The Arab Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity?

The Arab world is experiencing a unique demographic transformation. Never before in the history of the region has there been such a large percentage of young people making up the overall population. In other words, the Arab world is experiencing a youth bulge. And this is not just any youth bulge. The Brookings Institute has put the population of people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the region at 30% (that is 100 million people)[1]  - the highest youth population in the history of the region.

This unprecedented youth bulge, like most, is predominantly the result of a dramatic reduction in infant mortality rates, without a decline in female fertility. And, in the Middle East, this demographic anomaly is just about to peak. So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it depends, as Justin Yifu Lin, Former World Bank Chief Economist so eloquently explained in a blog he wrote for the Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog:

“In a country with a youth bulge, as the young adults enter the working age, the country’s dependency ratio -- that is, the ratio of the non-working age population to the working age population—will decline. If the increase in the number of working age individuals can be fully employed in productive activities, other things being equal, the level of average income per capita should increase as a result. The youth bulge will become a demographic dividend. However, if a large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn satisfactory income, the youth bulge will become a demographic bomb, because a large mass of frustrated youth is likely to become a potential source of social and political instability”[2].

Complex problems rarely have simple answers, however, one thing most commentators, policy makers and young people themselves agree on is that education is critical to ensuring a youth bulge has a positive impact not only on the population making up the ‘bulge’, but also other segments of society.
To turn any youth bulge into a demographic dividend, the working age population must be engaged in productive work – providing individuals themselves with an appropriate level of income and social engagement, and boosting national economic growth, which in turn leads to a higher standard of living. An individual’s education is, without question, the most important factor in determining their capacity for rewarding employment. However, as we know as educators and as we have seen throughout the region, this requires far more than simply building new schools or universities (although this helps!).

Generally speaking, education in the Middle East has undergone a remarkable transformation over recent decades. Primary school enrolment rates in many countries are near universal and higher education is more accessible now than ever before. However, these achievements in education have not necessarily translated into improved workforce participation. In fact, youth unemployment in parts of the region is some of the highest in the world, exceeding 60% in some countries. And although it may sound counter-intuitive, the hardest hit in the employment stakes are often those with tertiary qualifications.

What this tells us is that access to education, in and of itself, may not be a complete solution - we must also start to question the type and quality of education our young people need to become successful workforce participants. And here in the Middle East, governments, institutions and educators are starting to answer that question.

In the GCC, governments are increasingly turning their attention towards embedding skills such as innovation and entrepreneurship in curriculum, fuelling long-term job creation by helping prepare a current generation of students for self-employment opportunities and self-led business generation. These same governments are also seeking to diversify their economies, reducing reliance on traditional employers such as the public service and the oil industry. Students are being encouraged to concentrate on those disciplines likely to see increasing demand from employers, including science, technology, mathematics and engineering.

The importance of vocational education in reducing youth unemployment is being recognised throughout the region, with new training colleges for both men and women springing up from Bahrain to Alexandria. And at a basic level, education systems are moving away from rote learning - focusing instead on integrating technology within curricula and providing learners with the 21st Century skills required for workforce success: team work, communication, initiative and problem solving.

But is this enough? What more needs to be done?

Over to you. How can we take advantage of the energy, creativity and talents of our region’s young people and create an enabling environment for youth involvement in the labour market?

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[1] The Brookings Institute,
[2] Justin Yifu Lin, “Youth Bulge: Demographic Dividend or Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries”, Let’s Talk Development, World Bank, May 2012,