Turning the Middle East’s Youth Bulge into a Youth Dividend

May 26, 2017

by Yuwa Hedrick-Wong and Manu Bhardwaj

Advancing social and economic inclusion of youth in the Middle East may turn on a new form of youth empowerment.

Last week, the Crown Prince of Jordan delivered an impassioned speech about the issues faced by young people in the Middle East at the opening session of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa (“WEF”).

“What Arab youth want is what youth everywhere want: A fair chance, a chance to be heard, a chance to make a difference. What is unique to Arab youth, though, is a yearning and thirst that I have not seen anywhere else,” said Hussein bin Abdullah, the 22 year-old heir apparent to the Kingdom of Jordan. “Perhaps, that’s because our dire circumstances make us cling more tightly to hope.”

At a recent gathering of the Mastercard Center’s advisory council in Boston, the Center’s fellows echoed the Crown Prince’s remarks.

Consider the following:

  • The median youth unemployment rate for the Middle East and North Africa is 31.1 percent, the highest in the world– more than half of the 369 million inhabitants are under 25.
  • Only 13% of young people (aged 15-24) in the region had accounts at formal financial institutions, as compared to a world average of 37% and 17% in the next closest region,  Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • More than half of Egypt’s labor force is younger than age 30. In Egypt, however, nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty and 80 percent in hardship.

Using Technology to Start Businesses and Find Work

Given these facts, the Center’s fellows suggest that, through digital technology, youth might get that “fair chance” to transform their fates, as the Crown Prince highlighted at WEF.

Technology and social media offer a pathway to turn the Middle East’s “youth bulge” into a “youth dividend” that drives inclusive growth. With the rise of e-commerce, entrepreneurship and digital adoption, technology is giving young Arabs new agency.

As highlighted by the Crown Prince, youth are not just the heaviest users of social media and the Internet – “[w]e are the young entrepreneurs who build markets and scale up using digital tech.” Thus, the youth of the MENA region aren’t satisfied to just adopt and adapt global technology – they are “spearheading innovation and change” through digital technology.

In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital technology is more than a way to communicate and share for youth in the MENA region and everywhere. It is a lifeline to their future.

As the Crown Prince stressed at the WEF meeting, technology opens doors for youth, helps better match jobs to youth across the region, offers young workers chances to improve their skills online and provides policymakers with data on youth to improve decision-making.

For example, across Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey – which are among the world’s largest hosts of refugees according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) –technology is being utilized to help young refugees advance themselves and their families. In just one week, more than 10,000 Middle East refugees and youth boosted their digital economy career prospects by learning website coding and programming skills.

Seeing the potential for technology careers among their growing youth population, Middle East governments are responding in earnest. They have invested $260 billion in IT in 2016, according to one estimate. These investments are paying dividends and, if continued, will significantly improve the region’s economic outlook– in fact, in 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will have an ICT job shortage of 37,700 according to a recent Saudi government report.

In Saudi Arabia, digital technology is helping young women find employment. It is also getting them to work once they have found a job. More than 70 percent of Saudi Uber riders are women and many are young women heading to work, according to Uber’s head in the country. Other women are using Instagram to launch businesses that sell goods and services, from cupcakes to sushi. In this way, technology is helping to tackle a major challenge in a country where even educated women can struggle to find work.

These digital tools, if tapped on a large scale, could empower Arab nations and help youth become catalysts for inclusive growth throughout the MENA region.

Featured Photo: Two young ladies use a chat-room, making an appointment with friends in a coffee shop in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

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