The Arab World Demographic Dilemma: Young, Unemployed, and Searching for a Voice

Arab youth confront daunting challenges, including a lack of economic opportunities, constraints on their freedom of expression, and the complex and shifting nature of their own Arab identity. How the Arab world meets these challenges will have significant ramifications for the Middle East and the world. This special panel discussion marks the release of America Abroad’s three-part public radio series on youth in the Arab World.

Moderator Deborah Amos, foreign correspondent of NPR News who has covered the Middle East extensively, started by saying that as a reporter in the region you notice the young population, but most of the people she interviews are usually over 30. “If you overlook this generation, you miss something essential about the Middle East,” she said.

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University, believes that one thing is clear: sheer magnitude of the crisis facing youth in the Middle East. Lynch said many in the West focus on a small group of activists and bloggers, but miss the silent struggle of tens of millions of people. Those people are and their issues are also ignored by their own governments, who seem to think that as long as they can keep these young people off the street then they are doing a good job. Lynch said the recent events in Tunisia and Algeria is particularly interesting because it could have a domino effect all over the Arab World. But when it comes to political ramifications of these events, he wonders if it is going to lead to a substantial change in policy, or just to more repression and bloodshed. This kind of spontaneous uprising and dissent has no place to go because there are not political or social movements involved in it. Lynch said the greatest single thread that combines what is happening in the Arab World right now is the failure of the system to deal with systematic problems, as well as the failure of outside intervention plans. “The tools we have might not be appropriate, and the dynamics are don’t look familiar,” he said. “It’s exciting and troubling.”

Christine Capacci-Carneal, is the Education Development Officer of USAID, and she works primarily with USAID-funded programs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. Based on her experience in youth development programs, Capacci-Carneal said that youth are a sophisticated group with many subgroups, and that’s why a problem-based approach is less effective than a comprehensive approach. “Problem free is not fully prepared,” she said. As an example for working with that approach, Capacci-Carneal talked about Youth:Work Jordan, which tries to engages youth directly, but also tries to solve systematic issues by targeting youth in poor districts and working with local organizations. She commended the efforts of the program, but admitted that one of the problems they faced is that they have had a hard time building political will and institutional capacity to sustain that effort. Other challenges facing such programs include how to address building a stronger youth voice and a stronger sense of identity then let local organizations join in that effort. Also, how do ensure that your using the available funding efficiently? Capacci-Carneal said USAID is working to develop better research tools to know what works best.

Lina Khatib, who runs the Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in Stanford University, wanted to focus on youth and freedom of expression in the Arab World. She said that social media has opened up further space for views on many topics that were considered once taboo such as politics, sex, and religion. “No doubt interactive media pushed the boundaries for what’s permissible,” she said, and that young people are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the norm. Khatib has also given the recent example of Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in what she described as “a desperate plea for the issues of arab youth.” But she added what gives her hope is that young people have not given up and continues their struggle, and thanks to the fact that we live in a world of globalized media, and no authoritarian regime in the Middle East can fully stop the circulating of information. “Youth need a strategy to reach goals,” she concluded, “not just enough to say what they want, but also a way to find what to do.”

Diane Singerman, the associate professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, decided to focus on a slightly different angle on the issues facing Arab youth today. This issues, she said, was extremely ignored: the question of marriage. In the Arab World, adulthood equals being married. However, it is very expensive to get married, and because of the high unemployment rate it is difficult for young people to work and save for marriage. This leads to what she called “wait-hood,” the stage between childhood and adulthood that can only be reached by getting married. Signerman cited the example of Egypt, which has the latest age of marriage anywhere in the world outside china. According to studies, 50 percent of men in Egypt are unmarried, and when they do get married they get married later and later. That’s why youth unemployment should be seen in the lens of getting married, Singerman said. Young men are political excluded because of repression, economically hurting because of unemployment, and because they can’t make money to get married they become socially excluded.

Apologies for posting much later than expected due to some technical difficulties.

