unsafe sex, and consumption of highly processed foods. Marginalized youth, such as those with disabilities, refugees, and young people living in rural areas are especially overlooked by the already meager public health services in much of the region. The mental health struggles of youth are also widely ignored, despite many populations experiencing trauma and economic desperation; to be sure, large swaths of the Arab youth population do not know a life that is not affected by war or political instability. As these generations age, the cumulative effects of such health problems will strain already meager health systems. This region must reconsider its approach to health and wellness as well as invigorate health systems by increasing accessibility and boosting quality to meet the needs of their populations.
As these generations age, the cumulative effects of various health problems will strain already meager health systems. This region must reconsider its approach to health and wellness as well as invigorate health systems
Meaningful civic engagement by youth is not just a societal goal for the MENA areas but has become an existential need. Youth cannot be expected to consistently risk their lives with revolution. Well-intentioned states in the region should serve as models for integrating these new generations into leadership, while the authoritarian regimes should face consequences from external states and entities (including the business sector) if they stifle political dissent and use non-democratic methods to maintain power. The example of Saudi Arabia, a country that has been continually re-embraced despite decades of violations, does not bode well for the states of the world that say they prioritize democracy. While maintaining the status quo may meet current political needs, the Arab youth of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunities for success and safety as their global counterparts. The region will remain unstable if they are continually ignored.
While maintaining the status quo may meet current political needs, the region will remain unstable if the Arab youth are not afforded the same opportunities for success and safety as their global counterparts.
More than half of young Arabs believe “their best days lie ahead,” according to the 2021 Arab Youth Survey. While the wealthy Gulf Arab states perform the best on such measures, even youth in beleaguered Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq were more optimistic in 2021 than they were the year before. Lest we forget, the Arab Spring was started by the youth—one specific young person, in fact: Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire to protest social conditions, namely poverty and police brutality. Youth were the ones who sustained the Arab Spring, ignoring their disillusioned elders who told them change was impossible. In many cases, the brutality of the regimes they were protesting was overpowering, and these elders were, at least temporarily, justified in their apathy. Yet the passion and creativity of youth are a needed part of pushing society forward. Arab states are experiencing 21st century problems with 20th century leaders who are not interested in solutions that threaten their power. Prioritizing the development of youth populations, from children to young adults, will help meet the needs of today while preparing a generation to be ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.