The desperate action of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself ablaze in public in late 2010, resonated precisely because he personified a huge segment of the Arab population that would become the force behind the Arab Spring. Bouazizi did not inspire the Arab Spring. In fact, his situation was not unique at all. A recent UN report on human development in the Arab world agrees, warning that what fueled the Arab Spring has not gone away. The standard of living of the 105 million Arabs who are aged between 15 to 29 – that’s almost a third of all Arabs – is well below the world average. If the yardstick of human well-being is a long healthy life, being well educated and having a decent standard of living, then for young Arabs, such growth in the five years after 2010 is half of what it was the previous decade.
The vast majority of Arab Spring protestors were brought into the streets, not by a burning desire for free and fair elections, but by the dire economic circumstances in which they lived and which continues. Unemployment in 2014 was two times the global average – almost 30 percent of Arab young people versus a 13.99 percent average in the rest of the world. Young people who successfully won the right to free and fair elections, but still cannot earn a living or start a family, cannot possibly be satisfied. Empty-handed Arab youth have a lot to demand and little to lose. Young people in the Middle East, especially the growing urban youth population, have been hurt by low wages and high unemployment. 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.
While youth movements represent one homogeneous group, young people are not all the same, and youth movements represent many different interests and goals. The situation is not the same in any two countries; however, ingrained in the majority of Arab youth is the hope for real change in state apparatuses and governmental structures, the opening of the private sector, reorganization and implementation of new educational policies, job creation, and housing market control.
Improving the youth situation in the Arab world is necessary for global and regional stability. The financial costs of massive youth unemployment in the region have been well documented. Arab nations will continue to lose potential GDP in the future if they fail to use a large and eager segment of their employable workforce.
A youth bulge, massive youth unemployment, increasing quantity but decreasing quality of education, large numbers of unemployed degree-holders, delayed marriage, and housing access concerns translate into a massive societal problem not seen to this extent elsewhere. To be a young Arab in the Middle East today is to be more disadvantaged and more vulnerable to violence than at any other time in recent history. Though the Arab region contains just five percent of the world’s population, it has 17 percent of the world’s conflicts.
Ultimately, the effect of the Arab Spring should be the endless possibilities open to all Arab youth. The survival of any regional government will require the participation of young people. Countries that do not begin to address the frustration of the young will find themselves vulnerable to unrest. Young people played a central role in sparking protest movements across the Middle East. But they can be a force for change – not necessarily just a resource for violence. As their numbers continue to grow, they will constitute a force of great potential change in the region.