48+ hours in Riyadh, crazy fathers, Khalid Alnowaiser, Saudi Starbucks

  • Reuters does Riyadh. If you want to read more about what to do and where to go in the Saudi capital, please refer to the Riyadh favorites category on this blog.
  • gulfnews: “A Saudi groom cancelled his wedding ceremony at the last minute after the bride’s father insisted on getting half of his daughter’s salary as long as he lived and on writing a clause to the effect in the marriage contract.”
  • I’m not sure how I missed this when it was published in December, Saudi lawyer Khalid Alnowaiser has a really, really good piece in Arab News. He know what he is doing. He begins, “I realize I am taking up a very sensitive subject. I also understand that I would be stereotyped as liberal or secular, but I don’t care as long as this article provokes readers to consider thoughtfully the future of our country.” Do read the whole thing.
  • One of my fav expat blogs is this photo journal by Laylah, a Scandinavian nurse working in Riyadh.
  • Starbucks has a new logo. Fellow blogger Roba Assi has a funny infographic comparing the evolution of the Starbucks logo in Saudi Arabia vs the rest of the world.

The Good news, the bad news, and the ugly news

  • The good news is: Samar is free. Social media and new activism FTW! Now that she has been released, we should keep up the momentum and direct our energy to another person who has been imprisoned for the past four months: Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammary, a human rights activist in the EP.
  • Also good news: a tip by Saudi intelligence officials helped Americans discover a terrorist plot to send explosives from Yemen to the United States by courier.
  • The bad news is: Sand Gets in My Eyes, one of my favourite blogs by expats living in Saudi Arabia, has been blocked last week. I’m not sure exactly how the censors think, but I don’t see why would they do such thing. Not that they are particularly smart and/or selective about what they choose to block. You can help by filling the unblock form here.
  • Since no knot is being tied, I will consider this bad news, too: Asmaa has a nice post on the dilemma of young Saudis who want to get married. Well, she specifically talks about her cousin, but I think many of us can relate to what is happening with him. Probably most of you already know how I feel about the way people get married back home.
  • Finally, here is the ugly news: the Saudi religious establishment issued a fatwa today saying it is not permissible for women to work as cashiers in supermarkets. Apparently, female cashiers are haram.


I don’t like going to weddings. But in every summer I get to go to more than my fair share of them. It’s just one part of the social obligations that come with the ties we talked about before. And with the high number of young single men in the family, it seems there is always a wedding around the corner. We had one last month, another this week, and we have three upcoming weddings in one household scheduled for later this year. Below is a short video I took during a family wedding two days ago.


This comes from teh Green Truth today:

Many Saudis are lamenting the way family ties in the Kingdom have become weak, something that seems to have become one of the hallmarks of modern life and is in stark contrast to how people in the region used to live not so long ago.

I, for one, am not. I think family ties in the Kingdom are still strong. They are too strong, actually, that distant relatives somehow believe they have the freedom to intervene in your so-called modern life. This freedom, nevertheless, is limited to them and cannot be extended to you because first, who are you? and second, what do you know?

“Families are no longer what they used to be. The entire family system has disintegrated. You can nowadays find fathers and sons at loggerheads and cousins hostile to each other,” said one Saudi old man in Makkah who asked for his name not to be published.

Not what they used to be? The entire system disintegrated? I’m sorry, is there a heated debate about gay marriage in the country that I’m not aware of? And btw, fathers and sons disagreements are ancient. In other places they are called “generational differences,” and I think you should know this, especially since you like using 17th century vocabulary like loggerheads and stuff. Also, what’s up with the privacy freakishness, old man? But I will cut you some slack. I understand that you probably don’t want to get in trouble like those kids who appeared on MTV.

Saudi woman Latifa Ali said she has not been on speaking terms with her sister for over 10 years and has tried to make up on numerous occasions. “My sister is adamant in boycotting me. She wanted her son to marry my daughter but I refused for several reasons. My daughter is a university graduate while her son has only studied until secondary school. He was also unemployed at the time. My daughter refused to marry him and there was no way I could force her,” she said. Latifa Ali misses her sister whom she loved and was very close to. “I felt safe with her. I still long to be with her but she doesn’t want to be with me. She considers my daughter’s rejection of her son an insult,” she added.

