Middle East’s demographic earthquake: the generation fuelling protests
One in three Algerian youths are jobless — and Rabah, a university graduate with a degree in marketing, is one of them.
Chatting with friends on a typical weekday in Algiers’ working class district of Bab El Oued, he gives a wry smile when asked if he wants to work in the field he studied.
“In Algeria you study one thing and work in another,” says the 25-year-old. “I have done small jobs in many areas, I have assisted my father as a surveyor, I have washed cars and have done telemarketing.”
Across much of the Middle East and north Africa, school and university leavers struggle to find work in a region that has one of the world’s youngest populations and its highest youth unemployment rate.
The demographic pressures are only going to increase, experts warn, making the status quo unsustainable. If the trend persists, the Middle East and north Africa need to create more than 300m jobs by 2050, according to the World Bank.
The challenges are compounded by political oppression and pervasive corruption. As a consequence, echoes of the Arab spring — the popular uprisings that began in 2011 — have been reverberating across the region over the past year.
Anti-government protests have erupted in Egypt, Sudan and Iran. Demonstrators forced the resignations of heads of state in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, but the protests have rolled on, led by disillusioned youths.
These are the stories from behind the headlines, from an increasingly educated, plugged-in and aspirant generation demanding change.
Algeria: ‘Marriage and housing are just a dream’
Rabah has been able to find work here and there but he says the main problem in Algeria is that salaries are small, there is no social insurance and the jobs are not permanent.
“When I worked at the marketing call centre, the pay was 20,000 dinars a month,” or less than $120 according to the black market rate, he says.
“See this tracksuit I am wearing? It cost more than the pay and if you add the price of cigarettes, food and transport, it comes to much more,” he adds.
The minimum he needs to meet his expenses is twice what he was earning, he says, so he stopped working and continues to live at home with his parents and two younger brothers — as is common for unmarried children across the region.
“After I wake up it is coffee, cigarettes and Netflix, then coffee, cigarettes and Netflix. My parents are not angry at me because they know how difficult it is.”
When the country went to the polls in December to elect a new president, Rabah, like millions of other disaffected Algerians, did not bother to vote. “The political class is all traitors and their promises are lies,” he says.
Such complaints are common as the country’s youthful population continues to take to the streets to vent its anger over economic grievances, government corruption and mismanagement by the military-backed ruling elite. Critics charge that the regime has wasted the windfall offered by Algeria’s vast natural gas riches by failing to build a diversified economy that can provide jobs.
“You have to know someone who knows someone. I just want a job that would cover my daily needs,” says Rabah. “Marriage and housing in Algeria are just a dream.”
He tried finding work through a government employment agency but nothing came of it. “The state only looks for you when they want you to do national service in the army, ” he remarks.
Like many young north Africans, Rabah wants to escape to a new life in Europe. He will not risk taking a smuggler’s boat across the Mediterranean, believing it to be too dangerous.
“But there are other routes, still illegal, but they can get you there. I could go to Morocco and find a way into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, or I could go to Turkey and from there head to Greece,” he says. “That would be less risky.”
By Heba Saleh in Algiers
Iran: ‘I am concerned about losing my job’
Masters graduate, pharmaceutical marketer
Ermia has a good job at a company that markets Iran-made medications — but she is anxious. She worries she could quickly find herself unemployed in the country’s struggling economy.
“Doing my job well is my number-one priority in life now,” she says. “I am concerned about losing my job. There are lots of educated jobseekers out there.”
The US withdrawal from the nuclear accord and the reimposition of tough sanctions against the Islamic republic beginning in 2018 have caused Iran’s economy to contract. Unemployment is in the double digits and inflation hovers just below 40 per cent.
Her concerns are somewhat allayed by the fact that the US restrictions have created a boom for domestically manufactured products, she says. And her insecurity is tempered by pride in her achievements. “I have a masters degree, a job that I love and I earn money, which makes me independent from my father, brothers and any would-be husband.”
Ermia comes from a middle class family in the capital Tehran. Her mother is a housewife and her father, a retiree who used to work for the city, now works as a taxi driver because his pension is not enough to make ends meet.
For ordinary Iranians finding a well-paid job is an achievement in itself, as they are often out of reach without connections to the ruling elites. Ermia remembers how depressed she was when she was fresh out of university and unemployed in 2015.
She eventually got a data-entry job that had been advertised in a classified ad. That helped her pay the 200m rials (about $4,760) for tuition to get a masters degree in industrial management from Tehran’s Islamic Azad University. She landed her current position by applying online.
Ermia is no longer depressed, but she is disappointed with her life in Iran and believes she will have to delay marriage and children. “I earn just 3.5m tomans (about $833 at the official rate) per month . . . Maybe one day, but this [starting a family] is not possible in the near future,” she says.
She blames “inefficient rulers” more than sanctions for the country’s economic woes. “While the prices are rising and costs of living are increasing, our incapable rulers spend our money on their regional allies in Syria and Lebanon,” she says, referring to Iran’s foreign policy of funding proxy militias.
Despite her frustration, Ermia is not tempted to take part in anti-government protests or to go abroad. “Many youngsters see going to a country like Canada, Germany or the US as their dream,” she says. “How can I feel happy in another country while my parents and relatives are living here in Iran? My roots are here.”
By Monavar Khalaj in Tehran
Egypt: ‘These [protesters] are young guys who need work’
Graduate, casual worker
No one can accuse Islam of being lazy as he chases after part-time jobs. Yet he is barely surviving on the little he earns.
