Young and Out of Work in the Middle East

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, ("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.

"If they get it right and are able to productively absorb all that young labor, you're going to hit a period in which the Middle East will look a lot like East Asia in the 1970s — you'll have a big bulge if the labor force is going to be in its prime working years," Noland said.

"If they get it right, the future looks very bright."

For that happy outcome, the Middle East needs a robust period of job creation, but there are major obstacles and no easy solutions. While energy producers, like Iran and the Gulf Arab states, are cash-rich, thanks to high oil prices, other countries need foreign investment to build industries and manufacturing plants that deliver goods to the global market. To attract such investment, Middle Eastern governments need to create a more stable and efficient business climate.

"These countries, on the whole, are seen as risky business environments. [There] is a history of bureaucratic handling of the economy — investors are afraid they'll be tied up in red tape," Noland told ABC News. Plus, he added, businesses are scared away by the political uncertainty and violence often associated with the Middle East.

Such is the chicken-and-egg nature of economic development for youth in the Middle East: social stability requires new job growth. New job growth requires more foreign investment. But foreign businesses want to see more stability before they invest.

"When you're going to build a multibilliondollar investment facility, one wants some degree of comfort — if you can tell them what the government of Egypt is going to look like in 10 or 15 years, they'll invest. But as of now, people imagine a range of possible outcomes," Noland said.

Projects like the Middle East Youth Initiative, which are relatively rare, hope to guide the region toward greater social and economic opportunity for their swelling youth demographic. Their success will be easy to measure — it will be the personal economic and social achievements of the young adults they target.

"In the post-Sept. 11 era, there is nothing more urgent ... than helping this youth bulge of 100 million young people to achieve their personal ambitions," said Ghwell.

"[That means] having a meaningful job, being able to get married, have children, and buy a home for their families."

Mohamed Kadry contributed to this report.