Unemployment tops the list of concerns for Arab youth
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Clutching an envelope containing his high-school diploma, Khleif al-Onaizi headed to one of the scores of employment centers the government has set up nationwide in a drive that began last week to help Saudis find jobs.
Al-Onaizi, 26, like many other applicants, doesn’t care what kind of a job someone with his qualifications can get. He’s put on weight in the five years he’s been looking for work and is on medication for depression because of the stress of being jobless.
“I want to work,” said al-Onaizi. “I’m ready to do anything.”
Unemployment is not only a Saudi predicament. It tops the list of problems facing Arab youths in a region that’s one of the world’s youngest.
The problem became more pressing after the Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by 19 Arabs, 15 of them Saudi. Governments began looking into what drives Arab youths into the arms of Muslim extremists. While there is no one simple answer, unemployment that brings with it despair, frustration and a failure to realize dreams is believed by many terror experts to be a major factor.
“People could be more susceptible for recruitment into activities that may lead to terrorism,” said Justin Sykes, 28, communications and public information officer for the International Labor Organization’s Youth Employment Network in Geneva.
Of 88 million unemployed youths between 15 and 24 worldwide almost 26 percent are in the Middle East and North Africa, according to an ILO report.
The report said the total population of Arab countries quadrupled in the past 50 years to almost 300 million – with 37.5 percent under 15 and 3 million coming onto the job market every year. It is expected to reach 410 million in 2020.
“These rates are alarming now and will be more in the future with the increasing millions joining the labor market every year,” it said.
The Saudi government is one of the few in the region addressing the issue with a serious employment drive as it tries to reduce its reliance on the 7 million-strong foreign labor force and bring down an unemployment rate which some estimates put as high as 30 percent.
Hundreds of Saudis line up each day in major cities waiting for employment centers to open.
Lebanon recently hosted a youth conference, and Jordan has held forums to address youth unemployment.
“We are at a stage where we are lost, but we’re starting on the right track,” said Anas Abbadi, a 28-year-old Jordanian youth political development worker.
Some governments are trying to liberalize state-controlled economies and formulate strategies for youth development.
However, most lack the motivation to address youth problems. They tend to be autocratic, spreading economic favors as a way of consolidating control, with little accountability to the public and much corruption. Plus, they lack skilled people in the public sector which, in many countries, is the largest welfare provider.
At a 61 percent adult literacy rate, the new generation of Arabs are the region’s most educated. But the Arab world’s educational system is producing the wrong kinds of graduates. There’s a glut of doctors, lawyers and engineers and not enough people with technical or vocational skills.
Some youths dream of emigrating to the West, where they believe opportunities are better. Others are underemployed, working as taxi drivers, for example, because they cannot find jobs.
“There’s no one to tell us what the opportunities out there are when you graduate,” said Abdullah Diwan, a 24-year-old Egyptian computer specialist. “There’s no practical guidance.”
The ILO’s Sykes said governments need to look at what such policies have done for youths’ aspirations.
“You’ve opened their minds to a better future that maybe in the past didn’t exist, and young people coming out to work now don’t want just any job,” he said.