The 20-year-old, who lives in central Cairo, graduated from a technical school three years ago but has been unable to find permanent employment. “I sometimes work in cafés as a waiter, I try to market lingerie from a factory to downtown shops and I have spent time assisting a carpenter,” he says.
Last year, he opened a small shop with a friend to sell cheap trinkets such as earrings, chains and wrist bands that he made himself, but he had to shut down after three months. “I couldn’t afford the rent and my friend decided to pull out,” says Islam.
The degree in electronics he earned might have led to a job had he done the paid practical training offered by the school after he finished formal studies. The pay was too small, however, and he had to find work to support his widowed mother and younger brother.
“I worked for one month as a security man in a mall. It was 12 hours a day but I had to stop because after paying for transport to get there, not much was left,” Islam says.
He now tries to stick to working in the capital’s downtown area, where his family lives, to avoid paying for transport and lunch. He gets occasional work as a window dresser arranging displays in shops for up to $10 a day. “Whatever work I get, I can never make more than $125 a month,” he says.
When hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets in anti-government protests in September, Islam chose not to take part. “But I watched from the street under my house and I sympathised with the protesters,” he says. “These are young guys who need work.”
About 20 of his friends were among the more than 4,000 people rounded up in a sweeping government crackdown that crushed the demonstrations.
Islam’s dream is to open a shop selling sports shoes, but he does not have the money for it. He would also like to be able to save so he can travel to Dubai to join a friend who is working for an Egyptian restaurant there for higher wages than he can get at home. “If I can get a job here, I can save for a year so I can pay to get there,” says Islam.
By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Iraq: ‘We want dignity’
School leaver, unemployed
Hijran has been living in a tent for weeks, even though her family has a house just a few miles away.
The 18-year-old and her family have been spending all day cooking rice and stew for the hundreds of protesters making their way to Baghdad’s central square, where demonstrations against the ruling elite have been going on since October.
“We want the entire government changed,” says Hijran. “And we want to have better living conditions, just like any other country.”
For a pious family, providing help such as the free food to the protesters is considered a blessing. For Hijran, volunteering is also something of a diversion. She left school three years ago and has been at home ever since.
She and her younger sister quit school when she says the state stopped providing free books. Her family could not afford both books and uniforms.
Her father was a carpenter but sold his shop and started driving a taxi. The food the family cooks for the protesters is supported by donations from other sympathisers.
After watching her five older brothers and a sister complete higher education without being able to find jobs at the end, she has not looked for work.
“After [quitting school] I was mainly at home. Even those who graduated before, both girls and boys, stay at home. If we can get a job, like be hired by the government or get some sort of profession, sure we would like that,” she says.
At school English was a favourite subject, but she has only a vague sense of what she might do with her qualifications. She says she would like to do social work or “journalism maybe”.
Iraqi society is changing but it remains patriarchal, and Hijran’s focus is still on the family. “The youth want one thing: their family to be well, their parents to have their health, and their siblings to find work,” she says.
Hijran hopes the protest movement will lead to changes that increase job and educational opportunities in the country. “Iraq has suffered lots of injustice,” she says. “We want dignity.”
By Chloe Cornish in Baghdad
Saudi Arabia: ‘When we allow things against our traditions we lose who we are’
When Saudi Arabia opened football stadiums to women for the first time two years ago, Sarah al-Gashgari got her first taste of work.
A fan of women’s football, she persuaded organisers to allow her to be one of the 180 volunteers who ushered thousands of families to their seats at the King Abdullah Sports City arena.
She saw the change as emblematic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push to ease some social restrictions in an attempt to modernise the conservative kingdom. “It was the introduction of a new Saudi Arabia to me, because I had heard about the change and societal shift but never actually saw it [until then],” Sarah says.
She is one of the many young Saudis who have embraced the changes of the past three years — such as allowing public cinemas to open and women to drive — even as Prince Mohammed is accused of overseeing an increasingly autocratic regime.
The country is also contending with tepid growth and high unemployment — especially among young people and women — which has risen on the crown prince’s watch.
The 2018 murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul — allegedly ordered by the crown prince and carried out by Saudi agents — also badly damaged the kingdom’s international reputation. Prince Mohammed has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Dressed in a pastel pink abaya, a loose outer garment, and a matching headscarf that does not fully cover her hair, Sarah believes the reforms give individuals more choice.
But they have also been accompanied by sweeping crackdowns against any form of dissent. Female activists are among the scores of people who have been detained.
Sarah, a finance undergraduate, does not appear very concerned about politics. “Of course you don’t live in the world alone and you are affected by the political issues around you, but the future always has uncertainties,” she says.
She is aware of the bleak economic indicators but is optimistic that the government’s diversification plans will bear fruit.
“I don’t actually worry about this because I feel the investments being attracted to Saudi Arabia . . . are sufficient enough to accommodate the new generation,” she says, pointing to plans for a $500bn futuristic city in the kingdom’s north-west and an entertainment zone outside the capital Riyadh as examples.
Sarah comes from an upper-middle class family in Jeddah, which means finding work is not a matter of survival for her as it is for many young people. Her father is a manager for Saudi Arabian Airlines while her mother did an MBA in the US before staying at home to raise the children.
Sarah wants to work in education when she graduates — an ambition supported by her family. They also back her financially, money that comes on top of a monthly student stipend she receives from the government.
Like many young people in Saudi Arabia, she remains traditionally minded — reflecting the still conservative character of the country. “When we start to allow things against our traditions and beliefs, it makes us lose who we are,” she says.
By Ahmed Al Omran in Jeddah
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
Production: Adrienne Klasa