Dr Adel Abdellatif, chief of the Regional Programme Division in UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States, talks about the unemployment situation in Arab states and its ramifications, among other things
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | December 15, 2016
Dr Adel Abdellatif is the chief of the Regional Programme Division in UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States and is based in New York. In his current capacity, he coordinates and oversees the publication of the flagship Arab Human Development Report. Prior to this, Abdellatif established and led UNDP’s Programme of Governance in the Arab Region, a catalytic programme advocating for governance reform in the Arab region, with a focus on rule of law, the fight against corruption, and political participation. He joined UNDP following a two-decade career in the ministry of foreign affairs of Egypt, having served in several embassies and earning the rank of Ambassador.
Unemployment in the Arab states is the worst among world regions. The report says that the situation may further deteriorate by 2019. So you have a situation of a mass of capable, young people who are unemployed. Combine this with ongoing conflicts in the region. Do you foresee the situation of some radicalisation that has happened worsening in the region?
I don’t think so. We don’t have any clear data that connects radicalisation with unemployment or socio-economic conditions. Maybe it contributes but we cannot say that there is a direct connection. But in 2011, the uprisings were not led by radical people but by people who were looking for opportunities. It was not led even by Islamic political groups.
There are several elements that actually raise concern about the Arab region, not all of them are related to region. For example, the global crisis is affecting the region because the region depends a lot on the global economy. Many countries in North Africa depend on trade and relationship with Europe and also the Arab oil-producing countries depend a lot on oil consumption globally. If the global economy continues like that then they [Arab leaders] need to find solution to provide for young people. Maybe they have to create more opportunities by trading more with Asia, or Africa, Latin America. This is the thing that we are trying to draw their attention [to] that depending on the forces of globalisation [solely] will not yield the results that they are looking for. So there are things that maybe could be attributed to governments but there are forces also globally that may not help them to improve the situation very fast.
Another element that we didn’t include is the question of climate change – the questions of food security, water are very urgent matters. All these things if you put together you will find that the situation is not very bright.
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Radicalisation has its own dynamics. It happened before in many countries and we cannot say that it is because of socio-economic conditions. We are focusing on how socio-economic conditions affect the majority. Some of them may be radicalised but the bulk are not actually involved in this. It is enough to have maybe 10,000 out of 100 million [radicalised youth] to create this kind of havoc that we see in the region.
Radicalisation has to be addressed in a different context in how you provide voice to people. You will always have conservative thinking and we are not saying this has to be addressed in a radical way by the government. But until this moves from conservative thinking to radical thinking to violence, then the government should address it. Radical ideas are everywhere. You cannot blame people and put them in jail just because they have radical ideas.
Do you see the current dire socio-economic situation in the Arab states affecting the flow of economic migrants to the region? As you know, there is a steady flow of Indian migrants to places like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and consequently, a sizeable remittance economy. Will this be impacted?
The oil sector prices are affecting the private sector. If the government resources are going down it will affect the private sector itself. The main thing that may affect [migration] to these countries is the replacement by nationals [over migrants]. I don’t think in the near future this will happen very fast because by replacing migrants, the market will shrink in these countries. Without them these countries would not be able to achieve what they have been able to achieve in the last four or five decades. It all depends on how these countries will diversify their economies – if they expand beyond the oil economy, they will need more migrants. And countries like Saudi Arabia are trying to diversify. But maybe in two or three or four decades you will find a different economy than this. If the volume of the construction economy decreases then that may affect the migrant labourer. After a certain point they cannot [keep] construct[ing] forever. Then you may find migrant labourers with different skills going to this region. And maybe this will mean more remittances going.
Your analysis says that there has been a state-led development model dominated by the public sector in these regions. “Ultimately, the model supported individuals from cradle to grave, but bequeathed a negative legacy.” Could you elaborate on this statement a bit?
The Arab countries in the 1950s or 60s or even 70s adopted a model to support the health sector, education, then providing jobs for their citizens – which means males not females. This would have worked well before because in the 50s and the 60s most of these people were expanding their public sector. So they needed this human resource to populate all the new ministries. This commitment was impossible to continue after that. You cannot keep absorbing people in the public sector and you actually have [ended up with] an inflated public sector, an inflated government structure. And by the 1980s, 90s government also started withdrawing from doing this. And you think this was done in not a very smooth way because governments should have taken to consideration that have also more young people coming into the labour market than before.
So people in the 1940s and the 50s had a more easy life in the public sector but then those who came after that in the 1970s, 80s and now are finding more difficulties in the design that the government has done. In the 1950s and 60s you used to find ministers who were in their thirties. Now the people who were there are still dominating the scene and the younger generation do not have enough opportunities in the public sector. Even if they are employed they are underemployed. So the government became a victim of its own doing. The governments, also because they wanted to help people, used a lot of subsidised food and energy and that sucked a lot of resources. So the mismanagement of its own budget has created this situation.
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