What is the most dangerous force in the world? Answers that might come to mind are al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, or the threat posed by Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons. These are indeed dangerous, but the most pervasive threat is the large number of unemployed youth throughout the world. And nowhere is that danger more pronounced than in North Africa and the Middle East.
With the apparent fall of Libya’s despotic Gadhafi regime, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings appear to have terminated the rule of a third long-time dictator. In each country, unemployed, angry youth were the driving force. Youth unemployment rates in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are estimated to average some 40 per cent. And in Syria, most of those now marching and dying in the protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are unemployed youth.
In the European Union, financial woes have driven youth unemployment to more than 20 per cent. Spain’s jobless rate among young people is twice that, comparable to that of the Arab world. But there’s a crucial difference. Low European birth rates have progressively lessened the proportion of youth in society, and the longer-term outlook is for worker shortages as baby boomers retire. By contrast, there are sixteen Middle Eastern and North African countries where at least six out of every 10 people are under 30 years of age. And high birth rates continue to add to the number of disaffected youth who see little hope for escaping chronic unemployment.
Massive unemployment is not the cause, but rather a symptom, of dysfunction in the Arab world. The root causes include autocratic rule, appalling corruption, stifling bureaucracy, lack of personal freedom, and a culture that favours those with wasta – connections to the governing elite – all combined with the youthful demographic bulge.
Last February, The Economist magazine developed an index that combined the above factors to help predict unrest within states of the Arab League. They dubbed it the Shoe Thrower’s Index, since throwing one’s shoe is the ultimate sign of disrespect in the Arab world. With an index of 87 out of 100, Yemen topped the list, followed by Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The country that ignited the Arab Spring, Tunisia, came in with about the same unrest rating as Algeria where staggeringly high youth unemployment has driven bloody demonstrations. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s unrest index ranked higher than those of Algeria and Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain: all countries that have experienced serious youth protests.
So will Saudi Arabia be the next Arab Spring domino to fall? The potential implications of political instability in the world’s largest oil producer, and the only holder of significant spare producing capacity, are staggering. On the surface, Saudi Arabia has some of the same kindling that fuelled the other revolts. Two thirds of the population are under the age of 29, and youth unemployment is some 30 per cent. The King is 87 years old and Crown Prince Sultan is 82, creating a massive generational gap. And yet, the King remains popular even with the young, no doubt aided by liberal splashing around of cash to soften the sting of unemployment. But not taking any chance on Arab Spring contagion, the King wasted no time before sending soldiers across the adjoining causeway to quell protests in neighbouring Bahrain.
Meanwhile, the countries that have managed to depose their dictators may be facing the most dangerous period of all. Those young idealists who believed freedom and democracy would translate into economic opportunity are finding there are now even fewer jobs. Frustrated citizens of the Tunisian town where 26-year-old vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation ignited the revolution exemplify the problem of expectations versus reality.
The dismantling of the centrally controlled dictatorship apparatus has thrown many out of work, while decades of government dominance has left the populace poorly equipped to create private sector growth. Tourism, a mainstay of Egypt’s economy, has dropped by over 60 per cent owing to security concerns, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work. Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed el-Baradei recently told CNN that the economy “is bust … socially we are disintegrating. People do not feel secure. They are buying guns.”
Unemployed youth with guns may prove to be Libya’s biggest problem, as thousands of youth who took up arms to depose Mr. Gadhafi return home with no greater chance of getting a job.
Youth of every race, culture and language share one universal aspiration: the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty to a better future through employment. Where there is no hope to achieve that, there can only be anger.
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of Encana Corp.