Leveraging the Youth Bulge to Transform the Arab World

Syrian Economic Forum students learning civic education in Syria.

Syrian Economic Forum students learning civic education in Syria.

Last Thursday marked five years since Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in what has come to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. A well-waged campaign of civil resistance, provoked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, ultimately led to the upending of Ben Ali’s autocracy and catalyzed a series of protests across the Middle East and North Africa.

Five years after the first Arab Spring uprising, we have the benefit of hindsight. We can pinpoint, with relative certainty, the various elements that contributed to the revolutions occurring when and where they did. Five years on, and we continue to grapple with both the inspiring and heartbreaking implications of revolutions in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. A critical element that drove the protests, often mentioned in the early days but since relegated to the margins of the conversation, is the youth populations of these countries.

For years leading up to the events of January 2011, scholars warned of the dangers of a youth bulge in the Arab world. In particular, many viewed the disproportionately high number of young men in the region as a ticking time bomb. Urban populations especially suffered from the effects of low wages, high unemployment, and inflated food prices. These factors contributed to a young fruit seller from Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire in the middle of a busy marketplace.

An entrepreneur working in the informal sector who was frustrated by the impediments to formalizing his business and dealing with corrupt public officials, Bouazizi ultimately felt that the only choice remaining to him was a radical one — with radical consequences. Though his injuries proved fatal, the young fruit seller became the symbol of the Tunisian Revolution, and subsequently an emblem for the other protests and riots that rocked the Arab world in the months following his death.

Today, youth between the ages of 15 and 29 comprise more than 30 percent of the population of the Arab world — roughly 300 million people. This is the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history, not to mention an incredible and untapped source of economic enterprise. Startups are a growing trend in the Middle East, with youth leading the charge. Western investors have already started to take notice: in April 2015, Google set up its first Arab tech hub for entrepreneurs in the Middle East in Dubai, and there are dozens of other startup hubs from Beirut and Cairo to Riyadh, Irbil, and Amman. Just a few weeks ago, 500 Startups, a leading global venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator, launched a Middle East tech fund to the tune of $30 million.

Amidst turmoil in the region, Arab youth are seeking to engage in new and innovative forms of entrepreneurship and economic enterprise. In a region often characterized by bureaucratic red tape, lack of formal business infrastructures, and weak governance, young people are creating opportunities for themselves and in turn, blazing a path for future economic success in the region.

In foreign policy circles, the Arab world’s youth bulge is frequently bemoaned. As young men languish jobless in urban centers, the allure of groups like the Islamic State, offering promises of decent and consistent pay and a cohesive source of identity, strengthens. This trend, in turn, plunges a region in turmoil into even greater instability — and thus, the economic potential of the Arab world’s large youth population are overshadowed by its pitfalls.

Rather than viewing youth solely as a liability, policymakers both in the region and beyond must begin to understand how this burgeoning demographic can help build more dynamic and inclusive economies. One scholar, Bessma Momani, already has, in her recently-published book Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring. Momani argues for the existence of a “fundamental intergenerational change,” wherein Arab youth favor entrepreneurialism, political freedom, and cosmopolitanism.

These interests can be leveraged to increase the capacity of individual entrepreneurs, promote collective organization and advocacy, and facilitate institutional change in the ways that business is conducted and regulated. A recent Ernst and Young survey on global job creation and youth entrepreneurship found that a fifth of entrepreneurs want to effect positive social change. That’s 20 percent of the entrepreneur population, and in a region of the world where youth are in great supply, the potential for that 20 percent to make a difference is tremendous.

Frequently, the private sector steps in where governments fail. And now, more than ever before, youth are taking matters into their own hands. Young people and those with an entrepreneurial spirit are no longer waiting for the economy to turn around, or for jobs to come to them; they are self-teaching, collaborating, and solving local problems by creating their own enterprises. Youth are driving job creation by driving entrepreneurship. And while entrepreneurship does not immediately stimulate job creation on a massive scale, on an individual level it is a crucial component in facilitating favorable enterprise ecosystems in which the large companies of the future can grow.

But stakeholders in the Arab world aren’t just working to promote entrepreneurship in the present. The private sector is, in many cases, also looking toward the future. It is very likely that the Middle East and North Africa in twenty years will be a radically different place — economically, socio-politically, and perhaps even geographically — than it is today. Thus, it is necessary for civil society organizations and all those invested in the future of the region to begin planting the seeds of change today. One organization that’s doing so is the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF).

In just under five years, SEF has become a leading voice for the Syrian private sector. Through its policy and advocacy initiatives both within Syria and among diaspora communities, the organization is working proactively to shape a post-conflict society and equip young Syrians with the tools and knowledge that will be necessary to rebuild their country. A critical component of this skills-building effort has been the implementation of a civic education and entrepreneurship curriculum, which CIPE helped design.

Through a series of modules on ethical leadership, decision-making and conflict resolution, effective communication, time management, and business development, SEF works directly with youth and other Syrians to promote entrepreneurship and lay the groundwork for both current and future economic dynamism.

Sustainable development can only exist in tandem with economic dynamism. The Arab world will be sorely missing out on an opportunity for such dynamism if we do not leverage the youth bulge that has built up over the last decades and use it as an occasion to create real space for entrepreneurship. The growth of economies can be largely measured through the growth of firms, and without new small and medium enterprises — entrepreneurial ventures — in the marketplace, the Arab world’s capacity to compete in a globalized world will fall short of its potential. Luckily, organizations like SEF are already capitalizing on this dynamic and leading in a big way by promoting realistic pathways for entrepreneurship among youth both in and outside of their country.

Kate Moran is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.

Comments