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In search of economic dignity in the Middle East

Bessma Momani explores the link between change and demographics in her new book, Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring. The following is an excerpt.

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4 November, 2015
People attend a concert called "Africa Celebrates Democracy" that pays tribute to Tunisian youth and the revolution that inspired the Arab Spring, in Tunis November 11, 2011. Picture taken November 11, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

Bessma Momani is a CIGI Senior Fellow and associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She marks the release of her new book, recently published by University of Toronto Press, in Ottawa on Nov. 5

In the West, the Arab region of the Middle East and North Africa is all too often associated with terrorism, religious fanaticism, intolerance, sexism, racism, and a myriad other social and political ills. As a frequent traveller to many of these countries, I get all of the curious questions from border security people in the West. I tell them I am both a professor studying the Arab region and a tourist visiting family and friends there. On many occasions this response is met with bewilderment, and sometimes a hint of disdain. Once, as I transited through London’s Heathrow Airport after a trip to the region, the man at the counter declared what most border services people politely refrain from saying: “Madam, you have all of the wrong stamps in your passport.” It is my hope that this book will disprove him and others for whom little more than violence and turmoil come to mind when they think of the “Middle East” or the “Arab world.”

For those looking for a book that validates their anxieties and misgivings about the Arab region, this is not it. I do not dismiss the real security challenges the region poses, or its vital geostrategic role in international politics. But there is no shortage of books on why and how the Arab region is a security challenge and a hotbed of radical religious views, and it is not my intention, here or anywhere, to add to that list.

For the cover of my first book on the Middle East – a volume about diplomatic relations with the region and having little to do with violence and insecurity – my publisher proposed an image of barbed wire and military men standing in the background, which the marketing representative assured me would offer “a mental shortcut for readers. They’ll know this is a book about the Middle East.” She might have been right about the perception many people have about the region, but the image is all wrong, and a constant reminder to me of the myopic vision we in the West have of the Arab world.

There is much to be concerned about in the Middle East and North Africa, a region undergoing dramatic change – in many ways the “Arab Spring” was just the beginning of the transformation. Too often, however, the Arab region is written about as a glass half-empty, and one that is draining at that. This book is about the other half of the glass: a young region full of hope, ready for progress, and eager for a bright and prosperous future. Undoubtedly some will criticize this characterization as naive or anecdotal, that I picked only the good stories and the helpful data. But my grandmother taught me a great Arabic proverb that is the core of why this book has value: “Add a hair to another hair, and you eventually get a beard.” Sometimes we need to note the region’s positive stories, anecdotal events, and initiatives, because something more is taking shape – a story interwoven and held strong by many different strands.

The self-immolation of twenty-six-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi is often said to have been the spark that set off the Arab Spring. Less widely understood are the reasons so many of his compatriots were moved by his act. Bouazizi was a college-educated young man without formal employment. He was indebted to creditors for helping to put his sister through university and supporting his mother, and he tried to earn a living selling fruit and vegetables on a cart in a small town. When a policewoman harassed him for a bribe in lieu of a vendor’s permit, Bouazizi, unable to pay, faced the further indignity of not being able to work at his meagre $10-a-day job. After the policewoman confiscated his weigh scales, Bouazizi went to the office of his local governor to lodge a formal complaint and seek their return. After the local authorities brushed him off, the young man doused himself with fuel in front of the governor’s office and set himself ablaze after yelling, “How do you expect me to make a living?”

What resonated about Bouazizi’s story in the Arab world, especially among its youth, was that he had been trying to do all the right things: get an education, be entrepreneurial, work within the system to get ahead in life. Arab youth are increasingly better educated than were previous generations. The opening line of a 2009 Brandeis University report on higher education in the Arab region could not have been more on the mark: “The Arab world is experiencing a silent yet multidimensional revolution that needs to be closely assessed: a surge in higher education.” The figures are striking: since the early 2000s the number of universities in the Arab region has doubled from 178 to 398; if one adds community colleges and institutes, the number rises to 1,139. This means a doubling in the number of university graduates, a rate far exceeding that of population growth.

Contributing to the growth of postsecondary education is the rise of private universities, which are now able to set up and compete in the Arab region thanks to economic liberalization – in Bahrain, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, and the UAE, private universities now account for 80 per cent of the total. Foreign universities are also increasingly present in the region. Particularly in the Gulf, American universities such as Georgetown, Cornell, New York University, and many others have built campuses to take advantage of the increased desire and demand of Arab youth for higher education. A number of Gulf countries are also investing enormously in building education cities or hubs. The Qatari government, for example, has poured billions of dollars – nearly 20 per cent of its budget – into the country’s education system; the hub is Education City, which houses foreign universities and new policy centres. In the UAE’s Dubai International Academic City, branches of nearly three dozen foreign universities take advantage of tax incentives to build campuses to educate tens of thousands. At a cost of $4 billion over the coming decade, Saudi Arabia is building the King Abdullah Education City, a site intended to host a number of primary schools and university campuses to serve 18,000 students and 7,500 faculty recruited from around the world. The increase in universities across the region is remarkable. Yet the rise in the proportion of educated Arab youth is not simply an issue of supply, but an indication of a strengthened ethos that respects educational attainment.

Granted, this culture of respect for higher education is not new to the region’s larger cities or to the Arab upper class – universities in Fez, Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad have been centres of excellence and intellectual thought for more than a hundred years. What is new is the attitude towards higher education in rural areas, where the ethos has flourished with astounding results, and where the pride and joy of many is not material possessions, but the education of their children. In recent visits to rural Jordan, I met elderly women, many illiterate, who proudly boasted that all of their granddaughters had attended university. When I had spoken to many of these same women twenty years ago, they had prided themselves on how much land their families possessed and how all of their daughters had “married well.”

