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  Middle East & Africa
Arab Countries Burdened with Rising Unemployment and Birth Rate
By Rolando M. Fuertes Jr.
Special Correspondent
MANAMA, Bahrain — The rising Arab unemployment rate coupled with an exploding population growth is a very serious problem today in this part of the world.

According to the Arab League, Arab states have at least 15 million jobless people and the number could even surge to 50 million within 10 years without serious measures to stimulate their economies and create sufficient jobs.

Currently, there are 12 million unemployed Arab young men, while 6 million foreigners work in the Arab states. Interestingly, women's participation in the economy is still less than it is in other regions of the world.

In particular, the growing number of young Arabs both in the West and in the Middle East who are unemployed and the high Arab birth rate threaten the stability of the region. It is even believed that the rate of youth unemployment is double that of adults in most of the region.

According to a United Nations Development Programme report, the Arab world's population is set to swell from 280 million now to 410-460 million in 2020. Today as many as 40 percent of the population are under 14 years old.

Courtesy Omayya.com
Over the past 20 years, the region's population has grown by an annual average of 2.5 percent, way above the global average of about 0.5 percent. Arab residents of the Middle East comprise 4.7 percent of the world population. This has resulted in very high unemployment — well over 15 percent in many Arab countries, and far higher in war-ravaged states such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Arab League said the chronic unemployment problem in the region has worsened amid insufficient development and trade. The league also cited the absence of technology.

What aggravates the problem is that unemployment is becoming widespread among the educated and young Arabs because of their governments' failure to create enough
jobs for their fast-growing population.

The Arab world continues to be hurt as its best and brightest university-educated people emigrate to Western Europe and the United States. More than 50 percent of Arab students abroad don't return home after their studies and some 54 percent of doctors and 26 percent of engineers leave the Middle East permanently.

Obviously, prolonged unemployment is very bad to an individual and it breeds several social problems. The negative effects of unemployment are not confined to the unemployed people alone but extend to their family and society. Indeed, the unemployed people are a large burden on the national economy.

Experts believe the Arab world requires a growth rate of more than seven percent to reduce the unemployment rate, and this would involve a huge investment in development and job creation.

Arab League countries
In fact, in its economic report last year, the Arab League said the mind-boggling unemployment problem in the region was a result of lower development spending in most member countries, a rapid population growth, a surge in the workforce, and flawed economic and fiscal policies.

Today more than ever, the Arab development process is facing tremendous challenges to offer a chance for young people to be employed in their homeland, and at the same time to establish Arab co-operation in the exchange of young workers.

The Arab population has reached 280 million today while it was only 187 million in 1985. The economically active population will increase to 123 million in the year 2010, and the number of those who seek jobs during the coming decade will be more than 32 million.

The issue is a matter which necessitates finding out new job opportunities and intensifying training in order to prepare and enroll the new generation into the labor market.

Clearly, no Arab country will be able to overcome the problem of unemployment alone. A unified effort should be made by Arab countries themselves.

The emerging market economies in the Arab world and continuing economic reforms are exacerbating unemployment.

Currently, many Arab and European countries have a policy of favoring their own nationals when taking on new workers, and this has added to unemployment in the region, since the free flow of labor in the past acted to counteract unemployment in countries such as Egypt.

The Arab League seeks to make a mechanism that contributes to solving the problem of employing Arab youths and confronting unemployment in general. Arab leaders' support for measures including a program for exchanging labor among the Arab states, fulfilling the laborers' needs in the host states for Arab labor, enhancing the private sector's role in Arab economies, and substituting Arab labor for foreigners employed in other Arab states.

As a matter of fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has urged Arab countries to reform their institutions so they can achieve sufficient growth to fight mounting unemployment.

Over the past 20 years, economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa has lagged behind most international averages, and rapidly growing populations have resulted in ever greater numbers out of work.

This problem — which is contributing to the region's political instability — has become more critical since the security situation deteriorated after Sept. 11, 2001.

In a series of new reports, the IMF recommends that Arab governments liberalize their economies, improve the quality of government, reduce their dependence on oil revenues, and invest money in education.

Clearly, all Arab countries are facing the unemployment problem, although joblessness has remained under control in some countries, including the UAE. Interestingly, their development spending is still high and their economy has been growing fast enough in some years.

And while unemployment in some member states is as high as 20 percent, it has remained as low as 1.8 percent over the past seven years in the UAE and Kuwait.

Egyptians
Unemployment among UAE nationals is higher, standing at around 6 percent, given the relatively low numbers of local manpower, according to official figures.

But the reasons for unemployment among nationals in the UAE have nothing to do with economic performance but with completely different factors. They include a sharp increase in native graduates, their preference for working in the public sector, and the reluctance of the private sector to recruit nationals on the grounds they are costlier.

In another report, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which groups most regional states, also blamed poor economic performance, high population growth and inadequate planning. But it cited other factors in the Gulf, including preference of the public sector.

In the Gulf, according to ESCWA, there is a problem of reluctance by citizens to take up technical and productive jobs and their preference of administrative, office and supervisory jobs. Their preference of the public sector over the private sector is also aggravating the redundancy problem and widening the gap in real production.

According to a joint Arab economic report, prepared by the Abu Dhabi-based Arab Monetary Fund, the Arab League, and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development in Kuwait, the total Arab population rose to 289 million in 2001, which was one of the fastest growth rates in the world. The combined Arab population grew by nearly 10 million people.

The population is growing fast and the work force is growing even faster. This has blocked efforts to tackle the unemployment that has even widened among the educated groups and newcomers to the labor market.

Growth in the Arab population is the highest in the world with Egypt remaining to be the most populous Arab country, with a population of 63.3 million.

Demographic indicators show that Arab countries suffer from a slowdown in measures to cut fertility rates coupled with an improvement in life expectancy.

Sudan was second with around 31 million at the end of 2000, followed by Algeria with around 30.7 million and Morocco with nearly 28.7 million. Bahrain, Qatar and Djibouti had the smallest populations of around 689,000, 562,000 and 680,000, respectively. The rapid population growth has been blamed for the aggravating unemployment and illiteracy in most of the Arab countries as it is far outpacing economic growth.

Unemployment is generally estimated at 15 percent in the Arab region while according to the Arab League figures, the combined illiteracy rate has reached 38.8 percent at the end of 2001.

The Arab League's forecasts are that the Arab work force will grow by an average three percent between 2000-2015 while jobs will grow by only 2.5 percent. At this rate, the Arab League says the number of unemployed people will sharply increase to between 35-50 million.

Most Arab nations are still suffering from slow growth, slackening productivity, poor investment, defective economic and fiscal policies in some members and rapid growth in the population, exceeding three percent in most regional countries.

So burdened with severe economic and social problems, including unemployment and poverty, Arab countries have no choice but to intensify their efforts to support economic development and ensure jobs for their fast growing citizens.



Other Articles by Rolando M. Fuertes Jr.
    Third Worlder: "World, Read My E-mail!"
    Shisha: An Arab Delight, a Taste of Home
    Women Empowerment Must Start at Home
    Obesity in Arab World Is on Rise


Rolando Maniego Fuertes, Jr. is currently working as sub-editor for Bahrain Tribune. An experienced writer, Fuertes is basically a feature writer whose articles have appeared in various international publications including Arab News, Worldpaper, and The Seoul Times. While running a sports column for the Tribune entitled On and Off, he has also written commentaries about Philippine political landscape.

 

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