Aww… inter-family marriages and their never ending drama. I have seen this happening in my family hundreds of times, but would that ever stop them? Never. Despite recent evidence to the disastrous consequences of such marriages on those much cherished ties, my mom is still willing to lose an arm just so I agree to to marry her niece. Not. Gonna. Happen. Not because I care about the oh-so-important ties, but simply because I hate congenital diseases. Not to mention that I find this way of getting married arbitrary and outdated.

Hassan Ali, another Saudi who lives in Makkah, said he fell out with his brother after he argued with his sister-in-law who used to meddle in his personal family affairs. “My brother became angry and sided with his wife. We’ve not spoken for five years. We’ve failed to make up even though I’ve tried a lot to do so,” he said. “I love his children who also love me but he’s threatened to kick them out of the house and deprive them of their inheritance if they even dare speak to me,” he added.

See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. When close becomes too close, you are just asking for trouble. I can’t help but notice though that Hassan’s brother is too influenced by old Arabic movies and their stupid oft-repeated family feuds. Deprive his children of inheritance? Classic.

Uncle Saad is 72 years old. With tears in his eyes, he mentioned that his children are alive and yet do not see him. “My children left me and their mother who died just two years ago. They only ring me on occasions and just visit me out of duty,” he said. “My neighbors help me and take care of me. They give me money and clothes. My sons and daughters are also busy with their own families,” he added.

I won’t say anything here because this is just sad.

Huda Al-Fahim said it has been a year since she had a dispute with her brother. “He asked me to give up my share of inheritance after my father died. He had been pressured by his wife. I refused and complained to the authorities who then allotted me my share. He then kicked me out of the house and has not talked to me since,” she added. Huda has tried hard to reconcile but her brother refuses to budge. “I do not know how long this will continue. It is totally against the teachings of Islam to boycott your own kin and blood,” she said.

That is a typical case of the familiar brotherly bullying after the father’s death, and I’m afraid it has little to do with the lamented weakening of family ties allegedly caused by changes in modern life. I don’t see why Ms. Huda is so keen to make up with a brother who is acting like a jackass. Until he starts to use his brain again, I say good riddance.

Commenting on the issue, Raid Kurdi, an education expert, said family bonds are not as strong as before but that the problem has not reached a worrying level. “Families should look carefully at the reasons why they are falling out with each other,” he said. “We need to, however, deal with this issue. We need to reject it and make efforts to keep families together. This is important,” he added.

Enter the expert. Our expert analyzed this incredibly fascinating, although admittedly troubling, phenomenon and came up with the perfect solution: “We need to reject it.” Totally. Because, you know, “This is important.” You heard that? Im-freaking-portant. If you don’t realize this by now, and we are nearing the end of our very interesting “news story,” then you might as well want to kill yourself or something.

He also said such matters do not usually worry non-Muslim societies because family bonds are not very important for them in general. “We do not have the same respect for the elderly as we used to have in the past. We’ve also become impatient with each other,” he added. Kurdi also called for more efforts to inculcate love and respect among members of the same family.

However, this piece cannot be complete without some good ol’ bashing of “the other,” so before I go allow me to say: damn those infidels! It turns out the weakened family ties are not merely the result of changes in modern life — whatever that maybe in our little corner of the world — but also due to foreign influence, because we, as God honest infallible Muslims, never do anything wrong.

Love and respect. Hell yeah.

Jeddawi weddings

Qusay has an interesting blogpost about Jeddawi weddings. Few weeks ago I was contacted by a company who said they are working on documentaries about different wedding customs in the different regions in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if it’s the same company that Qusay is talking about, but I agree with him that it’s a good idea to put the info out there.

Two Cartoons

Al-Watan newspaper have been on a roll with their cartoons recently.

Man: black is the king of colors, and a sign of modesty.
Woman: ok, so why don’t you and your son wear the king of colors?


Saleswoman? Noooo
Housemaid? Disgrace
Nurse? Shame
Misyar wife? Done