Covid-19 and Sustainability in the Arab Region

Dr. Michael Sharnoff, NESA Center

For decades, Middle Eastern countries, particularly resource-poor countries like Egypt and those of the Levant, have struggled to sustain their populations due to high birthrates and weak economies. Unemployment was high in the Middle East before Covid-19, and disparities of wealth were one catalyst for the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010.

In 2002, the Arab Human Development Report, a UN-sponsored initiative by Arab intellectuals, revealed profound political, social and economic crises facing the Arab region. The study concluded that the Arab region, compared with all other regions in the world, faced deficits in education, women’s rights, freedom, and the economy. For instance, 60 million adults were illiterate, the majority of whom were women. 330 books were translated annually, one-fifth the amount that Greece translates. The Arab people represent just five percent of the world’s population but only 0.5 percent of Internet users.

One out of five in the region lived under $2 a day; in Egypt, 40 percent lived under $2 a day. In 1999, the Arab League GDP totaled $531 billion, less than that of Spain ($595.5 billion). By 2010, 60 percent of the Arab world was under the age of 30. Before the Arab Spring uprisings, youth unemployment in Egypt was 43 percent and in Tunisia it was 30 percent.

High birthrates and depressed economies pose real challenges for Arab governments. In 2002, there were 280 million people in the Arab region. In 2015, that figure increased to 370 million. It will balloon by 2025, with estimates as high as 460 million. How, therefore, will Arab governments sustain their population? How can they address these demographic and economic challenges to cope with job creation and prevent brain drain? What measures are needed to provide security and stability?

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, millions of people have either lost their jobs or remain quarantined under lockdown. It is unclear just how many of those who lost their jobs will be able to secure their old jobs or new jobs. The world is learning to adapt to teleworking, and as a result, some businesses may realize that productivity for certain jobs can be downsized or automated, thus making certain occupations obsolete.

Although some governments have performed better than others handling the crisis, many people are living paycheck to paycheck and do not have much savings. They are stressed and anxious about providing for their families. For others, particularly young men who have delayed marriage due to economic woes and who live at home, boredom from quarantine life and frustration can be a dangerous mix. Unlike in the United States, many Arab countries do not have a welfare system where the government can provide economic assistance to those in need. As a result, the longer the crisis continues, the risk of resentment and agitation against the government grows.

Covid-19 has temporarily paused the renewed post-Arab Spring protests that flared in spots in 2019 – in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan. Some of the protestors – notably in Lebanon – have already returned to the streets.  Unfortunately, many of the socioeconomic grievances that partly sparked the unrest have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. When life ultimately returns to normal, Arab governments across the region may face harsh criticism from their people demanding economic security. If these grievances cannot be satisfied, there could be a new wave of protests with far greater consequences for the stability of the region.

The views presented in this publication are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.