Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Youth in the Middle East, Working Group I

Youth in the Middle East

On November 20-21, 2014, in partnership with the youth-oriented social initiative organization, Silatech, CIRS launched the “Youth in the Middle East” research initiative with a two day working group meeting. The meeting was hosted by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at the Georgetown University campus in Washington, DC, where participants gathered from various countries of the world and from a multitude of disciplinary backgrounds.

The participants discussed the need for greater definition of the factors that constitute “youth” as a distinct subset of society. Although they agreed that age and maturation were the common determining characteristics of youth, there was less consensus about the specific age ranges within which youth should be bracketed as a unit of analysis. Problematizing this further, they discussed how “youth” as a formative stage of life can differ dramatically depending on particular cultural contexts. In some cases, and especially for those with low or no income or those who inhabit conflict zones, young people are often prematurely obliged to take on adult roles and responsibilities, thus curtailing the notion of “youth” as experienced by their cohorts in other parts of the world. Rather than quantifying youth according to age brackets, the participants argued that the notion of youth could be considered as a fluid and inconsistent network of social relations. The participants highlighted the fact that youth cannot be analyzed as a homogenous category, but must be thought of as having a multitude of variants.

Although the topic of Middle Eastern youth was discussed from different theoretical and practical lenses, some key central themes emerged, including the fact that, in many instances, youth in the Middle East tend to face tough political and economic conditions. Local national youth in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council do not necessarily share the same economic hardships as the young economic South Asian migrants in the GCC, but they do share similar forms of political exclusion as experienced by their counterparts in other areas of the Arab world. 

Since many countries of the Middle East are experiencing a demographic “youth bulge,” unprecedented numbers of young people are all vying for what little resources and opportunities exist. Broader economic structural issues were discussed in relation to the sustainability of the Arab development model and its failures. Many countries of the Middle East are rentier economies that exacerbate ongoing forms of political quiescence. The events of the Arab uprisings did much to highlight the faults associated with autocratic governance, but have not led to any major changes, leaving young people more aware of the problems that plague their nations, and, thus, ever more frustrated.

Access to the economic and political normative activities of society is denied to many in places where the social contract has been poorly adhered to, if at all. Exclusion, however, is context dependent, and each society fashions its own definitions of exclusion. In impoverished neighborhoods that are lacking in infrastructure and opportunities, Middle East youth groups actively create their own forms of distinct social networks that are, in many ways, more intimate and reliable than those of more affluent areas. Thus, such informal youth associations and marginal forms of participation mean that youth are not necessarily socially excluded from their immediate surroundings, but are more likely to be economically and politically excluded from the more “formal” social structures. Such class dimensions play a role in how youth experience their lives and their aspirations for the future, with many young people active in both formal and informal means of participation.

Whether in the public or private sectors, access to the privileges of the formal market is hindered crony capitalism and unfair political concessions, giving rise to increased informal practices among many Arab youths. Autocratic leaders have been benefitting from deregulation, even as they impose restrictions on local markets. The explosive mix of neoliberal policies and simultaneous authoritarian ones has resulted in an anti-competitive environment with little room for small and medium enterprises. This is why there are very few start-ups or entrepreneurial endeavors since there is little encouragement of creative business, skill development, or mobilization of human capital. Neoliberal reforms have benefitted only a small elite group of people, and has done little to improve the lives of the majority.

Because the informal sector operates largely outside of the formal economy, and is mostly extra-legal or illegal, there has been little research conducted into these ventures, including the gender dimension and how women fare in such environments. For the most part, in the academic and popular literature, youth issues tend to be viewed from the perspective of young males, concentrating on the condition of their welfare, education, and employment, with little attention directed at females and the challenges they face.

Increasingly, the vacuum left by failed state structures has been steadily filled by Islamic movements in many countries of the Middle East. These mostly grassroots institutions are becoming increasingly intertwined in youth’s daily lives, and have powerful influences on youth behavior. In order for young people to be directed towards formal channels of economic activity, the participants explained that there needs to be more effort made by the government, as well as businesses and the private sector, to invest in job creation and vocational training, especially for those with low levels of education. The participants advised, however, that there needs to be a fine balance between the valorization of manual labor and the encouragement of schooling and education.

The failed education model in many Arab states is a symptom of the failed state economic model, and often produces a vicious circle. The participants further discussed means of educational reform and how the Arab state promises employment as a reward for education. This often only leads to further frustration when educated youths come up against a variety of entry barriers to the labor market. There are few effective transitions from school to employment, and a severe lack of skills and behavioral competencies development. Further compounding this is the crisis of the social sciences; the Arab educational system rewards technical and technocratic career paths, with little encouragement of alternative careers in the humanities, arts, and cultural avenues. These disciplines are far from institutionalized at the school level, and even less so in the labor market, making the humanities unappealing and often gendered.

Other issues under discussion included Arab refugees and forced migration; nationalization policies across the GCC; and youth voices in public spaces as well online through a variety of information communication technologies and social media channels. In conclusion, the participants encouraged further investigation into broader theoretical questions involving the future of political Islam and democratization efforts. The participants offered a series of policy recommendations that could be implemented across the Middle East and North Africa, and ways of promoting resilience rather than violence through a variety of avenues, including cultural and educational activities, as well as means of removing entry barriers to the market by encouraging grassroots business opportunities and networks.  ‎

Participants and Discussants:

  • Osama Abi-Mershed, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies,Georgetown University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • David Beck, Silatech
  • Dawn Chatty, University of Oxford
  • Raj Desai, Georgetown University
  • Kristin Smith Diwan, American University School of International Service
  • Paul Dyer, Silatech
  • Sherine El Taraboulsi, University of Oxford
  • Nader Kabbani, Silatech
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Samer Kherfi, University of Sharjah
  • Adeel Malik, University of Oxford
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Jennifer Olmsted, Drew University
  • Anders Olofsgard, Stockholm School of Economics
  • Omar Razzaz, King Abdullah II Fund for Development of the Jordan Strategy Forum
  • Natasha Ridge, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation
  • Michael Robbins, Princeton University
  • Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Virginia Tech
  • Edward Sayre, University of Southern Mississippi
  • Emad Shahin, Georgetown University
  • Hilary Silver, Brown University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Tarik Yousef, Silatech


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications