Dubai: The demographic transition being experienced in the Middle East is leading to high unemployment and social exclusion, making it one of the most critical economic development challenges in the region, research on the Middle East's youth has found.

The research, entitled Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, was launched at the Dubai School of Government (DSG) on Monday.

With over 100 million people between the ages of 15 and 29, the Middle East has the largest youth cohort in the history of the region, according to the research.

It is a project by the Middle East Youth Initiative, a joint programme between the Dubai School of Government and the Wolfensohn Center at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution, and is packed with statistics and is targeted for policy-makers in the region.

It has been edited by DSG dean Dr Taiq Yousef and Nivtej Dhillon, former policy director at the Middle East Youth Initiative.

Foreword by Anwar Gargash

Specifically focusing on Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Yemen, the research included a foreword by Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, and James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank.

Dr Yousef said that the research showed that the "most important segment in the region is not to be taken for granted", referring to the Middle East's youth.

He also criticised the region's governments for not giving youths due attention, saying the weakest ministries in the region were those dealing with youth matters, that they were also the most under funded and lacked a political mandate.

The research found that while more of today's youth are educated in comparison to previous generations, the quality of the education in the region is poor and does not qualify them for the private sector, leading many to rely heavily on the already saturated government sectors.

The phenomenon, said Dr Yousef, coupled with low quality, low paid jobs and a lack of social protection is leading the region's youth to get married later in life, which he said was unusual for a conservative region as the Middle East. Marriage as an institution, he added, was under "assault".

According to the research, nearly 50 per cent of males between the ages of 25 and 29 are unmarried. "The marriage market is closely linked with the employment market, the education market, and the housing market," says the study.

Tip of the iceberg

Unemployment, said Mary Kawar of the International Labour Organisation was "the tip of the iceberg" in the difficulties facing the region's youth. Young people in the region, she said, faced problems making the transition from school to the workplace.

"80 to 90 per cent of young people in the countries we surveyed had an unsuccessful transition," she said. The "unsuccessful" classification, she said, included those that had taken jobs that they were unhappy with, or "non-career jobs".

"A lot of young Arabs choose to be unemployed because they want to have good jobs," she said.
Nader Qabbani, of the Syria Trust for Development, compared the value of education in job markets between the Arab world and the rest of the world, saying that an extra year of education amounted to a 10 to 15 per cent extra annual income on a global level. "In the Arab world, an extra year would bring six per cent, and in Syria, three per cent," he said.

Ahmed Younis, a consultant at pollster Gallup, painted a bleak picture of the state of the region's youth through statistics. Vast majorities of Arab youths believe that corruption is widespread in the private sector and many believe that having wasta [influence] is the best way to get a job in the region, and most are not willing to relocate for a job, even within their own country.

Dr Yousef said it was refreshing to learn that the research project was not approached from a security perspective.

"In Washington, most [such] discussions were couched in terms of national security, terrorism and counter terrorism… They would say who is going to be the next [Osama] Bin Laden, and how do we stop him… This [research] is refocusing the angle to where the crux is," he said.