One of the more interesting phenomena in the Arab world is the increase in female education. Dana, the twenty-one-year-old lower- middle-class student at Yarmouk University, said: “I find families today worry more about educating their daughters more than their sons, because uneducated men can often find jobs in manual labour, but women who don’t get a degree will likely stay home and depend on their parents for financial support.” As in many developed economies, in the Arab region more women than men attain a university-level education. In the mid-2000s, meeting students at Al-Ain University – an all-female campus in the UAE – who were studying business management for young entrepreneurs, I listened with fascination as they asked questions and eagerly took notes. Impressively, in the UAE, women outperform men in both high school and university, and account for 70 per cent of all university students. Like the rural women I interviewed in Jordan, Emirati parents, especially mothers, push their daughters to excel at university. Societal and family expectation that a university degree will secure a woman’s future and diminish dependency on a husband or male relative is also pushing women to pursue higher education. In my brief time visiting Al-Ain University, I saw a deep desire to learn and succeed, a trait much less pronounced among many of the students I myself have taught for over a decade. To my surprise, in this conservative Gulf state, where the prospects of female employment after graduation are low, were the most enthusiastic learners I’d ever encountered. Remarkably, 77 per cent of Emirati women are university educated, well above rates of achievement in Canada, the United States, and most other industrialized countries.

Despite the increase in the numbers who are university educated, however, in the UAE and elsewhere in the Arab world the employment opportunities for women are bleak. Arab women have the lowest labour force participation rate in the world, and in the Gulf it is even lower than in the rest of the Arab region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the number of women currently in university outnumbers that of males. Yet, although 60 per cent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, only 15 per cent of women are employed in the Kingdom. When I asked some young Emirati women about their studies and future goals, it became clear to me why they wanted to work so hard and learn and absorb so much, despite their low prospects of employment: they were savouring a moment in time, perhaps one of the few and final in their adult lives, when they could experience true meritocracy, when they could be valued for their skills and intellect, rather than for their family relations. Women across the region share the sentiments of these Emiratis. They crave recognition of their intelligence and talent, yet face a formal employment system that does not offer such satisfaction. Why, then, pursue an education? On this point, Dana stated: “an Arab woman has to get a university degree today. A degree says to the world that you know how to talk, you hold your head up high, you know how to raise your children, and you are confident; without a degree, a woman is lost and will be fooled by men who say they love them because they saw her crossing the street. Those days are gone. We Arab women are more confident and know who we are and what we want.” University education thus has status value that is now universal across the region, especially among young women – not as a means to find formal employment but as an end in itself.

As many reports sponsored by international development agencies note, however, the Arab world faces a significant challenge in the mismatch between the increased supply of skills through education and the needs of employers. As well, the quality of higher education in the region is not high: few Arab universities rank highly as global champions or against those in comparator countries of the developing world. The reports also charge that Arab education emphasizes rote memorization and does not foster critical thinking skills, and that there are too many university graduates at the expense of vocational training. In my own assessment of Arab academics’ publications and incentives to excel, it was clear that few universities in the region have internalized the “publish or perish” mantra that keeps many of my colleagues on a treadmill of work and research.

On the surface, many real and deep reforms are needed to improve Arab university systems, but this misses the point: educated Arab youth believe they are prepared for, and deserving of, productive employment. In a 2005 poll of young Arabs, the vast majority of respondents believed they were unemployed because “jobs don’t exist.” This was followed by “nepotism and corruption” and, near the bottom of the list, “education doesn’t prepare” as reasons for low youth employment rates. It is the perception of the unemployed that they are prepared to work that is key here, and that helps to explain why Arab youth called for revolution in the Arab Spring.

In one sense, it is puzzling that Arab youth led the charge. On the whole, Arab economies were not doing too badly, particularly compared with those of other developing regions. Ironically, however, the revolts began in countries with economies that were growing at a reasonable clip: Tunisia, at 3 per cent and 4 per cent GDP growth in 2009 and 2010, respectively; Egypt, at 4.7 per cent and 5 per cent; Libya, at 1.8 per cent and 5.2 per cent; Yemen, at 3.9 per cent and 7.8 per cent; and Syria, at 4 per cent and 5 per cent. Some Gulf states had growth rates in the double digits and, thanks to oil prices that hovered above $100 per barrel for nearly a decade, they amassed capital wealth to the tune of a trillion dollars. The Arab region’s growth rates would have been the envy of any developed economy, particularly on the heels of the international financial crisis of 2008. Most Arab governments were not highly leveraged or connected to international financial creditors and banks. When short-term drops in oil prices threw off their budget planning, they were not affected for long.

As well, many Arab countries were experiencing modest growth in income per capita, and inequality gaps were narrowing through- out the region: according to some measures, Arab countries were more egalitarian than those in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and comparable to those in East Asia. That said, comparisons of inequality based on household consumption patterns are criticized because wealthy individuals might underreport their income and spending habits – a survey of Egyptians using a different measure revealed, in contrast, a growing gap between rich and poor in that country. Another measure, income per capita, also showed improvement throughout the region, although not nearly as quickly as in Asia or Latin America, particularly among the middle class. Finally, employment growth rates in the Arab region, at 3.3 per cent per year from 1998 to 2008, were the highest in the world.

In sum, the economic data tell a story of improvement throughout the Arab world over two decades of economic liberalization. But herein lies the dilemma for a solely economic analysis of the Arab Spring: it cannot help us understand why Arab youth long for a better life and why they led the calls for revolution. Simply put, Arab youth supported the Arab Spring because they believed they deserved better.

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