One in four young adults in the Middle East is unemployed, a figure that has policymakers and security analysts worrying for the future of an already unstable region.
Youth unemployment in the region is 25 percent — the highest for any part of the world, and well above the global average of 14 percent. In Egypt today, it means 1.15 million young people out of work; in Iran, there are 1.3 million.
Whether there is a direct link from youth employment to political violence is a matter of ongoing debate. Even so, the prospect of 100 million idle or marginalized people between the ages of 15 and 29 — 30 percent of the Middle East population — is of major concern to those watching and living in the region.
"They could be diverted into the terrorism track, into violence, political violence, and so on. That's the concern from an American point of view," said Hafed Al Ghwell of the Dubai School of Government.
"From a regional point of view, the issue is really more of a survival," Al Ghwell said. "It's an issue of development for development's sake. It's an issue of addressing concerns of a large segment of the population."
Al Ghwell and his colleagues at DSG, a regional affiliate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, have launched the Middle East Youth Initiative to tackle the factors that lead, not just to unemployment, but to other forms of social exclusion for the youth demographic in the Arab world. For example, because young adults are not achieving financial independence, they put off marriage. In Morocco, men marry at age 32, seven years later than men a generation ago.
Instead of progressing into adulthood, many Middle Easterners find themselves in what the DSG calls "waithood," an idle holding pattern in which teens and twentysomethings continue to live with their parents. Though highly educated, they lack a productive, professional outlet for their energies. As a result, alternatives ranging from migration to the West to engagement in extremist activity, become relatively more appealing.
Compounding youth frustration, the Internet and satellite TV connect the Middle East with images from around the world of luxury goods and economic success — images that don't match the lives they lead.
"Media exposes young people to international norms. This exposure raises the expectations for consumption and living standards, and creates a new sense of exclusion." write Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef in a recent DSG report.
The DSG, in partnership with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, created the Middle East Youth Initiative to generate ideas and advise governments on a practical action plan to expand opportunity for the young. They launched a Web site, shababinclusion.org ("shabab" meaning "youth" in Arabic), specifically to connect with the target demographic.
Such regional problem solving could not come at a better time, says Marcus Noland, an economist, unaffiliated with the program. Noland, author of "Arab Economies in a Changing World," and formerly on the President's Council of Economic Advisors, said the economic future of the Middle East is in a position to go either very right or very wrong in the next generation. The outcome depends on whether Arab governments can create new youth-oriented opportunities in the years ahead.