Via Financial Times

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.

Animated chart showing how the population of the Middle East has grown since 1960 to present day. The share of adults under 40 peaked in 2008 but absolute numbers continue to grow. There are now about 18 million more young adults in the region than at the start of the Arab Spring

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’

Children play football in Kasbah of Algiers, a UNESCO world heritage site, Algeria, Thursday, April 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
Young men play football in Algiers’ Casbah area © Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP
ALGERIA - AFP PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2019 - A woman covers her face with the national flag, as Algerian protesters demonstrate in the capital Algiers against ailing president's bid for a fifth term on March 8, 2019. - Tens of thousands protested across Algeria today in the biggest rallies yet against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term, despite the defiant leader's warning of the risk of "chaos". (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP) (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman covers her face with the national flag as protesters demonstrate in Algeria’s capital in March last year © Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty

Rabah, 25

Graduate, unemployed

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.

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“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’

Iranian women attend Asian Men's Volleyball Championship between Iran and Qatar in Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran September 14, 2019. Picture taken September 14, 2019. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1C0057BA90
Iranian women watch a men’s volleyball match between Iran and Qatar in Tehran in September © Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters
People are sitting on a stone wall at Bam-e Tehran (meaning the roof ofTehran), Iran.
Iranians gather at Bam-i-Tehran, overlooking the capital © Bloomberg

Ermia, 26

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.

Iranian women carry their shopping bags as they cross a road in the Iranian capital Tehran on June 15, 2019. - US President Donald Trump last year withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and imposed tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian women after a shopping trip in Tehran © Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

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’

Islam organises clothes at a shop for casual clothes in downtown Cairo where he works part time, December 15, 2019. Photo/Asmaa Waguih
Islam in a clothes shop in Cairo, where he works part time © Asmaa Waguih/FT
A young man delivers bread near the Hussein area of Cairo, March 31, 2018
A young man delivering bread in Egypt’s capital © Sima Diab/Bloomberg

Islam, 20

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.

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“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.

Egyptians order food during the pre-dawn 'suhur' meal before a new day of fasting begins, early on May 31, 2019, from a food cart by the name "Liver Fuul", a play on Arabic name for fava beans and English football club Liverpool FC, in the Ain Shams suburb of northeastern Cairo. - Egyptian football fans readied to cheer on national hero Mohamed Salah in Sunday's Champions League clash and tuck into food from a cart whose owner vows they'll "never eat alone". A tribute to the Reds, the "Liverfuul" cart serves up hot dishes of "fuul" (fava beans) in Ain Shams, a working-class suburb of Cairo. (Photo by Ahmed HASAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read AHMED HASAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Stalls selling street food draw customers in Ain Shams, a working-class Cairo suburb © Ahmed Hasan/AFP/Getty

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’

IRAQ Hijran - Iraq Iraqui 18 year old interviewed by Chloe Cornish for FT Arab Voices series
Hirjan sits in the makeshift stall her family has set up to serve food to protesters in Baghdad © Chloe Cornish/FT
A young Iraqi protester is blanket-tossed into the air by fellow demonstrators as anti-government rallies continue in Tahrir Square in the capital Baghdad, on December 3, 2019. - As anti-government demonstrations in Iraq's capital and Shiite-majority south enter their third month, they are being turned into plays, paintings, poems and literature. Tahrir square has become an art hub, a rare space for free expression in a country where conservative tribes, paramilitary forces and powerful politicians have at various points tried to snuff out criticism. (Photo by Hussein FALEH / AFP) (Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)
An Iraqi protester is tossed into the air by fellow demonstrators at an anti-government rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in December © Hussein Faleh/AFP/Getty

Hijran, 18

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.

Iraqi protesters stand in the smoke of burning tires during an anti-government demonstration near the government building in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 21, 2020. - Rallies have rocked Iraq since October but, fearing they would lose momentum amid spiralling regional tensions, protesters told the government it had one week to meet their demands or they would escalate their demonstrations. (Photo by Hussein FALEH / AFP) (Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)
Young protesters in the city of Basra, southern Iraq, last month © Hussein Faleh/AFP/Getty

“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.

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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’

SAUDI ARABIA Sarah al-Gashgari, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Iman Al-Dabbagh/for Financial Times.
Sarah, a finance student, has embraced the social reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia but is reticent to talk about the country’s politics © Iman Al-Dabbagh/FT
SAUDI ARABIA Sarah al-Gashgari, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Iman Al-Dabbagh/for Financial Times.
Recent reforms have allowed women more freedom on the streets of Jeddah, but have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent © Iman Al-Dabbagh/FT

Sarah, 20

Finance student

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.

Saudi Arabia - Sarah al-Gashgari - photo she has provided from the football stadium
Sarah volunteering as an usher at the football stadium

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