UN report predicts 75% of countries in Arab region could see conflict by end of decade
60% of the Arab population is under the age of 30
Who remembers Mohamed Bouazizi? The answer, maybe, is not many of us.
Perhaps we can be forgiven. So much has happened in the past six years, so much has changed. But if you happen to be a young Arab as Bouazizi was, living in the Middle East, not all of that change has been for good.
Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire after an argument with a policeman late in 2010.
He was crushed in the outfall of the 2008 economic crash. His death spread flames across the Middle East in what was to become known as the Arab Spring.
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A bold and troubling UN report on Human Development in the Arab world warns the kindling that fueled the Arab Spring is drier than ever.
To be a young Arab in the Middle East today is to be more disadvantaged and more vulnerable to violence than any other time in recent history.
Between 2000 and 2003, there were four conflicts in the Middle East, according to the report. That number has grown to 11 between 2010 and 2015, and by the end of the decade, the report concludes, three out of four countries in the region could be “vulnerable to conflict.”
Arabs are exposed to violence and upheaval in a way that no other large single-language group is. Though the Arab region contains just 5% of the world’s population, it has 17% of the global conflicts, 45% of all terrorist attacks and 57.5% of the worldwide total of displaced people.
The statistics on violence become even more worrying when the economic woes and an ever-swelling population are put in the picture.
At least 30% of Arabs are aged 15 to 29 years old – that’s 105 million people. Sixty percent of the population is under 30.
While the Human Development Index (HDI) in the three decades prior to Bouazizi’s self-immolation showed improvements in education and health care, the economy fell behind, triggering an overall downturn. Experts use the HDI to measure “human well-being,” a function of long healthy lives, being well educated and having a decent standard of living.
For young Arabs in the Middle East, HDI growth in the five years after 2010 is half what it was in the previous decade and markedly below the world average.
The backdrop to these numbers is gloomy. The instability and political uncertainty make it difficult to look to country leaders for direction and job creation to employ their growing populations.
Unemployment in 2014 was two times the global average – almost 30% of Arab young people versus a 13.99% average in the rest of the world. And as poor economic prospects often provide a pathway toward radicalism, that alone is deeply troubling.
And consider this – In the past few months, a boatload of migrants believed to be from Libya sank in the Mediterranean with the loss of dozens of lives. It was later found many were Egyptian youths hoping to find a better life in Europe, perhaps hoping to send money home to struggling relatives.
Egypt is a case in point. A population of close to 100 million, a tanking economy, rising prices and a leadership struggling to lift the country out of the downward spiral, the youth showed they had the resilience to take on the regime in protests from 2011-2013.
The UN report estimates young Arabs are twice as likely as middle-income countries’ youths to take to the streets in protest. It says that 68% of Arab youths versus 87% of young people in other middle-income countries are likely to vote – a differential that speaks volumes about their confidence in democracy and their ability to shape it.
The assessment by the UN in its 270-page report is that across the Middle East, approximately 60 million new jobs will be needed by 2020 to even begin to meet needs, never mind expectations.
The implications are clear. Unless the leaders of some of the most populous countries in the Middle East rise to the challenge and create jobs – and therefore hope – for their booming young populations, there will be more strife ahead and that trouble – unlike the early days of the Arab Spring – may not stay at home.
CNN’s Kara Fox contributed to this report.