Despite war and turmoil in MENA region hitting youth job prospects, there is hope for change

Conflict and unrest n the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are having a marked impact on youth unemployment, according to a former top UN official. (AP/File Photo)
Updated 05 July 2019

Despite war and turmoil in MENA region hitting youth job prospects, there is hope for change

  • Christer Elfverson tells Arab News diversity in Arab world partly due to population growth and GDP
  • Unless tensions are eased, the outlook for many young Arabs remained bleak

LONDON: Wars and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are having a marked impact on youth unemployment, according to a former top UN official.
And unless tensions are eased the outlook for many young Arabs remained bleak, said international diplomatic adviser, Christer Elfverson.
His comments follow figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO), showing that one in five young people under the age of 25 in the region are jobless and have no skills, and in some countries the issue is becoming more acute.
Elfverson, who spoke at a recent event hosted by Education for Employment (EFE) in collaboration with Citi Foundation, told Arab News that the diversity in the Arab world was partly due to population growth and GDP.
But he added that turmoil and wars in the region had also affected unemployment rates, and a lack of initial education in some MENA countries was concerning for future generations.
Salvatore Nigro, EFE global VP and CEO, said that the MENA region had the highest percentage of young people, with 65 percent under the age of 25, yet unemployment rates were running at an average of 30 percent.
More than 27 million young people will come of working age in the next five years, creating even more pressure and competition in the jobs market. However, MENA countries often face very different problems.
In some mountainous regions of Morocco, for example, it is difficult and dangerous for children to undertake daily journeys, whereas Syrian or Palestinian refugees do not have the money for school transport or books.
“In some issues, it has gotten better and others it’s worse but at the same time those in the countries that have been able to find jobs then maybe the possibilities are greater now. But it is two different worlds,” said Elfverson, who is an EFE board member.
Abdesselam Aboudrar, the Moroccan ambassador to London, said that the education system in his country was currently being reformed. He added that the illiteracy rate had decreased from just over 40 percent to about 25 percent, which although “still a lot,” had been slashed over the past 10 years. “We are reforming the whole system to make it more effective and more empowering for youth,” the envoy said.
Aboudrar told Arab News that Morocco had been working with several NGOs and countries including Japan, China, Russia, Canada and EU nations to develop the maritime, industrial and textile sectors and encourage more young people to take jobs in these fields.
The ambassador said vocational training was a very important aspect in preparing young people for current and future jobs. It was also vital to simultaneously train youth in supplying water, maritime and fisheries, developing skills in the automotive, computing, agricultural and tourism industries, to curb poverty, educate women and provide young girls with access to education.
When it came to the MENA region, David Cowan, Citi Africa economist, compared Saudi Arabia with Algeria due to the oil factor.
“The level of growth and employment per dollar of government spending is one of the lowest in the world. If the Saudi government spends $10, the amount of jobs and growth that number generates is much lower than, for example, in many other countries. So that is a problem,” he said.
Cowan added that Saudi Arabia had a high level of revenue with no constraint but said: “It is how you spend that revenue wisely. Sometimes you need to spend money on lower-profile projects that may generate more employment in the long run.”
Jordan’s EFE chief executive officer, Ghadeer Khuffash, told Arab News that this quarter’s unemployment rate had increased to 19 percent. She said there was “economically active people in Jordan and there are economically inactive people.” The inactive ones were not working or looking for jobs.
“In Jordan 87 percent of females are economically inactive, which means only 14 percent of the women are contributing to the labor market. So, in our work we don’t only target unemployment or unemployed youth, but we also target those who are economically inactive.”
Not only is Jordan suffering from a high unemployment rate, but the country also has to bear the responsibility of millions of refugees or displaced persons and borders states that have endured years of war and unrest.
Refugees often do not have valid permits and are not able to leave camps. Those that do are barely able to move within the camp, let alone leave to go to work.
Regarding the challenges females face in employment, Khuffash said: “All the reports from the World Bank and so on, highlight the lack of public transportation systems and nursery care.”
She added that most of the work was predominantly in the capital Amman and the northern city of Irbid. The other governorates had minimal job opportunities.
One key factor however remains consistent: As candidates filter into the market, it has become evident that they are ill-prepared for the workforce, whether coming from a disadvantaged background or a more educated path. The problem cannot be solved by simply modernizing education and labor markets.
Speaking to Arab News, Cynthia Muller, board member of EFE-Europe, said the EFE had a measurable, traceable and easily comprehensible mission that did not need a lot of due diligence because “the money goes to where it is supposed to go. And it’s affectively being put to work.
“There is a bit of magic when you have humans together with a common mission who have not had the privilege of being attended to on a silver plate. I have been amazed to see people change their life with a very small amount of help by getting that first job,” the hedge fund banker added.

The chairman of the Arab International Youth Forum said they want to see their youth employed and women more engaged in the private sector, not only in Saudi Arabia, across the region. 

“Youth is the richest asset of the Arab region, but also is a huge challenge because of the lack of jobs or the mismatch between the education system and the jobs on the market,” Haifa Al Kaylani told Arab News. 

Meanwhile, Abdullah Jasem, president of Emirates Trade and Investment, said the youth’s contributions to Arab economies  is going to be a significant part in global trade and investment going forward. 

“We have a large population in the MENA region, most of whom overwhelmingly are below 35, and these are people with a lot of energy and they're being highly empowered by their governments, particularly the UAE where it has initiatives not just for its own citizens, but all Arabs,” he told Arab News.

For any economy to advance it needs human talent. “Anything that affects the economy and the country, and the well-being of people affects the youth more than the adults,” said Elfverson.


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.