Expert Commentary

Equality and inequality in the Arab region

2010 study by the World Bank and Laval University for the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum on development and economic challenges in the Arab world

During times of social and political unrest, locally or around the world, policy-makers and journalists often seek to understand the roots of problems by looking at basic societal indicators. A 2010 report that can shed light on the roots of recent upheavals in the Middle East is “Equality and Inequality in the Arab Region,” conducted by the World Bank and Laval University for the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum.

The researchers examined the Arab world’s demographics, economic patterns and development patterns to better understand the region’s current challenges and long-term perspectives. Many issues stem from the Arab world’s historically high birth rates. These have resulted in predominantly youthful populations, high unemployment rates and moderately high levels of inequality compared with other areas of the world.

The report notes that:

  • Between 1950 and 1990, population growth in the Arab world was high, peaking at 3.2% in 1985. Two thirds of the population is now under 30, making it the second youngest region in the world, behind sub-Saharan Africa.
  • While some countries’ population growth has slowed during the 2000s — reaching as low as 1 to 1.2% in Tunisia, Morocco and Oman — it remains high for many countries such as Jordan at 2.5%, Syria at 2.7%, 2.8% in Kuwait and more than 4% in Qatar and the UAE.
  • The region’s population growth has resulted in intense pressures on labor markets. Between 2000 and 2020, the region’s labor force will have expanded by approximately 75%. In the span of 20 years, 74 million new jobs need to be created to absorb the new workers.
  • To absorb new workers as well as those already in the labor market, nearly 90 million new jobs will need to be created by 2020. Less than half that many jobs were created over the previous 20-year period in the region.
  • Joblessness has steadily increasing since the mid 1980s; by the early 2000s, unemployment in the Arab world stood at more than 15%.
  • The region’s unemployment burden falls disproportionately on young people. For example, first-time job seekers comprised more than 90% of all unemployed in Egypt, and the number was almost 66% in Yemen and the UAE.
  • By the 1990s, the public sector, traditionally a major source of job growth, was no longer a significant creator of employment. Most branches of the public sector were already overstaffed, by as much as a third or more in some countries.
  • Because of a surge in oil revenues since 2002-2003, the region’s overall GDP has increased by 40%. Total revenues from oil rose from $180 billion in 2002 to $620 billion in 2007.
  • While the increase in regional economic growth from 3.5% to 6% has boosted job creation, deep problems remain in terms of the quality and number of new jobs.

Keywords: inequality, Middle East, Arab Spring

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