The MENA has a high youth population, with over half of those in the region under thirty. But for many of these young people, poor job prospects are an all too familiar reality.
The MENA has the highest rate of youth unemployment globally, and it’s been that way for quite some time.
While for women, the region has some of the world’s lowest rates of female labour force participation (FLFP).
But what forces are driving this, and how does the region turn the tide?
The highest rates of youth unemployment in the world
Before the pandemic, the percentage of young people (15–24 years) in the region who were not employed, not in school, or receiving training already stood at 29.7%. However, from 2019 to 2020 alone, the increase in the share of unemployed young people was 2.7 percentage points.
Now, according to data from the ILO, young people are “three times more likely” than older workforce cohorts to be unemployed. The only exception to these high unemployment rates is Qatar, where the youth unemployment rate is just 0.5%.
It’s no surprise, then, that the recent annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey found that large swathes of the youth population across the region are looking to leave.
Specifically, the research showed that over half of Arab youth in the Levantine and North African countries are actively trying to leave or considering leaving to find better opportunities.
The survey showed that of those actively considering emigration, 49% were doing so to ‘look for a job.’
And yet, the survey also revealed that youth optimism in the region is at a peak when compared with four years ago. A total of 57% foresee themselves living a better life than their parents – decent, fulfilling and secure employment is a big part of this.
Youth within GCC countries, specifically, were more optimistic about their future prospects, where 88% said they believed their country’s economy is “headed in the ‘right direction,'” and just 27% have considered emigrating.
Women in the workforce
While the overall youth unemployment figure is high in the region, when it comes to women in the workforce, the issue becomes even more complex.
These figures stand in contrast to high education enrolment and attainment figures, especially in the Arab world, where women are found to surpass men in education, a phenomenon dubbed the “MENA paradox.”
And, while women in the region are striving for better representation, research shows that their expectations are not currently lining up with the reality they are faced with. Research on this demographic from PwC found that:
- 84% aspire to become leaders in their field,
- 80% feel confident in their ability to lead others, and
- 86% believe they have both the skills and experience to advance to the next level in their career.
Yet, only 67% of those surveyed believe they can “rise as far as they want” with their current employer.
There’s also no denying that gender biases remain deeply entrenched throughout the region, but aside from this and other cultural barriers, a lack of childcare provisions, transport and low wages, have been highlighted as significant barriers to labour force participation for women.
That said, progress is being made, and as the PwC report notes, young women in the MENA are now “more likely than ever before,” to be in work.
But, progress is not linear or uniform across the region. Places such as the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have the highest rates of FLFP, while Saudi Arabia has made FLFP a central part of the Vision 2030 economic reforms. But, elsewhere in Egypt, for example, FLFP dropped from 23% in 2016 to 15 per cent in 2021, while in Morocco, FLFP peaked back in 2004.
Skills gaps and education
Despite having vast regional differences, research shows that the barriers to youth employment across MENA countries are “remarkably similar.” Issues such as a deficit in quality jobs, skill gaps and low educational quality are widespread.
Indeed, last year, a joint release by the UN labour agency, ILO, the UNDP, the UNFPA and UNICEF outlined that the current education systems and curricula in the region fail to “match the evolving labour market and the changing nature of work.”
Digital transformation in the region also has the potential to compound this issue. Despite unlocking new employment opportunities, as Omar Christidis, CEO and founder of Arabnet, notes, the region has an “acute digital skills gap.” Christidis did, however, share that as “tech-native individuals,” youths could prove “easier to educate, upskill, train, and integrate” into a digital economy.
Of course, alongside this digital transformation is the transition to the green economy. Yet, while projections are that green policy measures could result in 400,000 jobs for Arab youth, a lack of green skills is a big barrier to capitalising on this. Likewise, the ILO notes that “less than 10 per cent” of these jobs would be for young women.
In the UAE, the Green Education Partnership is aimed at addressing the skills gap, and similar initiatives are popping up elsewhere, but more are required across the region, and for those who have left education, upskilling opportunities are essential.
Entrepreneurship and the private sector
Entrepreneurship is increasingly being framed as a way to stimulate job growth, and research shows that here, young people are enthusiastic. That said, there is a significant variance when it comes to young peoples’ experience of entrepreneurship across the region.
For GCC youth, for example, around 58 per cent believe starting a business is either ‘very easy’ or ‘somewhat easy’. On the other hand, the percentage of those in the Levant and North Africa, who believe it is “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult,” stands at 79% and 73%, respectively.
Here, a lack of access to capital and support has been highlighted as a particular barrier to entrepreneurship, something which is especially true for women. And indeed, in the Arab Youth survey, respondents noted that “tax breaks, reduced fees for startups, enhanced training and education, and government-backed loans” would encourage more youth to pursue entrepreneurship. That said, we are now beginning to see governments start to prioritise these kinds of support packages, including in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.
Interestingly, young people are also showing an increasing preference toward private sector work, with less than a third preferring to work in the government sector. Yet, while previously, the formal private sector in the Arab region was perceived as not sufficiently diversified and lacking the required structure to “absorb the large numbers of new labour market entrants,” initiatives like Saudization, Emiratization, and Omanization are aimed at boosting employment opportunities in the private sector for nationals.
Ultimately, when it comes to boosting youth employment, there is no silver bullet solution. However, there needs to be a ramping up of private sector initiatives, greater support for young people in the school-to-work transition, continued engagement with and intervention for young people, and a modernisation of education and training systems, which is essential to bridge the youth skills gap.