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Banking on Arab youth to turn Arab countries around

Is the Arab world a lost cause? You'd be forgiven for reaching that conclusion. At a moment when the world's other once-poor regions have all experienced significant improvements, the 22 Arabic-speaking countries stretched between Oman and Mauritania, with few exceptions, are stuck with stagnant economies, backward strongman political systems and simmering threats – and that's the luckier ones.

But imagine for a moment that the current chaos and unrest is only a period of turbulence between two eras. Imagine if, a century from now, we were to look back upon the Arab 2010s as something like the French 1790s or the American 1770s or the English 1640s – a terrible time that foretold the creation of a better time.

To imagine this, you'd have to conclude that the current Arab "youth bulge" – the extraordinary proportion of the region's population (at least a fifth) who are between 17 and 25 and whose unemployment, disappointment and youthful zealotry are currently key sources of its violence, instability and chaos – largely come of age, in a few years, as a new generation of adults seeking better economic and political futures.

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Once the civil wars, riots, coups and countercoups played themselves out and some uneasy semi-democratic détente was reached, that generation's education and literacy, urbanized and connected aspirations and entrepreneurial outlook gave rise to a period of improvement and reform that, while far from utopian, put the Middle East and North Africa onto the same modernizing track as the rest of the world.

This is exactly the mind exercise performed by Bessma Momani, a political scientist based at the University of Waterloo (and frequent Globe and Mail contributor) who specializes in the economies of the Middle East, in a new book surprisingly titled Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring.

She spent several years surveying and interviewing young Arabs in half a dozen countries. She finds plenty of troubles – staggering unemployment, rising religiosity, sexism – but beneath it an emerging generation who are modern, educated and unwilling to settle for the closed nationalist economies, authoritarian politics and enforced subservience their parents endured.

Arabs are young, but aren't having huge families, so are in a demographic sweet spot. Dr. Momani foresees this combination of factors paying the dividend her subtitle suggests.

"Throughout the Arab world," she writes, "the number of the very young, those up to age 14, is shrinking and the number age 65 and older is growing negligibly, while those in the economically productive years between 25 and 64 are expanding. The average Arab household thus will soon shift from one full of dependents to one full of working-age individuals. Lower dependency ratios and rising human capital could produce rapid economic growth that might be sustained for at least a generation."

No other place in the world is following this pattern: Even China now faces a rising dependency ratio.

But demography is not destiny. The last time Arab countries seemed to be well-positioned demographically and economically, after the Second World War, they fell prey to Cold War politics that propped up authoritarian regimes and financed stagnant rent-seeking economies. This, in turn, kept family structures, class structures and relations between the sexes trapped in the past.

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This is now visibly changing. Although it's sad to see that Egyptians consider it "progress" that the proportion of women enduring genital mutilation has dropped from 90 to 80 per cent, on the other hand a huge proportion of Arab women now have university educations (almost 80 per cent in some of the Gulf states). While it's alarming that state enterprises account for 70 per cent of employment in key countries, it's encouraging that 15 per cent of young people intend to start a business – three times the rate in the West.

A good number of Arabic scholars have pointed out that the current unrest – including its Islamist extremism – is not a retreat into the past but a reaction to the ruptures of rapid modernization and democratic change. While I'm not so sure the outcome will be the bold new economy and society Dr. Momani describes, I do believe it's worth imagining such an end point, because only by doing so can we begin to grasp onto something other than a spiral of despair.

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